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The Free People's Village coverAs Israel rained violence on Gaza in early October, Sim Kern emerged as an uncompromising voice in support of Palestine. As a Jewish, queer, trans activist living in Texas—a state that has gone on the offensive against trans youth—their skewering of the racist claim that Hamas is uniquely, murderously anti-queer stands as one of the best takedowns of Israeli pinkwashing available online. Overnight, their accounts across platforms exploded to nearly half a million viewers, and they have consistently used that visibility to amplify the voices of Palestinian authors and activists.

In the first weeks of Israel’s war, while Kern was putting out pro-Palestine content daily, they would occasionally, somewhat abashedly, point out that their new novel The Free People’s Village had just dropped. Set in an alternate timeline where Al Gore won the 2000 election and waged a War on Climate instead of George Bush’s War on Terror, Kern uses the novel to explore the contradictions of Green capitalism, and how racism and inequality are perpetuated under liberal regimes. Like Kern, the novel wears its politics on its sleeve: unabashedly queer and anti-capitalist, it asks big questions about race and accountability within political movements, and offers hope for readers who rage at the state of the world.

Maddie Ryan is the book’s protagonist, but not the book’s hero. A white teacher with no political or activist background, she is not the obvious choice of subject for a story that reimagines an Occupy Wall Street-style encampment at the intersection of race and environmentalism. At the opening of the novel, she has recently divorced her abusive, ultra-religious husband, and wants to escape her sterile life in Houston’s pristine city center. She hooks up with a slumming tech-bro named Fish, who aspires to be a punk music promoter working out of his warehouse in the majority-Black Eighth Ward.

Maddie is drawn into the world of Fish’s would-be anarchist collective/art studio/music venue known as the Lab, which becomes the focal point of both her life and the neighborhood’s fight against gentrification. But being the girlfriend of the landlord complicates her much more compelling attraction to the queer hottie Red, who lives at the warehouse. When Fish talks himself into Red’s band, Maddie feels trapped:

Fish owned the building. Soon he’d own all the band’s sound equipment. And I would put up with him touching me, way longer than I had any desire to because I thought that if I ditched him for Red, he’d kick xim out of the house, [and] destroy the band … So I let him buy me dinner, and a new amplifier, and a season pass to my body.

The novel’s opening section weaves between the years of Maddie’s pre-Lab life, the venue’s cataclysmic final party, and the months leading up to that night, which she spent getting to know the residents of the Lab. Kern captures the sweetness of Maddie’s blossoming attraction to Red, and what it’s like to be part of queer community for the first time. The acerbic Red, the imprisoned intellectual Gestas, the cheerfully horny Vida all welcome Maddie into the chaotic, messy world of artists and musicians circulating around the Lab.

This utopian period crashes to an end when Maddie discovers that the Lab is set to be demolished by the city to make way for another “hyperway” connecting the downtown to the suburbs. Maddie awakens to the fact that the punk-rock island of the Lab is not integrated into the Black neighborhood with which it shares a zip code. Attending a “Save the Eighth” meeting, Maddie comes to understand that the loud, trash-filled lot is not beloved among the longtime residents who are all facing eviction.

In the book’s second section, Kern dives into the tricky waters facing white anti-capitalist and anti-racist authors: how to write a white protagonist in a way that doesn’t diminish the centrality of BIPOC leadership to radical movements. Especially here in the US, a society founded on genocide and enslavement, white authors usurping the space to tell stories that belong to BIPOC authors are rampant. Kern avoids this by telling the story of Maddie’s almost accidental involvement in the movement, driven by a combination of Catholic moral rectitude and naivete about how ruthless capitalism is. Absent from her motivation is any kind of white saviorism; Maddie is always uncomfortably cognizant of her outsider status in the presence of more insightful and experienced activists, all of whom are Black.

When the local organizers of Save the Eighth are routed in their defense of an elderly resident’s home, they escalate by occupying the Lab. Save the Eighth founds the Free People’s Village, giving Maddie an unexpected front seat to the internal workings of a movement. Maddie finds herself in the middle of nightly debates about goals and tactics, often between Gestas and Eighth Ward organizer and resident, Shayna.

Maddie spends much of the book in awe of Shayna, never fully recovering from a mortifyingly embarrassing misstep at her first neighborhood meeting. Shayna’s roots in the neighborhood, her charisma, and her resolve win Maddie’s loyalty, even as she feels drawn to the acts of sabotage that Red and Gestas prefer. But both Gestas’s and Shayna’s political perspectives are depicted as logical and valid, and they are both principled members of the movement. Their disagreements are not used as props for personal melodrama within the plot, but as motors for the trajectory of the struggle, which is why the book will feel authentic to anyone who was part of Occupy.

While the Black characters do all the heavy lifting in terms of strategy and analysis in the book, Maddie peels potatoes in the communal kitchen and makes out with Red. To Kern’s credit, much of the story is concerned with how Maddie absorbs lessons both explicit and implicit in order to be a better member of a movement, not with how Maddie becomes the perfect ally, or worse, a white leader in a Black movement.

While this is a politically admirable approach to writing a white protagonist, Maddie is not particularly interesting in her own right.  She never quite stops feeling like a tourist in the neighborhood and movement. Her own personal oppression as a woman and as a precarious teacher don’t motivate her to collective struggle, and seemingly she has never experienced any systematic queer oppression, coming into that identity in the warm embrace of the Free People’s Village. So, while the book is unrelentingly in favor of the self-activity of the oppressed, somehow this doesn’t apply to Maddie herself—despite recurring incidents of sexual violence and coercion throughout the story. She is forever active on behalf of other people, which creates a certain distance between Maddie and the reader, despite Maddie’s many heartbreaks and defeats.

Regardless, The Free People’s Village is a gripping story and fascinating imagining of “successful” Green capitalism. Given this is only Kern’s second novel, they are emerging as one of solarpunk’s most ambitious and insightful voices. The worldbuilding alone makes The Free People’s Village a rewarding read: Kern’s grasp on the ability of capitalism to absorb challenges to its power and then sell back a repackaged version to the masses is unparalleled. In this timeline, carbon consumption is reified into carbon credits, which then function as a super-commodity parallel to money. This fact winds its way into every aspect of the character’s lives, from Fish—who created a Venmo-style micro-transaction app that made him a millionaire—to Gestas, who committed carbon credit fraud to pay for HRT and lives in house arrest at the Lab.

And because saving the environment Al Gore-style means relying on consumerism, the upper classes (like Fish’s suburban parents) are able to upgrade appliances and vehicles to build up carbon credits they can then spend on more conspicuous consumption and air travel. Meanwhile, “inefficiency” becomes a dog whistle for white supremacists talking about Black neighborhoods that can’t afford to upgrade to solar. Changing one aspect of capitalism for the better, Kern rightly shows, doesn’t change its fundamentally brutal and hypocritical character.

Save the Eighth, like many movements, is defeated, and the Lab is destroyed. The final section follows Maddie’s descent and recovery after heartbreak and loss. Maddie has had to learn to live with the reality that capitalism is here to stay for the foreseeable future. In a prescient passage, Kern has Maddie reconnecting to her commitment to liberation as Palestinian protesters take over an intersection downtown, daring to transgress the boundaries set out by Houston’s elites. Despite her losses and her capacity simply to escape back to a life of white indifference, Maddie finds meaning in the struggle—and hope.

It is hard to imagine a more timely message. Capitalism thrives on despair and distraction, and The Free People’s Village is a stirring antidote to both. For readers that spent the 2010s occupying whatever we could, Kern’s writing is a reminder of the passion and inspiration of that time, as well as the disappointments and violence. For readers who were not participants, Maddie’s story distills the euphoric power of collective disruption and community building. Struggle rises and falls, but resistance will always answer oppression. Maddie’s final thoughts on the subject echo the great Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

Despite her pain and loss, Maddie and her comrades remain committed to being ready to greet her.

Amy Nagopaleen writes fiction from Queens, NY, where she splits her time between working, making art, and parenting her second-generation queer kid. Her writing can be found in Fusion Fragment, Solarpunk Magazine, and Pen + Brush in Print, and is forthcoming in PseudoPod. You can find her on Twitter @amynagopaleen.
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