Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies: Zombies, Alzheimer’s, and Morality

I’ve always read novels and watched films that are speculative in nature more for the metaphors and meaning and less for the violence and the macabre. My recurring question is often: what do the words and images say about all us as people?

So my fascination with zombies, the undead makes sense. It’s personal because of members of my family are suffering from dementia in their old age. Speculative fiction including the zombie genre, also gets me thinking about the deeper meaning of life including our spiritual lives.

The fascination with zombies goes back further for me as a teen, when I first read Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein in which various body parts were reincarnated as a zombie whole. I can list many Frankenstein incarnation on film going back to black and white movies.  Fast forward to “28 Weeks Later,” the film, which jump-started the zombie craze in the 21st Century. And we can’t forget AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” still currently on television because of stellar ratings.

ImageThese zombies can be interpreted in many ways but here are just two that I’ve drawn from reading Issac Marion’s zombie bestseller Warm Bodies: zombies as a metaphor for Alzheimer’s and the moral tensions between being undead and human.

There isn’t a more complex map or landscape than the human brain. And when Alzheimer’s takes hold, that map slowly painfully shrinks, reconfigures, and disconnects. The person inside once known as dear grandma or loving father becomes someone else. Like the violent zombies that beloved someone, our beloved someone, can become alien wielding a knife or screaming, really shrieking.

These people, our people, mirror those in Warm Bodies. As is true of the zombie genre, the undead mindlessly seek flesh to continue shuffling along. Our own people suffering from dementia simply shuffle along. Yet for grandma and dad, there is something going on inside, a struggle against the dying of the light. Something of their moral selves sputters and flickers.

The interesting turn with Warm Bodies is the many zombies display varying degrees of sentience as is true of the many stages of Alzheimer’s that ultimately lead to death. R, the central character, has a soul. He’s driven by eating flesh but also grapples with the meaning of God in his life, and the tension between eating and killing in relationship to the sanctity of life.

And it seems love, central to most organized religions including Christianity, truly transforms R, the undead. Will R stop eating flesh because it is the right thing to do? Will love transform him from a killer to the redeemed? Will he make the moral, the right choice?

As the world grapples with increasing numbers of people living longer and dying from dementia or it’s related medical complications, some family and friends forced to stand by and watch a slow death, cling to love. Alzheimer’s patients,our people, ultimately succumb to the disease seemingly undead, particularly in the last stages.

For some, our fascination with zombies is fueled by reality filled with dementia patients including those with Alzheimer’s.

I don’t want to give away too much concerning Warm Bodies’ plot, including the love story. I will tell you I was moved by R, a zombie listing and tilting between right and wrong, moral and immoral. The polarities are fascinating but the inherent moral struggles are enthralling.

If you pick up the book, consider the parallels to Alzheimer’s and morality as you read. The alternative to reading is watching the film Warm Bodies, a zombie romance, which will be out in a theatres near you on February 1, 2013 just in time for Valentine’s Day. I hope the nuances in the novel are ultimately matched in the film.

Barack Obama: An Alternate Environmental Biography & History?

If Barack Obama had been born in Kenya and not the United States then his environmental biography would certainly have been different. George Obama, Barack’s brother, grew up in Kenya. George’s biography gave me some insight into an alternate environmental history, what might have been if President Obama’s path had been a different one in Africa. The president’s relationship with and story about the environment would have been different. Or would it have been?

Consider George Obama’s biography written with Damien Lewis titled Homeland: An Extraordinary Story of Hope and Survival (2010).

Perhaps Barack Obama, the older of the two brothers, calls many places homeland including his birthplace Hawaii in the United States. Like many a child of an immigrant, Kenya is Mr. Obama’s ancestral homeland, the birthplace of his father.

If Barack had been born in Kenya his experiences might have paralleled George’s life. The president would have visited and perhaps even lived with the Luo, his people, his cultural group in Kenya. Much like George, a young Barack might have visited  his grandfather’s compound filled with family in rural Kenya.

The family supported themselves herding livestock including cattle. (Obama, 4) The Obamas were also farmers. Their grandfather “owned land  . . . that was used for rice growing. The rice fields were rain-fed, as opposed to irrigated. If the main April-June rains failed, the young plants would wither and die in the fields, and there would be no crop that year.” (Obama, 4-5)

George, who spent much of his time in Nairobi, remembers nature as a child visiting the family compound:

At the start of the rainy April season the wind would blow in from the bush in a sudden, raging storm. The dry fronds on the palm trees clashing together sounded like an army of children fighting with wooden swords. Then you knew that rain was on the way, and you had no more than ten minutes to get under cover. As a wall of gray clouds rushed in from the far horizon, powerful gusts knocked down coconuts from the palms and dead branches from the trees. (Obama, 5)

Barack Obama in Kenya, 2006

Now here is some whimsy on my part: although Barack did not grow up in Kenya, his DNA influenced his environmental thought and actions in reality, in the real world. In 1987, George still a child met Barack already an adult. They met on a Nairobi playground. Barack had visited Kenya, his homeland. He returned again in 2006.

Today, President Obama is the first green and black president. In his 2011 State of the Union Address, he highlighted that California Institute of Technology was developing “a way to turn sunlight and water into fuel for our cars.” (2011 State of the Union Address, NPR transcript) This is part of federal green initiatives in and for the United States and the world.

As I sit here in my home, miles away from the president and the White House, even more miles away from Kenya, I dream a global dream that embraces Barack Obama a descendant of Kenyans influenced by his rural origins there; at the same time, he is driven to implement environmental innovation and initiatives as an American, as the President of the United States.

Cab Ride I: “The Birds,” Said an African American Man in Atlanta

“There’s something very wrong?” he said looking up at the overcast sky standing between my house and his cab. As I locked my door, I turned my head  to look at him knowing more was coming.

A young African American man in his early twenties sat in the driver’s seat. He turned over the engine and rap poured out a single speaker wedged between the two seats pointed at me. Jay-Z was spitting rhymes. Sounds of 21st century angst and protest filled the cab.

He said again, “Something is wrong.” He added, “There are no birds in the sky. I’m stuck in this cab all day so I only hear bits and pieces of the news.”

I almost said turn on NPR but that would have destroyed the mood edging on protest, real fear in the cab.

I told him a winter storm was coming, which might explain a bird-less sky.

He protested saying, “No, no. There have been birds dropping dead from the sky all over the world.”

I’d said I’d heard one story in the news. It was beginning to feel like an M. Night Shaymalan movie.

We went back and forth sharing two theories as Weezy rapped in the background. I had to speak up because he’d cranked up the music, I think, reflecting a strumming anxiety. Theory 1: fireworks. Theory 2: a storm swept the birds up.

He said, “You know animals are the first to respond to environmental problems.”

I agreed adding that for decades creatures like frogs with delicate skin have long been a barometer of toxic environments. When they disappear, die, because of pollution, it indicates a damaging climate and environmental havoc.

More than fifteen years ago when I began my work in environmentalism this conversation with a young African American man about the modern environment would have been a piece of fiction. Now it is non-fiction and I’m living it. And the people of color expressing concern is ever-increasing exponentially.

Photo by Dianne Glave

Shades of Nature: Environmental Fiction Blog Carnival

Shades of Nature: Environmental Fiction is the Second Rooted in the Earth Blog Carnival. This time the focus is on environmental fiction or literature. Although I lean towards history and popular culture, I so dearly love fiction too. After reading blogs by the contributors to this carnival, look out for the Third Rooted in the Earth Blog Carnival in the near future.

Many years ago, I learned that Lauret, my friend, was editing a volume that included environmental fiction. The result was The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World (2002) edited by Alison H. Deming & Lauret E. Savoy. The second edition of the collection arrives online and in bookstores in February 2011. They edited the book from two perspectives: Deming who is white and Savoy who is of African descent. Both women were clear about their perspectives based on diversity in the preface which defined the collection.

Al Young, the author of one of the essays titled “Silent Parrot Blues,” introduces his piece on environmental racism with a story:

Even I, who knew next to nothing about parrots, understood that this parrot was exceptional . . . His coat of many color was listless and raggedy. Not only did he look as though he’d been plucked and picked on, he looked as though he had been ‘buked and scorned,’ as the faithful Negro spiritual would have it.” (p. 113)

The parrot, a metaphor for environmental racism, could not speak much like people who cannot speak up for and defend themselves when say a company opens up a garbage dump in an impoverished neighborhood skirting environmental laws.

To expand on this idea of inequity, Savoy says, “What is the American Earth to people of color? Of course there is no single or simple answer.” (p. 9) The following blogs come from many perspectives including ethnic-and bio-diversity:


“Yard Yarns (Limerick and Haiku Prompt),” Mad Kane’s Humor Blog.

“Time and Tide Pools,” The Daily Neurotic: A Webblog About Life’s Peculiarities Otherwise Known as the Dailies.

“Fiction: A New Heaven and and a New Earth,” The Great Auk — The Greatest Auk: Not Bad for Being Extinct.

“Flying Alone,” Memorizing Nature: Fantastical Yet Critical Writings by Elaine Medline.

“Stone,” Frogs and Ravens: Some Days We Are Ravens; Other Days, Frogs

The Marshlanders Sample Chapter: Beaver Night.

“Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage: An Excerpt,” From the Blog by the Same Name.


“A Review of Toni Morrison’s A Mercy,” The Schleicher Spin.

“A Damn Good Flood,” The Schleicher Spin.

Darryl A. Perkins the author of Into the Night and Understanding Goshawks offers shares some advice for writers of nature and the environment:

“The challenge of environmental fiction is to take something imaginary and not factual, and wrap it around something that is not only real, but necessary for our survival.  A further challenge, particularly of people of color, is to share our experiences and or imagination on the subject, with an audience that is unaware of our history and involvement with the environment.  However, there are heroes out there fighting the good fight like Rue Mapp, and Frank and Audrey Peterman.”

I am moved by the words of the authors who have shared their blogs in the Shades of Nature: Environmental Fiction Blog Carnival. Please take the time to comment on the blogs to encourage these environmental writers as they continue their creative pursuits.

Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage: An Excerpt

In my book Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage, I open each chapter with literary or fictional vignettes. Read the first paragraphs of Chapter 4 titled “Resistance: Rebellion, Sustenance, and Escape in the Wilderness:

Joseph dreams that he is a revered priest in West Africa, where his people, the Gruma of the Akan, all call him Minkah, which means justice. Some of his priestly duties revolve around nature—blessing a field, pouring libations with water onto the ground to revere the ancestors, and tending to the village’s earth shrine. Minkah strides through the forests and sees a vision of a long leaf pine that weeps and shakes like a small child.
Awaking from his reverie, Joseph realizes that he is this child, who has ended up enslaved. Now, north of the city of Mobile between the Tombigbee and Alabama rivers, he is far from his ancestral home in Africa. Yet he is comforted by the familiarity of leaves falling from the branches of the trees onto the uneven floor, a patchwork of sunlight and shadows in the forest.

Joseph’s visions and dreams have momentarily liberated him from the bondage of enslavement with thoughts well suited for the making of a runaway. Intuitively, he is comfortable and familiar with the woods and waterways surrounding the plantation. Joseph runs away for one- to three-day stretches, relying on his knowledge of nature, which originated in Africa, to survive. The first few times Joseph runs, Matthew Samford—the slaveholder of a two-hundred-acre plantation kept productive by seventy-five enslaved people— tracked him with dogs . . . (57-58)

My goal in using the fictional vignettes was to give thehistorical perspective of the book some “flesh.”

Shades of Nature: Environmental Fiction, A Call for Blog Carnival Submissions


I love fiction, and some of my blogs at Rooted in the Earth reflects my interest.

Please submit your blog of environmental fiction–prose or poetry–to the second Rooted in the Earth Blog Carnival titled Shades of Nature: Environmental Fiction. I am flexible since I will even include reviews/essays;/overviews of environmental fiction. C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia comes to mind when I think of environmental fiction. Another example is W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Quest of the Silver Fleece. Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry edited by Camille Dungy is another option to consider when looking to some models for environmental fiction.

Submissions outside the scope of environmental fiction will not be considered. Perspectives from diversity including gender and ethnicity, along with more general submissions are welcomed.

If you do not have a blog, I will work with you on posting your environmental fiction if accepted.


I look forward to your submissions.