Narrating Human Genomes

Announcing a panel on Literature and Genetics at the 2011 MLA convention:

Narrating Human Genomes”
Special Session, Modern Language Convention, Los Angeles, January 6-9, 2011 

  • Heidi Kathleen Kim (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), “Dramatizing DNA: Heredity Defined in the Plays of David Henry Hwang and Philip Kan Gotanda” 
  • Jay Clayton (Vanderbilt University), “Dystopic Genomics: Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood” 
  • Everett Hamner (Western Illinois University), “Sequencing Generosity: Richard Powers and Genomic Testing” 
  • Priscilla Wald (Duke University), Respondent

Session Description

There may be no more literal a way to narrate a life than to map one’s personal genome. For many it is now a simple matter to swab one’s cheek, pay several hundred dollars, and receive a report indicating racial heritage or susceptibility to various maladies. Banking on this formula, startups like 23andMe, Navigenics, and DeCode Genetics are growing exponentially—and so is cultural discourse (both popular and erudite) about the data’s significance. In the last decade, Henry Louis Gates has traced African-Americans’ ancestral roots on PBS; blockbusters like X-Men have thrilled cinemagoers with genetic rationale for their spectacular special effects; and Jeffrey Eugenides, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Zadie Smith have won major awards with novels about genetics that might have once been shelved as science fiction.

Scholars in biology, ethics, the history of science, and sociology have been publishing monographs concerned with this nexus of science and culture since long before the Human Genome Project, but attention from literary critics has been limited. Of course Donna Haraway’s Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™ (Routledge, 1997) scours a wide range of theory and media; also notable are José Van Dijck’s Imagenation: Popular Images of Genetics (NYU, 1998) and Maria Aline Salgueiro’s I Am the Other: Literary Negotiations of Human Cloning (Praeger, 2005). Aside from these works and others by members of this panel, though, literary critics are only beginning to engage these biological and cultural transformations.

Given the size of this opening, our session introduces a wide range of questions. Are genes objects that can be patented or owned? How great is their actual influence on identity vis-à-vis their mushrooming mass-market representation? What is behind their attraction as metaphors? How do their scientific descriptions shape notions of race and gender? How do we acknowledge genetic influence without overestimating it? At the same time, this session concentrates on contemporary bioculture’s literary uptake. What role do our narratives play in debates about biomedical ethics and science policy? What effect do popular genres like dystopia, post-apocalyptic, and science fiction more broadly have in shaping public attitudes toward genetics? What place should they have in conversations about the ethical, legal, and social implications of scientific research?

Heidi Kathleen Kim launches the conversation with a paper about the racial implications of genetic testing. Beginning with the UK television series Are You 100% English?, she asks how this technology has reinflected the question of race as a biological category, a social construction, or a metanarrative superseded by postraciality. Her main subject is The DNA Trail, a collaborative work by six prominent playwrights that premiered this spring at Chicago’s Silk Road Theater. Conceived to explore new facets of racial identity that might be illuminated by heredity testing, the project began with each artist submitting DNA to a single corporation and the theater providing experts to explain results; each then wrote a short play inspired by the experience. These pieces, however, reveal a large gap between expectation and reality. For example, the playwrights of “purely” Asian heritage hoped for a new and surprising racial identity, but find the results uninspiring; indeed all the playwrights express disappointment or indifference. Ultimately, Kim argues the production reverts to familiar narratives of nature/nurture, familial resemblance and conflict, racial stereotypes, and prejudice, rendering genetics as window-dressing. This is backtracking, but she remains hopeful that society can more successfully blend story and science while rethinking race.

Next, Jay Clayton turns to Margaret Atwood’s novels Oryx and Crake (2003) and The Year of the Flood (2009), showing how they fuse dystopian and post-apocalyptic motifs. In Atwood’s work genetics is responsible for the holocaust that brings down civilization, and thus the works feature a full array of the biomedical horrors haunting society in the age of the gene, from intentionally-engineered pandemics to freakish posthuman species. These novels are not just about a possible future, though: Atwood dramatizes current biomedical fears by portraying a world in which corporate compounds replace the state and unbridled sexual exploitation and class oppression become the norm. In response, Clayton juxtaposes Atwood’s depiction of pharmacogenomic corporations like AnooYoo, ReJoovenEsense, and HelthWyzer with the claims of direct-to-consumer marketing of genetic testing by current businesses. After Kim discusses services for heredity testing, with their concomitant implications for racial self-conceptions, then, Clayton demonstrates how these companies also foster personalized medicine, reproductive decision-making, genetic disease research, and even recreational genomics.

Finally, Everett Hamner examines the essays and fiction of Richard Powers, especially last year’s Generosity: An Enhancement (2009). Beyond holding one of academia’s most unusual co-appointments—Professor of English and Cognitive Neuroscience at Urbana-Champaign—Powers is one of only nine persons (as of 2008) to have had his genome fully sequenced. In exchange for an article in GQ, Powers’s genome was fully coded ten separate times, a far more detailed and expensive procedure than that available to most consumers. Hamner argues that the subsequent essay and novel offer a badly-needed middle path toward “predisposed agency”: an open affirmation that human beings are organisms chemically prone to particular afflictions and capacities, coupled with an equally strong insistence that we are not biologically determined in any manner that eliminates environmental influence or strips individuals of personal agency. Heightening the critiques of capitalistic genomics offered by Kim’s and Clayton’s texts, these works also suggest a means of embracing the most promising opportunities of genetic science.

The session concludes with a response from Priscilla Wald, who along with Clayton brings a longstanding commitment to interdisciplinary conversations between literature and science. Following these three fifteen-minute presentations and Wald’s assessment, we intend at least twenty minutes for discussion with other conference attendees.


Heidi Kathleen Kim (Speaker 1) is Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has published articles in PMLA, Philological Quarterly, and Walt Whitman Quarterly Review on questions of race and literature in nineteenth and twentieth century American literature, and her current book project rereads canonical American fiction through the lens of Asian American history. She received a B.A. from Harvard University in Biochemical Sciences, where her research in genetic engineering and protein chemistry was published in The Journal of Biological Chemistry. Combining these two interests, her new research project looks at race and genetics, specifically the popular interest in genealogical testing. She has been following the development of the Silk Road Theatre Project’s new collaborative play about genealogical testing for over a year, interviewing playwrights including David Henry Hwang and Philip Kan Gotanda.

Jay Clayton (Speaker 2) is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor and Chair of the Department of English at Vanderbilt University. He is author of a number of books, several of which have explored questions of science and literature. Since the publication of “Genome Time” in his book Charles Dickens in Cyberspace: The Afterlife of the Nineteenth Century in Postmodern Culture (Oxford, 2003), much of his work has focused on literature and genetics policy. He and Priscilla Wald were co-principal-investigators in an NIH-funded three-year-long interdisciplinary workshop on the topic of Genetics in Literature, Film, and Popular Culture. One of the outcomes of that grant was a special issue of Literature and Medicine on “Genomics in Literature, Visual Arts, and Culture” (2007) that they co-edited along with Karla Holloway. Clayton has published articles in a special issue of New Literary History on biocultures and a forum on the same topic in PMLA, as well as articles on evolutionary theory in nineteenth-century culture in a number of journals. He maintains the website Literature, Film and Genetics (

Everett Hamner (Presider and Speaker 3) is Assistant Professor of English at Western Illinois University. His current book project examines the broader spectrum of relationships between religion, science, and literature within which this paper focuses more narrowly. His presentation also builds on recent articles about literary responses to the Scopes Trial in Modern Fiction Studies and about postsecular science in Religion and Literature. In addition, he has produced a short documentary film on the subject, “Imagining Genetic Enhancement” ( This paper represents the early stages of a new project on genetics, ethics, and narrative that will feature such authors as Octavia Butler, Jeffrey Eugenides, Richard Powers, and Zadie Smith.

Priscilla Wald (Respondent) is Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Duke University. Her recent book, Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative (Duke, 2008), considers the contemporary stories we tell about the global health problem of “emerging infections.” She is currently working on a book-length study entitled Human Being After Genocide: Toward a Genomic Creation Myth. This work chronicles the challenge to conceptions of human being that emerged from scientific and technological innovation in the wake of the Second World War, and moves through the rise of science fiction and the theory of “biopolitics” to the mapping of the human genome and its consequences. She is also working on a series of essays that explore how information emerging from genomic research circulates through mainstream media and popular culture and how the language, narratives and images in those media register and promote an understanding of the science that is steeped in (often misleading) cultural biases and assumptions. She edits the journal American Literature and is the President Elect of the American Studies Association.


~ by Jay Clayton on June 25, 2010.

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