Gish Jen’s Resistant Possibilities: On Black Fugitivity, Coalitional Care and Baseball

A Review of The Resisters
October 11, 2020

Photo credit: Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times

Published this past February, Gish Jen’s novel The Resisters stands uniquely on the threshold of our world and the world we once knew. Jen’s futuristic dystopia questions the efficacy of activism; the possibility of coalition building during a global crisis; the intrusion of market capitalism and data surveillance on the human body and the role of sports in advancing social justice issues. But dystopias are never really about the future. They are critical interrogations of the present. For this reason, the book feels poised to provide timely answers to the questions facing our world amid the COVID-19 pandemic as Black Lives Matter activists continue to take to the streets, big data proponent Elon Musk successfully implants a brain chip — what he describes as a Fitbit for the future of humanity — into a pig, and professional athletes around the world protest police brutality from their quarantine bubbles. However, The Resisters could not have anticipated just how divisive and hostile things have become since early February, with the spread of anti-maskers and the rise of citizen militias in cities like Portland and Kenosha. In other words, reading The Resisters today feels a little different than it might have felt at the start of 2020.

The Resisters follows the Cannon-Chastanets, a multiracial family of three — Eleanor, Grant and their “Blasian” teenaged daughter Gwen — who inspires a national movement to bring about more equitable social conditions for the oppressed Surplus class. Jen’s novel takes place in a futuristic AutoAmerica, where data tracking technologies have automated nearly every aspect of human life. In AutoAmerica, service industry work and professional work (legal, academic, medical, etc.) have been rendered obsolete, turning the citizens who once populated these jobs — most often, minorities — into a Surplus class. The Surplus are marginalized but kept around to consume goods produced by the Netted. The Netted are a privileged class whose production maintains the social order of AutoAmerica’s faceless governmentality, the Autonet. Under the Autonet’s production-consumption system, where both producers and consumers are mutually dependent on one another, the Surplus exist to justify their own subjugation. This system is all part of AutoAmerica’s Total Persuasion Architecture, a plan influenced by rival superpower ChinRussia and designed to give governmentalities total control over their populations. Yet amid this futuristic nightmare, the Cannon-Chastanets galvanize a multicultural, multigenerational resistance movement by enabling coalitional solidarities across class lines. 

I initially came to The Resisters looking for answers, but rereading it again months later, I return to it now looking for hope. My first engagement with the book occurred in the early months of quarantine for a reading group. Speaking together over Zoom, we traced the connections between America and AutoAmerica. We reflected on our reliance on data tracking technologies to communicate during the pandemic, which gave us pause as we imagined what it must feel like being in the Cannon-Chastanet’s automated house — a legal requirement for all Surplus — and being eerily reminded by the house’s AI software, “You have a choice. You always have a choice. … Do note that your choice is on the record. Nothing is being hidden from you. Your choice is on the record.” Moments like these demonstrate how Jen’s storytelling puts into question the nature of resistance in a mediascape organized by social inequality. Since a couple of us in the reading group had attended local protest demonstrations — organized over social media — following the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd that were met with violent pushback, we recalled how the first large mass protest movement referenced in The Resisters was also met with violence. Prior to the events of the novel, millions of Surplus marched on Capitol Hill to protest automation only to be declared an unlawful assembly. Following the so-called “Automation Riots,” everyone was forcibly microchipped, with every movement monitored by the Autonet indefinitely: “As more than one congressman put it, it was chip them or shoot them.” During desperate times, it is easy to fixate on finding a right answer, an ideal form of resistance. What Jen’s novel reveals, however, is that resistance cannot be located within a singular act, as if there is some magical switch that turns on social equality. Instead, The Resisters insists that resistance is an ongoing, multidimensional process built on solidarity and care. 

By having the narrative revolve around three main characters, the novel illustrates how each character plays an active role in enabling resistance through an expansive network of collaborative coalition building. The Resisters is primarily told from the perspective of Grant. Grant is an introspective and sometimes overly deferential former English professor of Caribbean descent whose job has been discontinued, making him one of the Surplus labelled “Unretrainables.” Unable to reenter the workforce, Grant plays a vital role as an amateur community organizer and inventor. He starts an underground coed youth-oriented baseball league — the All-Star Resistance League, or The Resisters for short — on unsanctioned marooned patches of land and makes tools that disable the Autonet’s surveillance systems. His actions bring the multicultural Surplus community together. Grant’s clever organizing around maroon spaces harkens to real histories in the Caribbean when fugitive slaves would create communities around marooned lands. Grant’s European surname, Chastanet, indicates his family’s ties to this colonial history. Though Grant tends to fall into the background of the narrative action later on in the story, he serves as a constant reminder of the ways that the plot itself is largely built on the back of black fugitivity. Grant expresses, in his own amateurish way, a refusal to be held to a social order beset by inequality and the systematic oppression of minoritized peoples. Situated through Grant’s perspective, Jen’s novel powerfully reveals black amateurism and innovation to be a driving force in the cultivation of a community-based grassroots coalition. 

Jen positions Eleanor as a useful complement to Grant. A lawyer who continues to practice despite having her profession discontinued, Eleanor functions as the fierce matriarch of the Cannon-Chastanet family who spearheads high-profile lawsuits against the Autonet to expose how it has systematically sanctioned the winnowing of Surplus peoples. Jailed for her actions and implanted with a data-tracking tool that surveils her brain activity, she nevertheless persists through her active commitment to her professional duties and, after a harrowing event that transpires at the end of the novel, through her infectious spirit. Half Chinese and half Irish, Eleanor models a minoritized intersectional subjecthood who finds ways to initiate social change even as she works within a labor system that participates in the perpetuation of institutional inequality. In other words, she models the change from within. It is through her that Jen gives voice to the affirming mantra that gets repeated throughout the book: “Right makes might.” As readers, we come to root for Eleanor and all that she inspires. She tackles the system head-on. Together, Eleanor and Grant make a strong team.

But no team is complete without its all-star delegator. Enter Gwen. Gwen is Eleanor and Grant’s mixed-race teenage daughter whose athletic prowess initially motivates Grant to start the underground baseball league. A sharp-shooting pitcher, she gets recruited for the Netted’s coed developmental team and later represents Team AutoAmerica in the Olympics against ChinRussia. Comparing her to real-life female pitchers, like Jackie Mitchell, Mamie Johnson, Ila Jane Borders and Mo’ne Davis, Jen places Gwen in a tradition of “Women who had bucked the system” with their “golden arms.” For Jen, Gwen’s narrative becomes useful for taking the reader behind the curtain of the Netted, as she depicts Gwen navigating its social world and meeting Netted teenagers who are not afraid to express their stereotyped assumptions about the Surplus. At times, these interactions cause her to feel isolated, “like a one-person marooned place. … A little Blasian island.” But they also motivate her to take a stand and teach her how to follow in her mother’s footsteps to lead a new generation of young activists.

Rather than simply functioning as a plot device, baseball serves as Jen’s central arena for engaging readers of different political orientations in sensitive discussions on social politics. Throughout the novel, baseball games are not described in any full detail. Instead, Jen highlights specific moments of Gwen’s pitching. As a pitcher, Gwen dictates the pace of a game by delegating the interactive conditions between opposing teams. Pitching requires careful control and attention to an opponent’s batting preferences. Focusing on these moments, Jen demonstrates how baseball operates as a metaphorical space to begin questioning the notion of equal opportunism and the ideological construction of the American Dream:

if baseball took on a hallowed meaning, it took on that meaning in our American dreams. For was this not the level playing field we envisioned? The field on which people could show what they were made of? And didn’t we Americans believe above all that everyone should have a real chance at bat? 

Jen complicates this set of questions as she shows how baseball players from both ChinRussia and Team AutoAmerica genetically modify their bodies to become better athletes. This dilemma of deciding whether or not to concede to the norm at the expense of one’s own personhood, Jen suggests throughout the novel, is crucial to any articulation of resistance. Gwen is the only holdout.

Paralleling her role of delegator as the team’s pitcher, Gwen plays the role of the novel’s political delegator, a mouthpiece for Jen to stage pitch-and-catch scenarios between the Surplus and the Netted. While training with the Netted’s developmental team, for instance, Gwen is confronted by her Netted roommates’ preconceived ideas about the Surplus:

poor Gwen was peppered with questions, and … every answer she gave led instantly to another question as if to the next step of an algorithm.

"Like what do your parents do all day if they don’t work?” someone asked.

And when Gwen explained, someone else asked, “So your mom actually does workOnly for free?”

And, “So when people say we do all the work while Surplus do nothing, that’s wrong?”

It is hard to believe Gwen could answer such a question without heat. At home, she would have probably said something like, What kind of an asshole question is that? But here she conducts herself as if giving testimony in a highly publicized trail.

At times, these interactions can feel abrupt and too quick to progress, verging on the pedagogical. Still, they demonstrate Jen’s concerted effort to use baseball — often acknowledged to be the most conservative sport among the main sports popular in the United States, with its frequent resistance to change and its tradition of normalizing strict unspoken rules — to engage in dialogue with reading audiences of different political backgrounds.

By the end, Jen leaves the reader with hope as she depicts an emerging generation of activism cohering around compassion and care. Picking up where the previous generation left off, Gwen steps into the role of litigator by taking up the lawsuits that her mother had filed against the Autonet for its discriminatory anti-Surplus practices. At her side are the friends she cultivated throughout the novel, many of whom are part of the Netted but who now travel to Surplus communities to conduct work alongside them. She also garners support from a former Resistance League rival coach, Andrea, who founded a nationwide shelter network for abused Surplus women. Demonstrating how care can manifest solidarity, The Resisters brings visibility to the coalitional nature of care and the work it can do to foster social change. Jen leaves the reader with a more expansive and complex understanding of what resistant power can look like.     

With everything that 2020 has forced us to endure, the last thing we could want is more dystopia. But Gish Jen’s The Resisters is interested in unearthing the possibilities intrinsic to dystopia. At the heart of dystopic fiction is utopia. While dystopic fiction might on the surface appear like a genre defined by criticism — criticism of the government, criticism of structural inequality and criticism of surveillance technologies — we must also realize that implicit in the act of criticism is a desire for a better world. In other words, critique is an expression of hope, an imaginative act intent on bringing about a more equitable future. Though 2020 might look bleak, The Resisters reminds us not to lose sight of the solidarities that can cohere around and through adversity because they will help to guide our future. Jen’s book places trust in these possibilities.


Leland Tabares

Leland Tabares is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His work is published in ProfessionJournal of Asian American Studies, and Lateral: Journal of the Cultural Studies Association.