A bomb set off by North Korea and an ensuing corporate world war set the foundation for Wisconsin author Debra Leea Glasheen’s new young adult novel, Backbiters.
Following the blueprint of the popular dystopian literature genre, Backbiters plays out in a distant future world with perilous human and environmental conditions, including battles over fresh water and human genetic mutations that result in varying physical appearances.
The protagonist of Glasheen’s novel is a 15-year-old girl name Giluli, who belongs to a tribe of individuals born with abnormal physical characteristics. This group, facing discrimination from so-called “pre-evolved” individuals (those without physical defects), is forced to start its own nation. That nation happens to be built on land stretching from Wisconsin to Canada, and includes some of the only fresh water remaining in the world.
Backbiters follows Giluli’s attempts to fit in with pre-evolved students at a nearby high school, protect mutant babies born all over the world, and help her people face off against greedy and dangerous politicians attempting to uproot their nation. Backbiters was released in July by Montag Press of Oakland, Calif. and is available now on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
The Sister Bay-Liberty Grove Branch of the Door County Library will host a free reading by Glasheen at 11 am on Saturday, March 3. Readers of all ages are encouraged to attend, as Glasheen will read selections from her young adult novel.
I caught up with Glasheen in advance of her reading to talk dystopian tales and the power of literature in encouraging dialogue on current events. For more on her career and work, visit debraleeaglasheen.com.
Alyssa Skiba (AS): Why did you decide to write a story in the dystopian genre?
Leea Glasheen (LG): One of the values of dystopian literature is that we can examine the possibilities of the human condition, and it’s kind of a cautionary tale but it’s far enough away that we don’t get emotionally involved. If we discussed some of these issues happening right now in our world, it starts to be political and people draw lines in the sand…we label people and then we can’t listen. But in a dystopian setting, we can examine some of the issues that are either happening to us or threatening us without feeling that political defensiveness.
AS: How does that reflect on literature’s place in the world?
LG: Art and literature can crystallize and really present these types of social issues or personal, human issues in a concise, emotional format that sparks discussion, that inspires people to take a look. I like to call them mini practice lives. At a personal level, this is why I think literature is so great for young people. Every book they read, they’re little practice lives where they don’t have to go out and live every single situation to really be able to imagine it. That’s one of the jobs of an author, to help people decide who they are, decide what they think by giving them these little practice scenarios so they can say, what would I do in that situation?
AS: Being open to other cultures is a major theme of this book. Did that come from personal experience?
LG: I’ve spent a lot of time traveling to other countries. I lived in Japan for a year when I was 16, I lived in Guatemala, I lived in France, and I think living in these different countries and even working with and having friends in different cultures within the United States, that I just spend so much of my life seeing people not get along for reasons that I don’t think are valid for them not to understand each other. I see so many cultural barriers that I think if people could take more time to reflect and more time to get to know each other that we could reduce some of these cultural barriers. That aspect of my experience definitely inspired some of the themes in this novel.
AS: The main character, Giluli, also struggles with issues of loyalty. Is that something that came from your life experience as well?
LG: In my life, sometimes my views didn’t overlap with those of my family or my neighbors or my community, so basing these questions of should I be loyal to everyone? and having that shock when you find out that people you believe in maybe aren’t perfect. I think that’s something that all people go through, where you realize the flaws of your role models and heroes; how do you digest that and how do you decide to whom you should be loyal if these people aren’t perfect?
AS: What is the value of hosting author readings?
LG: It’s hard to describe how wonderful it is to discuss, first of all, your story and second of all, the themes and topics that are important to you with other people…and also to talk about the publishing and writing process.