New-Age (Non) Human: A Posthuman Investigation of Suzanne Walker's 'Mooncakes'

Jagari Mukherjee

Graphic novels constitute a popular genre in the twenty-first century, continuing from the tradition of the “Superhero” comics of the previous century. These graphic novels usually are labelled as “YA” novels, as their target readership consists of young adults (teenagers). One of the latest graphic novels to be published in 2019 is Mooncakes, penned by Suzanne Walker and illustrated by Wendy Xu. This article proposes to look at Mooncakes from a posthumanist angle.
The conclusion of Francesca Ferrando’s seminal essay on Posthumanism, entitled “Towards A Posthuman Methodology: A Statement”, Ferrando asserts that “Posthumanism has to acknowledge the whole abstract experience in order to be receptive to the non-human and be open to unknown possibilities.” Ferrando defines Posthumanism in terms of its function, mentioning that it “criticizes anthropocentric humanism and opens its inquiry to non-human life, from aliens to other forms of hypothetical entities related to the physics notion of a multiverse. In so doing, it articulates the conditions for a posthuman epistemology concerned with non-human experience as the site of knowledge.”
The aim of this article is to examine Mooncakes in the light of Ferrando’s words. The main characters of Mooncakes are decidedly non-human. The heroine, Nova, is a witch who works in a bookstore owned by her two grandmothers, Qiu and Nechama. Nova’s parents are dead but their ghosts visit Nova and her grandmothers for Thanksgiving and express their disappointment because at Nova’s decision of not going in for apprenticeship to learn witchcraft and to stay at home instead. Moreover, it would be difficult to answer the question as to whether the novel has a “hero” in the traditional sense of the term: the other protagonist, Tam Lang, is a werewolf who prefers to use the gender-neutral pronoun “they” (Tam corrects Grandma Qiu once towards the beginning of the novel when Qiu addresses Tam as “she”). Thus, Mooncakes normalizes the non-human and is inclusive of the LGBTQ spectrum. Nechamma and Qiu discuss Nova’s previous romances with boys in the light of her present budding relationship with Tam, voicing their approval for the latter. Mooncakes’ target audience are ‘young adults”, judging from its tone, and thus belongs to what is known as the YA category.
The historical depiction of witches in medieval literature has been biased at its worst, and marginalized at its best. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the three witches dancing round the cauldron darkness of the forest lend a sinister atmosphere to the play. They are known as the “weird sisters”, a term that the late British novelist Terry Prachett parodies in his novel Wyrd Sisters, which is a part of his Discworld series belonging to the genre of fantasy. In Prachett’s tale the witches are largely benevolent, have names and personalities, and coexist with humans in a magical milieu (the first novel in the Discworld series is named The Color of Magic and features a wizard as its protagonist). Witches had a place in literature before Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone was published in 1997 and became the third highest grossing novel of the twentieth century with an estimated 120 million sales. However, one may remember that the protagonists of the Harry Potter series are wizards and witches in an essentially human world; they still belong to the minority community. However, in the multiverse of Mooncakes, humans are decidedly a minority, here represented by Nova’s friend, the sceptic scientist Tatyana, who believes that her friend is a witch but seeks scientific explanations behind witchcraft.
As far as its plot is concerned, Mooncakes uses the ancient trope of the victory of good over evil. The novel opens with Tam revisiting his old neighborhood after many years, the neighborhood where Nova lives, in order to escape his demons: there are dark forces which want to harness Tam’s “wolf magic” and turn him into an evil demon in order to access forbidden power. This Satanic-Faustian ambition is thwarted by the joint efforts of Nova and her close ones. In the very first chapter, Nova rescues Tam from a horse demon let loose by the dark forces. This sets the tone for the rest of the story where the female protagonist rescues her beloved from the bad guys, thereby shattering stereotypical depictions off helpless damsels rescued by princes and knights in shining armors. Nova is as strong as Tam is soft and vulnerable: she refuses to give up in the face of difficulties, and ropes in her grandmothers to come up with a new kind of magic that would be powerful enough to ward off the evil forces. Nova is not perfect: she uses hearing aids and is full of stubbornness in her refusal to go in for an apprenticeship: it is only at the end, when all of the combined magic of Nova, her grandmothers, and Tatyana have managed to banish the evil forces that she realizes that she needs formal training in witchcraft, and finally decides to leave home. Tam decides to go with her, and the novel ends with the young couple kissing, locked in an embrace. In spite of the danger lurking throughout the book just around the corner as a threat to Tam, there is decidedly a feel-good factor about the story. This is no less reinforced by the physical representation of Mooncakes: the pages are of high-quality glossy paper and Wendy Xu’s artwork is colorful and easy on the eyes. The characters are black-and-white in their depiction: the good and good and the bad are bad with no grey shades in between; there is no Batman-type “Dark Knight” complexity and dilemma. The forest in the novel is crowded with a host of magical creatures, loyal to Tam and Nova, but threatened, as per the plot, by the cult who belong to the dark side.
Nova’s home, adjacent to her grandmas’ bookstore, gives an insight into the abode of a young modern witch. The bookstore is named as Black Cat Bookseller Café and the family keeps a number of black cats as pets. Nova’s room exemplifies the room of a teenage witch. A flying broom is kept at the foot of the bed, a wooden treasure-box is placed on her bedside table in which she keeps her magic wand and gemstones, old books lean against the wall, pile on top of one another, a wooden bookcase stands on the other side, full of books presumably on witchcraft, and a jack o’lantern with silvery light hangs overhead. Even Nova’s bright blue earphones are magical: she uses a trick with them to stun the evil witch, Mrs Crawford. The ceiling has constellations mapped out with toy stars and planets, which Tam and Nova had set up as children. As a witch, Nova has all the constellations imprinted in her memory, as Tam recalls. Qiu and Nechamma’s kitchen is full of herbs and potions. When Tam is imprisoned by Mrs Crawford, the two old witches locate him with the help of a potion brewed in the cauldron, as the smoke arising from the potion falls on a map pointing to his exact location, to which they fly using brooms. Although most of the story is set in Nova’s home, the climax of the novel occurs in the forest where good and evil forces converge together.
In Mooncakes, the world of magic and enchantment is normalized. Like the poet Coleridge, Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xiu familiarizes the strange and the unfamiliar. They represent a posthuman milieu which is more tolerant of differences than is prevalent in the real world.

Walker, Suzanne and Wendy Xiu.Mooncakes. Lion Forge LLC, 2019.

Ferrando, Francesca. “Towards a Posthumanist Methodology: A Statement”. Frame: Journal For Literary Studies, vol. 25, issue 1, pp 9-18.

Bio: Jagari Mukherjee is a gold medalist in English Literature, a Best of the Net 2018 nominee, DAAD scholar from Technical University, Dresden, Germany, a Bear River alumna. Her poems and other creative pieces have been published in different venues both in India and abroad. Her latest book, The Elegant Nobody, was published by Hawakal Publishers in January 2020. She is the winner of the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize 2018 for Book Review, Poeisis Award for Excellence in Poetry 2019, and also the recipient of Reuel International Prize For Poetry 2019, among other awards. Jagari is a part of the Reviews team at The Blue Nib.

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