Apocalypse Whenever: Catastrophe, Privilege and Indifference (or, Whiteness and the End Times)

2015. English Studies in Africa 58(1): 56-67. DOI: 10.1080/00138398.2015.1045161

Henrietta Rose-Innes’ short story ‘Poison’ (from Homing 2010) is set in the aftermath of a chemical explosion of cataclysmic proportions in Cape Town. The story's protagonist and narrator, Lynn, is among the last to flee the city; she ends up alone at an abandoned highway petrol station. She sips Coke and eats crisps and waits passively – for a rescue team, for the will to try and escape, or for the (presumably) inevitable end. The story provides us with some clues as to her lack of motivation, although she remains enigmatic. This article offers a reading of ‘Poison’ that examines Lynn's apparent indifference to her fate and considers what it may represent. Her character is read metonymically in order to pose and, tentatively, answer certain questions. Does she stand for a particular kind of response to impending or actual catastrophe? Is it a common response, arguably one that is analogous to global responses to climate change and environmental degradation? How is it inflected by the privilege of whiteness? What might the race and class dynamics of an imagined post-apocalyptic community tell us about present social fault-lines in South Africa? Recruiting the diverse discourses of Shakespearean universality and Twitter hashtags towards a common end, the article investigates the relationship between whiteness and the ‘End Times’ – and finds in ‘Poison’ a critique of the ways in which imagined utopian and dystopian futures may perpetuate white privilege and the dominance of whiteness.