'Under extreme environmental pressure, characteristics were acquired': Epigenetics, Race and Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses

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Abstract

This article examines the role that literature might play in post-genomic
biology as it moves toward a complex, non-deterministic conception of
the gene. Epigenetics has overturned the notion of ‘the gene’ as discrete
entity with stable, determining effects. Instead, epigenetics reveals that
genes can change according to environmental circumstances and that
such changes can be passed on to offspring. This finding has far-reaching
implications for the concept of race. The effects of past environments – the
experience, for example, of slave ancestors – become embodied in health
disparities in the present, the genes carry a ‘memory’ of these experiences,
while creating new memories as they are affected by contemporary experiences
of racial inequality. This essay argues that literature can illuminate
our understanding of these emerging scientific insights. I explore how
Rushdie’s representation of the porous boundary between the body and
its wider environment in The Satanic Verses offers a mode of comprehending
the epigenetic effects of racism as the imagined (racist belief in the
inferiority of other races) made real (in apparently ‘racial’ biological characteristics), and how Rushdie’s interrogation of the relationship between the imaginary and reality reveals how fiction might be brought to bear on the
science of epigenetics.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)479-498
Number of pages20
JournalTextual Practice
Volume29
Issue number3
Early online date27 Apr 2015
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2015

Structured keywords

  • Centre for Black Humanities
  • Centre for Humanities Health and Science

Keywords

  • Race
  • Salman Rushdie
  • post-genomic biology
  • epigenetics
  • racism

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