‘The Walmart Book of the Dead’

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Growing up in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood Lucy Biederman had never been inside a Walmart

However, that didn’t stop her from having an opinion about the store or its customers.

“I thought, ‘Oh Walmart’-it’s such a fraught, weighted word,” Biederman said.

That opinion changed when Biederman, now a lecturer at Case Western Reserve University, moved to the rural south where Walmart was the only nearby store.

“It was almost a novelty to me, when I moved out to a more rural place and there was a Walmart-centric way of life. I thought this culture barrier that people talk about is so real. I’m living a completely different style of life now, and Walmart is a huge part of it,” Biederman said.

The more time she spent in Walmart, the more she came to see just what an integral role the store played in her community.

“It’s like this social, cultural, central hub, where you can do so many things.  It is a place to live and breathe and be. I think that when we make it a butt of jokes, especially when we’re urban people who do that, we tend to dehumanize people who live in rural areas for whom Walmart is this place to be human.  I realized that so immediately when I became one of these rural people.”

As she continued to shop at Walmart and observe its customers and employees, Biederman decided she wanted to write about what she had seen.  At the same time as part of her academic work, she was deeply engrossed in studying ancient Egyptian texts, including the “Book of the Dead.”  This collection of funerary texts and illustrations provide a guide with accompanying illustrations which contain spells to preserve the spirit of the deceased in the afterlife.

“The way Egyptians imagined death in their culture and society was something intimate and ever-present. I started thinking this is the way we use Walmart in our culture.  It’s central, imagined and yet it is this giant question mark. We imagine it more than we know about it. I thought it would be interesting to replace Walmart with death and see what happens, ” Biederman said.

Thus “The Walmart Book of the Dead” (Vine Leaves Press) was born.

The book features a collection of short chapters centered around characters who range from shoplifters to hustlers to children who want their parents to buy them things. These people are similar to the poor of ancient Egypt, who unable to afford the “Book of the Dead,” were left to wander the afterlife in a state of confusion. Biederman’s characters, unable to escape their financial circumstances, spend their afterlife in the tomb that is Walmart.

Biederman uses her characters to examine one of the book’s central issues: class.

“We really divide ourselves in this country and it is so easy to do. You don’t physically enter the spaces that people of other classes do and we make these micro-divisions, like ‘Oh, I go to Target, not Walmart.’  When you step back, those divisions are ridiculous.  They might be unreadable to later culture, an a way that ancient Egyptian social morays are unreadable to us,” Biederman said. 

As Biederman was working on the book, the 2016 Presidential election campaign was in full swing, which she said played a major role in how she conceived many of the characters.

“I began it thinking that a lot of my characters would have voted for (President) Trump. I felt kind of sorry for them because they were really putting their heart behind this candidate who was going to lose and then they’d really have no sway in the culture, and then-he won. I thought, ‘these characters have a power over me and I thought that I had this power over them.’ 

It showed me something about the power of fiction to be more real or to say something about what our culture is that I think that sometimes even journalism can’t tell us.”

Lucy Biederman will read from and talk about "The Walmart Book of the Dead" Tuesday January 9th at 7:00 pm as part of the "Brews and Prose" series at Market Garden Brewery

Hear Lucy's full conversation with ideastream's Dan Polletta




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