Artists and Climate Change

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Introducing our New Series on Indigenous Voices

By GiGi Buddie

Oftentimes, when we think about climate change, we think of it as a distant and “far removed from daily life” issue. Yet, while some of us have the luxury of not being affected by climate change in our everyday lives, others are not so lucky. On the frontline of the climate crisis are Indigenous communities. Whether here in the United States, or abroad in the rainforest of the Borneo jungle, the climate crisis has spread to all corners of the Earth, and has severely impacted the Indigenous groups that live with and on the land. 

This new series will focus on both the experiences and the work of Indigenous artists, and highlight Native narratives, history, traditions, art, and cultures that have been severely oppressed and almost wiped out. There are many mischaracterizations and misinformation about Indigneous cultures and people, and I will attempt to address these as I make my way through the series. As an Indigenous artist myself, I am honored to contribute to this platform and uplift the voices of a people that have long been silenced. 

My American Indian mother raised me to understand the past and present struggles of my people, and as a student very interested in climate justice, I simply cannot ignore the current and future struggles that Indigenous communities are facing. Our people did not suffer through, and survive colonization and genocide, to endure the lasting impacts colonizers had on this land. Understanding how Indigenous communities are being affected, and understanding their devastating histories, might lead us to think more sustainably about ways to repair our Earth and our relationship with those that have cared for it for millennia. Because of the urgency of our environmental crisis, we can neither afford to ignore the people, culture, traditions, and art that we will lose, nor can we refuse to take action.  

Colonization is, arguably, the starting point of today’s climate crisis. Native peoples viewed the land not as a commodity, as something to exploit, but rather as something that sustained them as they sustained it. Indigenous groups cared for the land and those who inhabited it, and worked to live in harmony and balance with their home. Colonization brought not only the removal of Indigenous groups from their native lands, but the exploitation of these lands for capitalistic gain. As societies of the New World were built, and as natural resources were stripped away, the balance that these Indigenous groups worked hard to protect and maintain was broken. 

After my first year of college, I was fortunate enough to research and assist on a play that was being developed, written by Isabelle Rogers and James Taylor. This Is A River tells the story of the Indigenous People of the Sarawak region of Borneo in Malaysia. I saw firsthand the detrimental effects of the climate crisis and how it was severely impacting the Kayan, Kenyah, and Penan people. Because of the lack of attention these pressing issues receive in the U.S., it had been easy for me to distance myself from them. But as we made our way downriver, with the beautiful, lush, green rainforest surrounding us and a vibrant soundscape pulsing with life filling our ears, only to then see entire hillsides of rainforest destroyed and stripped in front of our eyes, I felt no longer removed from the issue. It was laid out before me, and I couldn’t look away. And although you may never float down the Baram river, or speak with the incredible Indigenous communities that call that land their home, I ask you to not look away. I ask you to listen to the empowering artists that are part of this series, and to work to create a safe and sustainable world for all.

The artists that will be featured here have not only worked to create a space for Indigenous voices and art, but often address mischaracterizations, retell narratives, and advocate for social and political change. Artists like Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, who has changed the face of hip-hop while using his art as a medium to talk about environmental issues and Indigenous conservation, is a prime example. As he explains in his My Story section on his website:

My music is both a tool for resistance, and a medium to tell my story. My dad taught me that all life is sacred. When I was a little boy, we would always talk about our responsibility to protect our land, our culture, our earth as Indigenous people. These teachings are the foundation of the music I write and the things I fight for.

At just 20 years old, Martinez is the youth director of Earth Guardians, a worldwide conservation organization. He has spoken at the United Nations several times, and regularly uses his voice and platform to talk about the effects of fossil fuels on the Indigenous and other marginalized communities. There are many other Indigenous artists who are creating small waves of change and telling their own stories. They may not be as well known, but their voices deserve to be heard. 

It is my hope that this series will create space for these Indigenous voices – the same voices that are undeniably important for the climate conversation. We may not live on our homelands anymore, but our relationship to the Earth runs far deeper than the land we have been taken away from. It is my belief that we all have something to learn from the traditional Indigenous ways of caring for the Earth, and of creating a safe world for our children and grandchildren. 

Over the next few months, I will be sharing my interviews with various Indigenous artists from around the world. We must listen to learn, and through this process I know I will absorb knowledge that I hope I can pass on to you. Aheeiyeh, my friends.

(Top image: Native Americans march to the site of a sacred burial ground that was disturbed by bulldozers building the Dakota Access Pipeline on September 4, 2016 near Cannon Ball, North Dakota. Downloaded from CNN.com.)

This article is part of the Indigenous Voices series.

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GiGi Buddie is an American Indian artist and student studying theatre, with an emphasis in acting, at Pomona College. Whether it be through acting or working in tech, GiGi has dedicated much of her life to the theatre. In the summer of 2019, her passion for art and environmental justice took her to the Baram River in Malaysian Borneo where she, alongside Pomona professors, researched the environmental crisis and how it has been affecting the Indigenous groups that live along the river. As a result of her experience researching and traveling, she student-produced the Pomona College event for Climate Change Theatre Action during the fall 2019 semester.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Wild Authors: Jessica Cory

By Mary Woodbury

Having spent a great amount of time in the Appalachian Mountains as a child (you can read more here), when I came across the anthology Mountains Piled Upon Mountains: Appalachian Nature Writing in the Anthropocene, I was immediately convinced I needed to read this book. I wasn’t wrong. I fell into days of remembering the rivers, the coal miners, the pine trees, the isolation, the sometimes loneliness, the echos, the wildlife, the mountain people on old front porches who used to frighten me as a child but whom I am now fascinated by – and everything else I experienced when younger.  You could say that this book transcends time in a way, as it recognizes our current ecological crises, but it also brought me home.

ABOUT THE BOOK

Mountains Piled upon Mountains (West Virginia University Press, 2019) features nearly fifty writers from across Appalachia, including Indigenous voices, sharing their place-based fiction, literary nonfiction, and poetry. Moving beyond the tradition of transcendental nature writing, much of the work collected here engages current issues facing the region and the planet (such as hydraulic fracturing, water contamination, mountaintop removal, and deforestation), and provides readers with insights on the human-nature relationship in an era of rapid environmental change.

This book includes a mix of new and recent creative work by established and emerging authors. The contributors write about experiences from northern Georgia to upstate New York, invite parallels between a watershed in West Virginia and one in North Carolina, and often emphasize connections between Appalachia and more distant locations. In the pages of Mountains Piled upon Mountains are celebration, mourning, confusion, loneliness, admiration, and other emotions and experiences rooted in place but transcending Appalachia’s boundaries.

CHAT WITH THE EDITOR

I’m so grateful to Jessica, the anthology’s editor, for speaking with me about the book.

Mountains Piled upon Mountains is an absolutely breathtaking collection of powerful poems, fiction, and creative essays that bring a new level of understanding to readers about the culture and placed-based natural landscape – and the environmental concerns – of the Appalachian area. How did this book come about, and how did you find the authors?

The idea for the collection started when I was living in Greenville, North Carolina, actually. Here I was, living in the flatlands and I was pretty homesick for the mountains. So I started reading some nature writing from the region. George Ellison has a couple of volumes that are really fantastic, and there are some other wonderful collections that represent the Appalachian connection with nature as well. But what I noticed was that all of the collections I found were quite regional. And I understand why, because the topography in one area of Appalachia is often far different than the topography in another area, but I suppose, as someone who lived at times in various parts of Appalachia, I wanted to read something that covered the entirety of the region. I was encouraged by a handful of friends and mentors (my husband John, good friend Carrie Hodge, and long-time mentor Amritjit Singh, who teaches at Ohio University) to propose such a book to presses.

In order to find authors, I put out a call for proposals, a later modified call for proposals, and solicited some authors directly. When submissions began coming in, I was floored. So many wonderful, talented writers whom I didn’t even know were trusting me with their phenomenal work! To say I was honored is the understatement of the century.

It’s certainly phenomenal; I’m on my second read. I’m curious about your experiences in the Appalachian region. Can you share some of your favorite or worst times? What about the area speaks to your heart?

I’m from southeastern Ohio, equidistant from West Virginia and Kentucky, so many of my memories are from that region, though I now live in another part of Appalachia, western North Carolina. One of my favorite memories from my current region is when I lived in Spruce Pine, in a little house way back in the woods. We had a deck that wrapped around half the house and the land had a massive coyote population. In the late spring and early summer, the adult coyotes would come up almost to the deck and teach their pups to howl. I stayed inside, of course, so as not to scare them, but I would sit in my living room and listen to them for hours.

In Ohio, I would often hike (and still do, when I visit) the trails at Buzzard’s Roost in Chillicothe, as well as the many trails in Hocking Hills State Park and surrounding area, especially Conkle’s Hollow. There’s something in the air there. I don’t know if it’s the moss in the shade or what, but it just smells differently, almost more pure. I haven’t found that scent anywhere else.

As far as some of my worst times, I often think more of environmental detriments rather than personal challenges, simply because the latter seem less tied to location, as least for me. I grew up hearing stories about the pollution of the Ohio River and other waterways in the area from my dad, who worked on the railroad for about ten years, changing employment shortly after I was born. He used to tell me how the paper mill in Chillicothe would pay to have its employees’ cars repainted after whatever came out of the stacks ate the clearcoat and paint off their cars, because paying to have cars painted was cheaper than changing what they were doing. The air quality has gotten a lot better now, though. And when I read that the Bureau of Land Management had auctioned off part of Wayne National Forest to be used for hydraulic fracturing a couple years ago, I was pretty devastated.

I used to smell something really fresh like that in Eastern Kentucky, and I haven’t been able to find it since. You are the first person I’ve ever come across who has described that.

The book title is in reference to William Bartram’s Travels – early writing about the Appalachians. What about his memoir influenced Mountains Piled Upon Mountains?

For starters, Bartram’s Travels is some of the oldest Appalachian nature writing known, at least by someone of European descent. Obviously the Indigenous communities who first lived here (and in some places, still do) had narratives about the land as well, but those may not be as well known, especially if they weren’t recorded.

Bartram’s work was inspirational in the fact that he wasn’t exploring in order to exploit. Nearly all of the early explorers, especially those from Europe, but also from other areas, came with the goal to conquer, exploit, commit genocide, and claim the land and people for their own. Bartram was a rare exception to that. He was just curious and wanted to pass along what he felt to be the “truth.” I use quotes because, as we know, the idea of truth is always relative, but it does seem that his motives were not self-serving and malevolent.

The book’s stories capture individual and community spirit, emotions, and upsets in the quickly changing face of the mountain ecology – in regards to hydraulic fracking, mountaintop coal removal, deforestation, water contamination, and so on. Environmental concerns include human health concerns, and in this area, it’s been the case for decades. What is the community’s reaction to the anthology?

So far, I haven’t received any hate mail. Overall, I think that even communities whose economic stability depends on degradation of the environment are aware of the impact to the land and the planet. Often, people are just trying to care for their families, and I don’t think we can fault anyone for that. Many of the readings thus far have been in western North Carolina, where mountaintop removal and hydraulic fracturing aren’t active, so I think that helps. Though readings outside of the area have gone smoothly as well. I think a lot of that has to do with the audiences being open to the ideas in the book.

People around the world will also relate to this book as they find themselves in similar situations, where natural resources are taken out of the ground, despite threatening the health of all living things in the area. What we’re seeing in the Amazon rainforests or the Canadian oil sands, for instance, is similar. Do you have any thoughts about this? In your mind, how does creative literature help culture?

I have lots of thoughts on international exploitation of natural resources, but I think what I’d like to most emphasize is the way in which this exploitation is always intrinsically linked with how the corporations and people in charge view those people who inhabit the lands being exploited. Because it’s never just about the land. This is why Indigenous groups worldwide are some of the most severely affected by climate change and environmental exploitation. We’re seeing this currently with the burning of the Amazon, but we can also look closer to home with uranium mining on Navajo land, and similar crises in other Native communities.

I’m not saying this to minimize the plight of Appalachians, however. After all, it’s been argued before that Appalachians have been victim to a sort of colonization as well, the region’s inhabitants being seen as “other” by mainstream America and discriminated against. While the notion of colonization of Appalachia differs in many ways from other hallmarks of colonization (I’m actually writing an article about this at the moment), the region’s inhabitants have certainly experienced precarity at the hands of exploitation and its associated capitalism.

To address the second part of this question, literature reflects the culture it’s created within, so it can serve as a mirror, which can then cause introspection and eventually, change. Creative literature also typically reaches a much wider readership, spreading awareness in a way that an article in an obscure journal might not, which increases the chances that change can occur. In addition to being a mirror and reflecting culture, it seems plausible that literature can shape culture, or give voice to ideas that have been oppressed or repressed, expanding our ideas of culture and possibility.

I agree. In August, I was listening to a podcast that covered Kentucky coal miners blocking a coal train in order to protest their former employer, due in part to being laid off. There’s sort of the stereotype of the unaware blue-collar worker (backwoods “redneck”), but actually people in the Appalachian areas are often working in the only jobs available. And they’re completely aware of the dangers and not at all the monolith of talking, looking, acting the same (as I read your description from Western Virginia University). How does the book speak to that?

Oh, yes, the Blackjewel miners’ protest! One of the things that really struck me about the protests was the way in which the community rallied around them. People brought food, cornhole boards, lawn chairs, and really just supported the miners in what they were doing.

And you’re right in that people are often working the jobs that best support them and their families. Many people know the dangers, but often that’s the risk they take for the reward. Appalachian people are often known for pride, and these difficult choices reflect that.

One of my hopes for the collection is to highlight the differences in the region, and really to build onto the larger body of work, both creative and scholarly, that strives to break down these stereotypes by letting Appalachian writers tell their own stories in their own words, including portraying Appalachian people in ways that fight against the time-worn caricatures.

There’s quite a bit of literature and music creatively exploring the same issues as this book. For instance, I’ve been fond of the band Rising Appalachia as well as author Barbara Kingsolver. Do you have any favorite artists participating in making this area come alive for others?

I absolutely LOVE Rising Appalachia and got to see them perform a couple years ago with Ani DiFranco at the LEAF Community Arts Festival in Black Mountain, North Carolina. It was magical! I also really enjoy Barbara Kingsolver’s work, particularly Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I’m always striving to be more self-sufficient and I think she does a great job in that book demonstrating how that can be achieved in a variety of ways. Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture is certainly a classic when it comes to farming in Appalachia.

I also often look at intersections of identity and environment. Some wonderful writers who are addressing these intersections of sexuality and environment include the phenomenal poets Savannah Sipple, author of WWJD and Other Poems, and Nickole Brown, especially in her recent chapbook To Those Who Were Our First Gods. doris davenport and Susan Deer Cloud, who are both featured in this collection, explore the intersections of race and environment in Appalachia, as does, of course, bell hooks. In addition to hooks, scholar Karida Brown in her book Gone Home and Crystal Wilkinson, particularly in Birds of Opulence, bring together environment and race, as does Marilou Awiakta, whose work is just phenomenal.

I’m also a huge Ron Rash fan, and I’m not just saying that because he’s a colleague. I love the way he incorporates environmental issues into his larger plots, for instance in Serena with deforestation and in One Foot in Eden with Jocassee Dam. Ann Pancake, who is in the collection and whom I was able to talk with for some additional scholarly research, is another fave for much the same reason I love Ron’s work. She’s very much an activist-writer who’s quite attuned to environmental issues.

As for music, doris recently invited me to attend a 100 Thousand Poets for Change event that she organized with her friend Joanne Steele. There were several poets and musicians who shared their talents, including Joanne, who wrote and performed some wonderful songs focusing on environmental and cultural concerns, including a song about children harvesting coffee beans, which was heartbreaking. I do love a good protest song, even if it’s not specifically Appalachian or environmental.

That’s interesting about the 100 Thousand Poets for Change event, as Michael Rothenberg (who founded the world-wide event) and I have been good friends for decades, and I have done many similar events in Vancouver, British Columbia. Just goes to show that the artist movement in the Anthropocene is really world-wide and yet so important locally. Thanks for all these great recommendations and for taking the time to provide such insightful answers.

This article is part of our Wild Authors series. It was originally published on Dragonfly.eco.

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Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change(Routledge). Mary lives in Nova Scotia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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‘The Animal that Adapts to Burning Houses:’ An Interview with Poet Trace DePass

By Imara-rose Glymph

Trace Howard DePass, author of Self-portrait as the space between us (PANK Books, 2018), editor for Scholastic’s Best Teen Writing of 2017, and 2016 Queens Teen Poet Laureate, is a kaleidoscopic wonder to behold. 

I had the pleasure of being a live Zoom studio audience member for the 2020 Climate Speaks performance, a youth poetry event organized by DePass in which 16 young writers embraced nuance to passionately and clearly convey their emotional responses to climate change. Trace initiated this fellowship as the 2018-2020 program coordinator of Climate Speaks with The Climate Museum.

In this interview, we break down Trace‘s unique rhythm, his poetic upbringing in vibrant Queens in New York City, and discuss what eco-poetry truly means. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You enjoy experimenting with the percussive, incorporating beatbox and drumming into the rhythm of your poetry. As a wearer of many hats, how were you drawn to the worlds of environmental justice and climate poetry? 

I’m in an open relationship with poetry: poems are my muse, the thing that gets me through each day. I freestyle them in the shower, write them with pen on paper, though sometimes I let the ideas ruminate for years. There has always been an element of science and mathematics in my poems – those are big drivers for me. I enjoy thinking about how to concretize mathematics and science in different kinds of colloquial and abstract ways. To see how I incorporate beatboxing into prose, check out the video for my piece filmed by Smuggler, “Band-aids & other temporary healings,” which interrogates the supposed healing nature of verse.

I was first influenced by my great-grandfather, Howard DePass, who I’m named after. He wrote a book of poems titled Bridges (1977). It’s the only thing I have left of him; he died before I was born. Howard was a father of three children when he authored this book, so there is a beautiful matriarchal and patriarchal theme present. There is one particular piece that could be considered climate poetry, called “Why Willows Weep,” in traditional ABAB rhyme. The last two lines are my favorites of all time, because he places nature and law into the same note.

But like a forfeiting attorney 
The willow stands and weeps

Ultimately, the poem is about beauty and weeping; the contrast heightens the message. 

While editing for Scholastic’s Best Teen Writing of 2017, I read an essay titled “No Sacrifice People: Ableism, the Climate Crisis, and Dehumanization” by J. Astrian Horsburgh. She broke down the abled and disabled body’s relationship to the climate crisis – highlighting where sacrifice zones for disabled people are designated in the case of nuclear fallout or natural disaster. As a person with MS, J. Astrian would not be able to receive medicine herself during a natural disaster; it would physically harm her to do so. It blew my mind, propelling me to think of the translation to discriminatory design in Black and Brown neighborhoods in cities like New Orleans and Queens. I was inspired to take classes on institutional racism, micro-aggression, intentional branding, and the history of food deserts. I do not separate these issues from climate change. They affect me personally: my grandmother and father have COVID-19, living in planned areas ravaged by Hurricane Sandy and other tropical storms.

Being raised by my grandmother, I was suddenly confronted with the reality of her mortality. It was extremely hard to get food during quarantine as the grocery lines in our hood were long and densely packed. We ordered delivery for the whole month of April because I could not risk going outside for her health. The same places where the coronavirus hit the hardest are those environmental sacrifice zones intertwined with environmental racism.

Bridges (1977) by Howard DePass

How was your collaboration with the Climate Museum born? How has the shift from in-person to online affected your teaching?

I formed part of a group of three youth poets and three youth climate activists who were flown to Utah to perform a 15-minute poem in choreo-style to get environmental venture capitalists to feel passionate by appealing to the emotional side of the crisis. Our director, Karl, was not able to come with us so I took up the responsibility of caring for the participants. Climate Speaks came out of this work. The Climate Museum took notice of my leadership ability as a teaching artist and realized how much I could do with the right resources. They hired me as an artist-in-residence in December 2018. Miranda, the director, is a former civil rights lawyer who fought for affirmative action at the Supreme Court level. I respect her and the Climate Museum a lot for the fact that they are not just any regular institution; they really do care about the community. 

This is our second year of programming Climate Speaks and if not for the pandemic, the performance would have been held at the Schomburg Library. We adapted to be online. Theatre does not always have the same team-building effect when translated to Zoom because we don’t share physical space. I was able to transition some of the ensemble building but tech does not create the group dynamic that we experienced in person. Despite this challenge, all of the kids really supported one another in their vision.

We spoke about the destruction of Black and Brown neighborhoods, such as the community of Far Rockaway, during Hurricane Sandy by climate-induced flooding, and your personal connection to this event. Why is environmental justice, with the involvement and leadership of BIPOC, so important, especially when it comes to food deserts and inaccessible green open spaces?

I’m from the south side of Jamaica, Queens, where I grew up in an incredibly diverse pivotal voting block, surrounded by Black, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Guyanese, Indian, and Trinidadian people. Similar to the south side of Chicago, gun violence, drought, famine, concentrated housing projects, and the prevalence of food deserts have wrecked my community. When COVID-19 swept through, people were dying everywhere. The coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter riots affected us in a way not mutually exclusive from the climate crisis. 

Queens, despite being a cultural hub with the highest percentage of Black homeowners and the largest number of spoken languages, is heavily under-resourced and lacking in radical political organizing. Harlem and Brooklyn are far more consistent and well-known for that kind of activism. From the Black Panther era going forward, Queens’ organizers were displaced and political corruption ran rampant. Many poets have migrated away; I am one of the only people still organizing and bringing Council members together with artists. I became tied to a lot of spiritual, poetic, and artistic forms outside of institutional teaching because of the rich African dance theatre tradition in Queens. I feel very confident in my skills and my blackness because of where I grew up, but life is hard out here. When it rains, it floods. I try to focus my work on these parcels of experience. The climate crisis is here. It is urgent to use it to amplify the other social justice conversations – the climate is the one intersection where we all relate.

What is the difference between eco-poetry and climate poetry? 

There is a need for a specific kind of pedagogy around the climate conversation and poetry for further mobilizing. What we aim to do is separate climate poetry from eco-poetics so as to objectively address the roots of the climate crisis. We don’t want to focus so much on being an eco-movement. We don’t want to co-opt environmental poetry but we also can’t have a completely disembodied climate poetic not grounded in the Earth. How can we actually communicate climate in a poem rather than grapple with metaphysical themes? This negotiation is tricky for me as a Black and Indigenous person, having Shinnecock tribal affiliation by way of my great-grandmama.

How do we address the root causes of the climate crisis without being too anthropomorphic? I wrote a climate poem for the American Poetry Journal showcasing how I am struggling with anthropomorphism. It’s called “The animal that adapts to burning houses,” inspired by one of Martin Luther King’s only in-color interviews where he illuminated that he feared he was integrating his people into a burning house. It is written in honor of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Dr. King, and the south side. 

“The animal that adapts to burning houses” by Trace DePass

How did you use perspective, style, and structure to amplify the message of that poem? Does it relate to the Black ancestral tie to the land, the flora, and the fauna? Is this resonance something that influences your craft?

My poem is a sonnet that reckons with individualism, with “ram” as a metaphysical conceit. There are many definitions of ram: ram as a boat, as a physical act, an image of a goat or satan, or random access memory on your phone. All these definitions within one word carry throughout the entire poem. Ram can be anthropomorphized as toxic masculinity and as the memory of the human race. 

To give more context on the symbolism used, Habakkuk is a prophet from the Old Testament who questioned God – a social justice warrior for his day. There’s a whole chapter in which he questions God but receives no concrete answers, leaving only more questions. That ending was profound for me.

A hypercube is a four-dimensional cube. A tesseract, in other words. Tesseracts can only be perceived within the fifth dimension – they take up that much dimension. Human beings live within it. I see this creation as an interaction with God or whichever divine entities exist out in the universe.

While there are lyrical moments in this poem, I am deliberately saying that there is no metaphor. There is an actual calf. There is no human cheese. It sounds hyperbolic when in fact, I am simultaneously being hyper-literal and meta. I am giving my Black human context through the lens of an animal so that the audience can relate no matter their background. The challenge of climate poetry specifically is to figure out how to rely on clear communication, not solely poetic devices, within the poem to push the conversation forward.

There can be an unnerving nature of pleasantry in many interviews; I appreciate your raw honesty. Do you feel pressure or expectation to write on themes of identity, trauma, and oppression as a Black artist? 

Many black poets – I think of Phillip Williams and Jericho Brown – share a certain queer aesthetic and convey sensuality despite the triggering nature that our prose can take on. There is a consciousness in that. Even my work, rooted in affirmation, alludes to sexual violence, toxic masculinity, and the interrogation of more nuanced abusive relationships that don’t involve only men. 

However, there is so much discussion nowadays around what “the work” constitutes. While I’m happy for people of all races to be doing this supposed “work,” the phrase honestly aggravates me. Black people do not need to be held so hyper-accountable for this all the time. We are not given even five minutes to just exist as human beings without being framed for complicity and perpetuation of stereotypes. 

I have to code-switch. I try to speak in a way where everyone can receive me, which is why I curse less in front of the children. I teach poetic form in a way that can be pulled apart using any kind of intelligence, be it from the street, physical, or within a school. This is why my poems are really long, often presented in weird sonnets that use arrows, dashes, and spaces. I like to come up with more and more ways to reiterate and evolve material. When we focus on certain literary devices instead of truth in meaning, we lose out on a lot of teaching. 

What does the future hold for you? 

I plan on doing the same things I’ve been doing all year: investing in my communities, continuing my work on climate art with the Climate Museum, and collaborating with Urban Word NYC. Before the coronavirus switched up my whole schematic, I was going to be one of Scholastic’s first teaching artists. I am also a part of the Community Word Project, which pairs writers with multidisciplinary artists to educate kids in New York City. I’ve even taught virtually for New York University. That was especially wild because I was teaching at the college level without a degree! I never want to be an academic. Underground grassroots organizations contributed a lot more to my growth as an artist, thinker, and educator. 

Tell the BIPOC and queer kids you know to apply for the Scholastic and Climate Museum art and writing programs. The majority of people applying for these opportunities are young white girls; this demographic needs to change! The Climate Museum, although not incredibly diverse, is definitely dedicated to increasing representation across different sexual orientations, gender expressions, and identities.

This article is part of our Black Artists & Storytellers series.

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Imara-rose Glymph is a student at Bennington College pursuing an interdisciplinary degree looking at multi-cultural identity, language, biology/ecology, and performative arts. Most recently, she was a media fellow with Global Citizen Year, documenting Indigenous Women’s agricultural stewardship, and a representative of Intersectional Outreach with Extinction Rebellion. She has been involved in the climate conversation since leading youth delegations in the GIN 852 conference Hong Kong, organizing bio-tours of mangrove conservation areas, and guiding students as an Arctic Hall Docent with the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. 

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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‘Compassion in Crisis’: An Interview with Kailea Frederick

By Imara-rose Glymph

Plant your feet in fresh dirt, breathe deep the gift of oxygen, sense the cool wind tickle your nape; you are, in this moment, rooted. In the midst of the climate crisis, how are we cultivating a tangible, regenerative kinship with Mother Earth in our daily lives? This is where Spiritual Ecology comes in as a framework for healing and bridge-building, making place for oneself in gratitude for the natural world.

Kailea Frederick is a First Nations mother dedicated to supporting individuals in remembering their personal ties to the Earth. Growing up off-grid in Maui, Hawai’i forever imprinted on her the importance of reciprocity and cultivating intimate ties to Honua, our island Earth. In this interview, Kailea shares her work on climate justice, spiritual ecology, and resilience thinking, and describes how motherhood has influenced her practice. 

Currently, Kailea is the editor for Loam, and a climate commissioner for the City of Petaluma, California. Earth is `Ohana is her brainchild – an online integrative space offering writing, consulting, and the facilitation of workshops focused on our reconnected relationship with Earth to address our environmental reality.

Kailea Frederickphoto by Adam Loften.

What first drew you to the realm of climate activism? How did your experience as a graduate of the International Youth Initiative Program and as a Maui youth delegate to two United Nations Climate Change Conferences enrich and inspire your environmental leadership?

In 2011, when I was 19 years old, I entered into the slow food movement, which became an access point into food justice and ultimately food sovereignty. That year, I started working on a local farm that I would end up being at for the next six years. Most of my friends were young farmers or practiced some other form of subsistence. I grew up in the Hawaiian islands, where there are estimates that 80% to 90% of all food is imported, so the topic of food sovereignty is something you inherently understand due to the fragility of the whole system. Growing up, I would always hear talk about what would happen if the ships were to stop coming. During this time, I saw a huge transition in mindset and awareness around this issue. 

I became politicized through the local food movement. Once you start talking about food, you have to start talking about water. I was introduced to the fight for local water rights that Native Hawaiians have been engaged in. Many streams have had their water flow cut off, which previously fed into their lo`i, the area where they would grow their kalo or taroKalo is one of the main staple foods; the act of growing and preparing it is both a cultural and spiritual practice, as well as a means of survival. This brought me into learning from and supporting the Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement. I learned that when you fight for Native self-determination, you actually fight for regenerative stewardship practices. Native people globally know how to respectfully manage and tend to land. 

In 2014, I graduated from the International Youth Initiative Program (YIP) and upon arriving home on the island of Maui, a campaign called the SHAKA movement was just getting underway. This was my formal initiation into the world of activism; previously I would never have described myself as an activist. SHAKA had put together a ballot initiative for that year’s elections that would place a moratorium on biochemical companies like Monsanto utilizing our land for experimental testing until we, the citizens, had an opportunity to hire our own scientists to check if their testing was safe. It was a huge community education endeavor, in which I spent time working on the youth arm of outreach and moderated the main Facebook page. We ended up winning the ballot initiative but failed to vote in the people who would defend the bill. That in itself was a huge lesson for me, one I am still addressing today through my work as a climate commissioner in the city of Petaluma. Never overlook or underestimate the power of local politics. 

My experience at YIP was months fresh and directly played into my active participation. YIP, as a program, is focused on project development, collaboration, and conflict resolution. The experience gave me the courage and skills to take an idea, implement it, and learn how to navigate work within complex group dynamics. 

In 2014 and 2015, I was a youth delegate to the UN Climate Change Conferences (COP21 & COP22). These experiences provided my first glimpse into the international climate justice movement, with an emphasis on building solidarity across Native rights and fights against extractive industry. I learned about movement building, media creation, and on the ground action, while getting a taste for what policy spaces hold. 

Kailea reads to her son, photo by Adam Loften.

You were a spiritual ecology fellow with Kalliopeia, a foundation that supports initiatives interweaving spirituality, culture, and ecology. Describe how Earth is ‘Ohana came out of that immersive fellowship.

The fellowship tasked us with coming up with a few projects to workshop as the program was oriented around incubation. I applied and was accepted based on previous ideas, and then went to COP21. It was because of that intensive experience being on the streets of Paris that the idea for Earth Is `Ohana came about. I wanted to figure out a way to bring this experience home for my community. I piloted the project for 10 weeks with a few participants in the spring of 2016 before I started the fellowship in the summer. In nine more months, it was fleshed out even further. In some ways, the prompt of the fellowship supported me in thinking more deeply about what I wanted to create, but the project itself came directly out of other lived experiences and my desire to better serve my communities through grassroots education. 

I’m currently in the midst of broadening Earth Is `Ohana into a space that is about offering my specific services through facilitation, consulting, and writing, while still remaining fixed on addressing the intersections between climate justice, spiritual ecology, and resilience thinking. 

Drawing on a guiding question from the Earth Is `Ohana workshops, “How do we practice returning home to our landscapes in order to regenerate our relationship with Earth?” Why is this re-imagining of activism so essential?

The practice of placemaking is a core part of understanding yourself as part of a specific ecology and social system. It’s important work that helps to ground us in a story of self that transcends the usual linear notions of success and instead brings us into relational interdependence. This type of placemaking is not generally part of the mainstream environmentalist movement and often leaves us working on a shallow level instead of addressing issues at the systemic level. I didn’t fully understand this having grown up in such a small community, embedded so directly in the landscape that raised me. Naively, I thought that most of us carried this level of personal relationship to land and community. Stepping into climate activist spaces away from Hawai’i was a huge culture shock; one that I’m still learning to navigate. It became obvious to me that we would need to re-imagine how we practice activism so that we are able to sustain this work for the long arc of life. Burnout is a prevalent problem that doesn’t allow our movements to retain long-term investment from individuals, but beyond the logistics of losing people, burning out is also a spiritual problem. When we invite people into a culture of practice that depletes the inner self, we’re mimicking aspects of the extractive industry we’re fighting. 

How do intersectionality and interpersonal communication come into your practice, especially as a person who identifies as womxn, First Nations, and African American – those groups on the frontlines of the climate crisis?

Because I am a mother, because I am Black, because I am First Nations, because I grew up in the Hawaiian Islands, because I have a parent who works in the extractive industry, because I currently live in a predominately white city, my work must always remain intersectional and therefore inclusive. I have known all of my life that I carry within me, just by the nature of who I am, many bridges to often divergent worlds and people. In the course of my 29 years on Earth, I’ve interacted, lived among, and been in kinship with many different types of people. My privilege is intersectionality as a lived experience in my own bones, and I say this because it has made me grow capacity and perspective. It is an ever-expanding lens that allows me to see and hold connections that might not be obvious to most, which also means it’s one of my greatest responsibilities, making those connections for others. My vision is that, one day, our larger social, political, and environmental movements will work in greater cohesion through understanding the intricate ways they are interwoven. Less divisiveness, more nuance, that’s my prayer. 

Kailea and her son amid palms, photo by Adam Loften.

In collaboration with Kate Wiener of Loam magazine, you released your first book, Compassion in Crisisbraiding together interviews and resources for learning to live in the Anthropocene. What was that process like? Has motherhood influenced your perception of life in these times of social, political, and environmental instability?

The process of birthing Compassion in Crisis alongside Kate was a fruitful experience. When we initially started the project, I told Kate I wanted to write about death. I’ve thought about the closeness of death every day since becoming a mother. As soon as you start growing a child, you realize how precious and vulnerable life is. I went through pregnancy half in awe and half in fear over this new life I was suddenly responsible for. This was heightened as a few days after I found out that I was pregnant, a town 20 minutes from my house lost whole neighborhoods to a wildfire. Not more than a month after my son was born, wildfire season started early. This was 2018 and we spent several weeks in the second half of that year living beneath smothering smoke that was incredibly hazardous to my newborn’s lungs. I grappled daily with debilitating fear. I was scared to go to sleep because I was worried a fire would break out in our town at night. My partner and I made detailed plans about what an escape would look like, who would carry the baby’s body, who would carry our dog. 

Compassion in Crisis was created from that place of anxiety. It was a project that helped me re-learn how to breathe again, as through the research and the interviews I really confronted and got intimate with the grief and possibility that surrounded disaster. I draw frequently on those materials as a way to help me keep showing up to the world we’re living in. As a parent, I think that’s all I can do. Keep showing up honestly. 

What are you envisioning and what are you hopeful for in the future? 

Recently I’ve been feeling hope through embarking on new conversations with friends and acquaintances who up until very recently have not considered themselves political. It has been affirming to me to receive questions about where and how to plug in, and even more enlivening when new faces actually show up! I feel like our movement spaces are gaining traction and the greater public is becoming familiar with specific demands being set forth. Ideas that just a few months ago would have been considered radical by most, like reparations, are suddenly catching on. Seeing others around me critically think, and deepening my own critical thinking capabilities, brings me a lot of hope! We’re sharpening our minds and that gets me excited. 

I’m about to have a piece published on the Center for Humans and Nature website as part of their section called “Resilient Future Questions.” The theme I’m working with is belonging. My essay is a vulnerable one, as it touches on some of the thoughts and feelings I had while waiting to find out the skin color of my child while I was pregnant. In 2018, one of my friends challenged me to not “be afraid to write ugly.” I spent all of last year slowly inching my way towards this concept of ugly writing, which I understand as deeper truth writing. This year, 2020, my goal was to fully step into this ugly writing, and this piece definitely touches on those parts of myself that I would consider unpleasant, yet deserve to be seen as much as the more palatable parts of myself. Because I’m mixed, and because my mixed child is white-passing, I feel particularly dedicated to widening space for us mixed people to inhabit. The middle space, which is ultimately a bridge space, is never easy to inhabit, yet we need to bridge people now more than ever. I’ll be sharing it when it goes live on my Instagram, which is the best way to stay tuned to my work and collaborative projects.

In closing, here is Remembering Back Into Ourselves with Kailea Frederick from For The Wild‘s Deeply Rooted, a nourishing poetry reading and guided meditation, cultivating wellness and fostering resilience.

(Top image: Kailea Frederick with her son, photo by Adam Loften)

This article is part of our Black Artists & Storytellers series.

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Imara-rose Glymph is a student at Bennington College pursuing an interdisciplinary degree looking at multi-cultural identity, language, biology/ecology, and performative arts. Most recently, she was a media fellow with Global Citizen Year, documenting Indigenous Women’s agricultural stewardship, and a representative of Intersectional Outreach with Extinction Rebellion. She has been involved in the climate conversation since leading youth delegations in the GIN 852 conference Hong Kong, organizing bio-tours of mangrove conservation areas, and guiding students as an Arctic Hall Docent with the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. 

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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In Conversation with Actor, Singer, and Director Velina Brown

By Imara-rose Glymph

I’m delighted to bring you this refreshing interview with San Francisco-based, award-winning actor, singer, director, San Francisco Mime Troupe (SFMT) collective member, and drama professor Velina Brown. Since graduating with a degree in counseling from San Francisco State University, Velina has combined these skills to develop her life and career coaching services through The Business of Show Biz. She also contributes as a monthly columnist to the Theater Bay Area Magazine.

Velina was a principal actor in the 2013 SFMT musical satire Oil & Water, speaking truth to power about the corporate, extractivism fueled, environmental devastation of the Ecuadorian Amazon and the lives of its residents – both human and nonhuman. In this interview, we explore theatre as a platform for socio-political and environmental activism, the revolutionary ethos of the Mime Troupe, and why intersectionality is at the heart of it all. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You have been a collective member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe for 21 years and been involved in over 27 productions. What first drew you to political satire, which the troupe employs?

What first drew me to wanting to work with the company was a show called Seeing Double (1989). If you heard our recent radio plays, Tales of the Resistance, the song that finishes the first episode, “Jade For Hire,” is from this comedy of errors about the Israel-Palestine relationship and the two-state solution. One of my classmates in the Counseling Department at San Francisco State, the late Emily Shihadeh, was one of the main writers for the show. Her family was forced out of the home that had been in their possession for 130 years when the state of Israel was created. My husband was a lead actor, having joined the troupe in 1988, but I didn’t get involved until 1992. When I first saw the show, I was really impressed by the blend of educational and interactive entertainment.

Velina Brown

I learned a lot about what was going on in the Middle East from this source because at the time, the discussions people were having were simply, “It’s complicated.” It was a huge project; they went onsite to Israel and Palestine, playing both sides of the bank even though it was potentially dangerous (they received threats for presenting controversial material). There were perspectives contributed from Israelis, Palestinians, Jewish-Americans, and Palestinian-Americans, which represented a broad viewpoint. I was really moved by the powerful combination of witty, humorous scripts, spectacular performance, and music into a holistic package that impacted people’s consciousness and awareness of the world. What started as a one-time experience turned into a thirty-year adventure of mine.

Tell us a bit more about the mission and inner-workings of the Mime Troupe. There is great emphasis on a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multigenerational, democratic vision to unite people across boundaries with artistry and humor. How does this influence the process of making?

People come into the collective with specific skills to contribute. Over time, other talents are developed and expanded to different areas. Our head writer, Michael Gene Sullivan, has 32 years of experience acting and 20 years of experience directing and writing with the troupe. The last head writer, Joan Holden, had a 33-year involvement. With 11 members, the troupe determines democratically what material will function for the next season. Newer member, Marie Cartier, collaborates in writing the clever commercial skits. Daniel Savio, our composer/lyricist, has a lineage of activism through his father Mario Savio – leader of the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley. Everyone has a hand in the decision-making process in the sense that collectively, we are all the artistic directors. We decide as a collective. Our process is ever-evolving, discussion-based, writing and rewriting as we act. The troupe creates shows about our burning issues whether environmental justice, elections, racial justice, and economic injustice to ultimately highlight the oppressive profit > people mentality fueled by unbridled capitalism. 

A huge part of our mission is the accessibility of our art. Theatre institutions are exclusive/elitist in that not everyone is allowed into the traditional theatre space or able to afford shows. The majority of SFMT performances are free and we mostly perform in public parks, although we do ask for pay-what-you-can donations to support our craft. We often perform in rugged conditions where we strive to be resourceful. It is exhausting, rewarding work. Even though we are a leftist, radical group, we still get critiqued by liberal audiences for “preaching to the choir.” The truth of the matter is that people go see shows where the demographics match their own and each place has its own specific population. We encourage our audiences to venture outside of their spheres of familiarity as the troupe has performed nationally and internationally. We sometimes speak to constituencies who do not share the same mindset as we do, connecting across differences to find common ground. In this way, it is essential to realize that true listening is not the same as agreeing.

That is what attracted me to SFMT. Many people who come to watch us are active, engaged, intelligent global citizens, who want to be part of actual change. They have this innate understanding that no one is free until we all are free. “Who are we and who do we want to be?” We explore these questions interactively to envision the just society we want to see.

Oil & Water

Oil & Water, the 2013 environmentally-focused musical show featuring dual storylines tackling corporate extractivism, inspired me to reach out to you regarding this series. Did SFMT connect directly with scientists while composing this piece? What investigations influenced the research?

While we did not go directly to the site, we conducted extensive research during the origination of the material. We gathered a resource list to provide the scientific and experiential background for the writing. The list includes literature – The Tyranny of Oil by Antonia Juhasz, and Blue Gold: The Fight to stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water by Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke – that feature a relationship between the pursuit of oil, water privatization, and clean water access. 

We are not environmental scientists – we are artists who are progressively showcasing social issues from the perspective of the working class. If we feel that an issue is especially pressing to those who have to work for a living, we reach out to experts in the appropriate fields and ask them to come talk with us. 

We host talkbacks and panels after each show so that the public can interact with experts and organizing leaders, and ask questions. SFMT reaches out to activists to offer our performance space as a platform for publicity and an effective organizational tool. For Oil & Water, twelve environmental organizing groups, including 350 Bay Area and Amazon Watch, had booths set up to give them greater exposure and mobilize interested participants. After watching our shows, people feel motivated to seek out involvement with the subject matter, to become better informed on how to assist with the cause.

Oil & Water

Why was this show different from the traditional Mime Troupe performances? What roles did you play and what did you hope would be conveyed about the climate crisis?

The National Endowment for the Arts, which typically funds us, had been slashed that year as the federal emphasis shifted away from the arts. People in Congress actually complain about us by name! These representatives don’t know what we do; they believe the troupe spends frivolously on tights and makeup. In response, we created a stripped-down show with four actors where I played the devil in the first act, “Deal With the Devil,” and one-half of a lesbian couple, Gracie, alongside Lisa Hori-Garcia, in “Crude Intentions.”

Lisa’s character, Tomasa, is a documentarian shooting footage to capture the exploitative oil interests in the Amazon – a story based on a real whistleblower who was threatened by giant Chevron. Tomasa shields herself as a modest restaurant owner in the Mission District of San Francisco, all the while retaining the investigative side of her nature. The play ends with a catering scene at an exclusive event for oil executives and a mastermind plan to expose the injustice. That’s the interesting aspect of these corrupt, supposedly invincible, entities – they assume that people in service industries will not wield this information against them for social good. Working-class folk are not seen as important enough to care or worry about… 

Poster designed by Lawton Lovely, collective member for 2013.

In “Deal With The Devil,” the given circumstances are that a woman president has been murdered, Rotimi Agbabiaka is reinstated as the new Obama-esque president, and Earth has been totally destroyed after being stripped of environmental protections. The only area that is preserved is Washington D.C., showcasing the class inequities caused by the climate crisis. Those who are on the frontlines of the crisis, BIPOC, are not the ones exacerbating the issue. Yet, though they contribute the least to the problem, they are the most impacted. That is environmental racism in a nutshell. The people in control of making decisions that poison our ecosystems do not have to deal with the ramifications. The problem that my character, the devil, is experiencing is ironic in that she must prevent humans from becoming extinguished by the impact of environmental degradation in order to preserve her mission of temptation. In this hilarious scenario, the devil is a climate activist advocating for the health of the planet. This role reminded me of the prophetic words of Chief Seattle: “Only when the last tree has died, the last river has been poisoned, and the last fish has been caught, will we realize that we cannot eat money.”

In what ways has climate change impacted your life and community personally? 

I guess that depends on what the definition of a community is. The Mime Troupe is affected primarily by how weather fluctuations affect outdoor performances. The weather has changed drastically in just 20 years and the fact that we are performing right out in the open makes it that much more real. The climate conversation is visceral for us because we are working out in the elements. We see what the differences are in real time; they are impossible to ignore or negate, whereas most people can live their hermetically sealed lives in denial. 

As a California resident, it blows my mind that now there is such a thing as “fire season.” That’s not a good season to have. Usually, we think of holiday seasons or cherry-picking seasons but to have a situation where there are constant droughts and wildfires is a frightening sign. The long term impacts of forest fire air quality and pollution are yet to be understood. How is that going to affect us down the line – especially if it continues?

The reality is that this is not just a community concern, it is a species concern. One must have an awareness of that scope. I just finished the audiobook The Grown-Up Guide to Dinosaurs by Ben Garrett. There is something really poignant about these species that dominated the planet for much longer than homo sapiens have existed. It is humbling to know that this land was once fully inhabited by these prehistoric creatures and then suddenly they were gone. Some might say that this is the ebb and flow of evolution but one thing is for certain: human activity has greatly accelerated the alteration of our climate. If we don’t act now, we will not be around for much longer. The Earth has been around for a few billion years; it will repair itself. It is the survival of living beings that we should be concerned about.

What does the future hold in store for you? 

I am going to be continuously working on the eight-part serialized radio plays titled Tales of the Resistance, presented by the Mime Troupe, in place of doing a live performance. This is the way that we adapted to COVID-19, a symbol of the resilience of theatre. The first episode, “Jade For Hire!” is a half-hour detective noir looking at racial discrimination and class divide in an increasingly gentrified, tech-bound city. The second episode was released on Saturday, July 18 online and through local Bay Area radio stations KALW, KMUD, KTDE, KZXY, and KZFP. Check out the wonderfully bizarre radio plays in the adventure, horror, and science fiction genres on the SFMT website. The episodes continue on into fall 2020.

(Top image: Velina Brown singing.)

This article is part of our Black Artists & Storytellers series.

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Imara-rose Glymph is a student at Bennington College pursuing an interdisciplinary degree looking at multi-cultural identity, language, biology/ecology, and performative arts. Most recently, she was a media fellow with Global Citizen Year, documenting Indigenous Women’s agricultural stewardship, and a representative of Intersectional Outreach with Extinction Rebellion. She has been involved in the climate conversation since leading youth delegations in the GIN 852 conference Hong Kong, organizing bio-tours of mangrove conservation areas, and guiding students as an Arctic Hall Docent with the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. 

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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An Interview with Author and Scholar Matthew Schneider-Mayerson

By Amy Brady

This month I have a fascinating interview for you. Matthew Schneider-Mayerson is an author and Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Yale-NUS College, who studies climate fiction. His latest academic study, “‘Just as in the Book’? The Influence of Literature on Readers’ Awareness of Climate Injustice and Perception of Climate Migrants,” examines the impact of climate fiction – specifically, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife – on readers. We discuss his findings below.

Your latest article, “Just as in the Book,” is a fascinating look at how Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife influences readers. What inspired you to conduct this study?

I started reading a lot of climate fiction in 2011 or so. As it became more common and received more attention, it struck me that while there was a lot of interest in different aspects of this new category of literature, its psychological and political potential was frequently highlighted by authors, critics, and scholars. They were, and still are, responding to an important question – what can literature and art do to move and inspire readers, and thereby contribute to efforts to respond to climate change, that other forms of communication don’t? This is a fascinating theoretical question, but it’s also an urgent empirical question. Given the incredibly short time frame we have to transform fossil-fuelled civilization, the empirical element seemed particularly important to me. So I was surprised to learn that until recently, there were no empirical studies on what happens when real people encounter environmental literature. An article I published in 2018 was the first empirical study to examine the influence of climate fiction on its readers. This study continues that research, but focuses on more specific questions, and a single novel.

Why did you choose to center this study on The Water Knife?

I found Paolo Bacigalupi’s previous novel, The Windup Girl, to be really innovative and provocative, and I read The Water Knife when it came out in 2015. One of my main areas of research is climate injustice, the disproportionate consequences of climate change on different groups of people, as well as climate displacement and migration, which are expected to accelerate in the next few decades. While a lot of climate fiction touches on injustice in some form, The Water Knife really centers it, along with climate migration. So it seemed like an ideal choice for a study focused on the ability of climate fiction to influence readers’ awareness of climate injustice and perception of climate migrants. Beyond its conceptual focus, The Water Knife is a popular and critically acclaimed novel by one of the most widely read and respected environmentally-engaged English-language authors of the last decade. As most readers will attest, it’s a very engaging book – a speculative eco-thriller set in a desiccated, collapsing, and apocalyptic near-future Southwest, and an effective exercise in placing a pulpy and hard-boiled thriller in a climate-changed future.

Could you briefly describe the framing of this study? How did you choose your participants, and what key question(s) did you seek to answer?

The main questions we were interested in exploring were who reads a novel like The Water Knife, and why; how it influenced readers’ perceptions of climate change; whether it raised awareness of climate injustice; whether it led readers to identify with climate migrants; and what lessons or messages readers took away from their reading experience. We recruited participants through Mechanical Turk, an online service that has become popular for social science research, and sorted them into two groups: Americans who had read The Water Knife; and Americans who read fiction regularly but hadn’t read The Water Knife. The former group was the focus, and we asked them a battery of multiple-choice and open-ended questions. The latter group was a kind of control; we asked them some of the same questions, and, after presenting them with the book cover, a description, and a blurb, asked them if they were likely or unlikely to read the book. 

I found it interesting that many respondents – both liberal and conservative – found the novel to reinforce an individualistic if conservative view of the world. Why do you think that is?

I was also surprised by this at first, but it makes sense. The world of The Water Knife is very Hobbesian – the government and the social order are collapsing, states’ borders are closed, opportunities are few, everyone is out for themselves, empathy is fatal, and violence is ubiquitous. Judging from the public statements Bacigalupi has made, he intended this as a cautionary tale – if we don’t act now to mitigate climate change, this is the kind of hellish future we’ll be stuck with. And that’s been a common framing for apocalyptic climate fiction. Given the tendency towards confirmation bias, it’s not surprising that some conservative readers found this depiction of the selfishness of human nature to be accurate – that’s a common belief among American conservatives. But liberal readers also picked up on this individualistic framing, and some found it to be compelling and “realistic” – it’s a very engaging novel. This is potentially problematic, since the novel might unintentionally reinforce an inaccurate perspective on human nature that won’t help us respond collectively to climate change, and might contribute to some exceptionally bad outcomes. 

Does climate fiction lead readers to be more aware of climate injustice? The percentage of participants’ answers to the question “Picture the people most affected by climate change. What do they look like?” in the “Climate Justice Distinctions” and “Equal Vulnerability” among the readers of The Water Knife, compared to the “Likely” readers and “Unlikely” readers (from the random sample), after excluding answers from the categories “Purely Physical Descriptions” and “Non-substantive.” (Not listed are responses that were exclusively in the categories “Geography” and “Professions.”)

How did the novel influence participants’ views of climate change?

On views of climate change in general, the responses generally echoed what I described in my 2018 article. For many readers, the novel minimized the psychological distance that many people feel from climate change, which is one obstacle to recognizing its gravity and urgency – that it’s something that happens in the future, in faraway places, to people who are unlike them. The Water Knife, like other works of climate fiction, seemed to make a climate-changed future much more vivid and visceral, and this led to some intense emotional reactions. Unsurprisingly, given the novel’s dystopic world, these were mostly negative emotions – worry, sadness, and fear. Very little hopefulness or joy.

Additionally, the novel seemed to lead to more awareness of climate injustice. There was no existing polling question to measure awareness of environmental injustice or climate injustice, so we asked participants in both groups, “Picture the people most affected by climate change. What do they look like?” Then we coded the responses. After excluding the participants that gave non-substantive answers or purely physical descriptions, there was a significant difference between those who read the book and those who didn’t. This suggests that The Water Knife was effective at raising awareness of climate injustice. This is valuable not just because climate injustice is real and important, but because just and effective policy and political responses will need to address climate and environmental injustice, and support for those responses requires an understanding of these basic facts.

How did the novel influence participants’ views of climate migrants? 

Here the results were mixed. On one hand, the novel was effective in getting a diverse range of American readers to identify with climate migrants. This might have been because two of the three protagonists were climate migrants, and they offered a wide range of pathways for identification – different ages, genders, backgrounds, and social status positions. This identification and empathy is potentially important, because as climate displacement and migration become more central aspects of the world we inhabit, developing just, humane, and effective policies will be absolutely critical, and literature and media might play a role in influencing people’s willingness to support such policies.

On the other hand, we found that the Hobbesian violence of The Water Knife is potentially counterproductive. Authors and critics might hope that portraying a dystopic cautionary future will scare readers into engaging in progressive politics today, but it might not work out that way. A vivid depiction of desperate climate migrants engaged in a self-interested and violent struggle for survival can backfire, since even liberal readers might not empathize with climate migrants, but fear them. This is a real risk, and it’s one that authors and other cultural producers should take seriously. It’s possible that narratives like The Water Knife might not motivate progressive environmental politics, as authors and critics often hope, but support for climate barbarism – callously allowing the less fortunate to suffer – or even ecofascism. In the past this possibility might have seemed merely theoretical, but the recent rise of ethno-nationalism around the world, as well as recent acts of mass violence that have been justified in part on environmental grounds, should raise concerns about the shape that conservative responses to climate change might take.

What’s next for you? Do you have any other empirical studies of climate-fiction in the works? 

I’m currently collaborating on a quantitative experiment focused on two climate-fiction short stories, and I’m planning a study focused on the ability of climate fiction to inspire readers – that feels like a crucial subject. And I’m working with three colleagues, Alexa Weik von Mossner, Wojciech Małecki, and Frank Hakemulder, to develop the field of empirical ecocriticism, which this research is part of, and bring more empirical attention to environmental literature, art, and media. We’re hoping that this kind of research will be useful to critics and scholars as well as authors, artists, and other cultural producers. Readers can check out our website to see the work that’s been done in this area, get in touch about collaborating, and add their own. 

This article is part of the Climate Art Interviews series. It was originally published in Amy Brady’s “Burning Worlds” newsletter. Subscribe to get Amy’s newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.

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Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles TimesPacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com at and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Tiny Coronavirus Stories: ‘Everything is the same; everything is different’

By Andrea SzucsKris FrickeRonna MagyTeresa Stern

Reader-submitted stories of the COVID-19 pandemic, in no more than 100 words. While the submission of stories may have slowed, the pandemic continues. Read past stories hereSubmit your own here.

SHATTERED WORLD

March 29th. A light rain falls through glowing daylight, I stand in my backyard. The normal Sunday village noises – lawn mowers, kids playing – are absent. There is nothing, the disquieting stillness of a nuclear winter. I listen to a voice message from my ex. Her beautiful warbling voice sings a melancholy sailor’s song of loneliness and longing, drawing out the somber words with heartfelt intensity. I stand with my eyes closed in the shimmering silence of our shattered world, and listen. My throat tightens, a hot tear rolls down my cheek.

— Kris Fricke (Birregurra, Victoria, Australia)

The yard in better times.

* * *

SPOKEN SILENCE

On daily walks, I consider that house. One month’s collapsed fence stacked in the yard. Bent nails, weathered pickets, uneasily detached. Splintered posts guarding barren patches of lawn. From crumbling cement, dark-haired mother stares into summer’s skies. Above her mask, wrinkles chisel her eyes. Parents tethered to porches, children indoors. Empty school rooms, silent playgrounds; I look to this woman, nod, and walk on. Like others, I have covered my face. Begun to fade with the anonymous days. What is this life lived behind masks? Faces concealed, what else is obscured? Ordinary encounters taken away. Spoken silence infecting these times.

— Ronna Magy (Culver City, California)

* * *

SILVER LININGS

Did you know that hope is the only positive emotion that needs something negative or uncertain in order to be activated? In 2020, the world as we knew it changed. Virus. Death. Dark clouds. Yet I notice beauty. Kindness. Love. I cherish relationships more. I do stop and smell the flowers. I do creative projects just because I want to, not because of the reward. I notice that the colors are more vivid. Is it less pollution in the environment, or in my mind? I feel socially distanced, yet emotionally connected and evolved. I dare to hope and find the silver lining.

— Andrea Szucs (New York, New York)

(Top photo: Reflection on silver linings.)

* * *

EVERYTHING

Everything is the same; everything is different. Both are true. Everything is the same: the sun rises, we breathe air, we love our dear ones, we linger over conversations. Everything is different: the earth warms, the air can kill, virtual is a poor substitute for a hug, face time and FaceTime are not equal. Everything is everything. We are all everything, all connected to one another in our peril and our pandemic, to one another in our hope and our possibilities. These last are the most important – hope and possibilities, turned to collective action.

— Teresa Stern (Seattle, Washington)

Northwest forest walk. We are connected.

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This series is edited by Thomas Peterson. One of the editors of Artists & Climate Change, he is also an organizer and theatre director whose work focuses on the climate crisis.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Mare Nostrum Theatre Project in Italy

By Jeff Biggers

BRINGING MIGRATION VOICES AND STORIES ON STAGE IN AN AGE OF CLIMATE CRISIS 

Every two seconds someone in the world is displaced from their home.

This line repeats in my mind, as if it’s a cue for an actor to enter the stage. But it comes from the latest report of the UN Refugee Agency, which counted nearly 80 million people forced from their homes in 2019, many due to climate and environmental crises. 

“They all have stories,” Amara Sacko tells us.

We’re sitting under a stand of pine trees, to the side of the Podernuovo villa in the Tuscany forests in central Italy. Our chairs are arranged in a circle, a dozen actors with scripts in hand, still stumbling over our first readings in this experimental theatre troupe. A dozen actors, along with a cadre of musicians, I should add, from over 10 countries – including Mali, Gambia, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau, Brazil, Ghana, New Zealand, Italy, France, Ethiopia, the US, and Italian-raised citizens from Colombia, Sri Lanka, and India.  

Thanks to composer James Demby, an Italian musician and professor at the Conservatorio Luigi Cherubini in Florence, we’ve been invited to rehearse during the summer in this historic villa and forest grounds, for the Mare Nostrum Theatre Project, our intercultural theatre initiative, prior to our performance at the Museo di Antropologia e Etnologia di Firenze. James has also brought in acclaimed Ghanian Ewe drum master Ruben Agbeli, along with a European classic orchestra. 

A former medical student from Mali, Amara has placed down the script of our play, Damnatio Memoriae, after we reached a scene about a boat journey of Africans departing from Libya, across the Mediterranean. Having fled his own country during violent political unrest, losing his sight in one eye from an attack, he quietly recounts his harrowing journey across the Sahel, into Algeria, and then the chaos of Libya, the point of departure of boats for nearby Sicily and the Italian coast.

“When you’re on the boat, you have nothing but your stories,” Amara continues in Italian, our lingua franca among the multi-lingual troupe. “You have no idea if you’re going to survive at sea. Many don’t. And we don’t even know who we lose, who they are, what their stories are. It’s another form of ‘damnatio memoriae.’” 

The title of our play, Damnatio Memoriae, juxtaposes the Ancient Roman edict that granted emperors the right to condemn someone’s presence or memory from public view or historical record – to literally remove someone’s existence and destroy any artifacts, including statues, coins, paintings, engravings – with current efforts to deny or forget the African and Arab histories and contributions in Italy during a period of increased migration.

As an American writer and playwright who has been based part of the year in Italy for decades, I have always been fascinated by this official Roman process of forgetting, and its ramifications today in Italy. I believe there is a presence in Roman ruins, especially among its African and Arab histories, which needs to be recovered and reconsidered. Through theatre, I believe we can begin the process of reconciliation with the victims of “damnatio memoriae,” especially those from African countries and the Middle East, as a symbolic first step in reversing historical denial.

That includes my own role as the playwright and director, and the roles of all actors in the theatre troupe, even before we take the stage. The intense training in a remote villa, the exchanges among meals, the long walks and drumming sessions – all of these have served as points of references for adding voices and stories in a new play. 

Damnatio Memoriae draws on years of research and dispatches in Italy, including the draft of a play I wrote on immigration in Bologna in 1989. It’s also based on interviews with recent immigrants, including those I met in Sicily, when 3,500 deaths at sea in 2014 marked the passage from Libya as the deadliest migrant crossing in the world.

Last week, 45 people from Mali, Chad, Senegal and Ghana died off the coast of Libya, when the engine exploded on their boat. 

After a tragic boat accident off the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, which resulted in 366 deaths in 2013, “Mare Nostrum” became the official name of Italy’s maritime policy of assisting refugees – who were labeled as “clandestines.”  We reclaimed the ancient Latin term, mare nostrum – our sea – as a way of reclaiming the stories lost at sea and in the process of historical conflicts. 

Returning to Bologna, I approached theatre director Guido Ferrarini, who founded Teatroaperto in 1974 in the tradition of the “Nuovo Teatro Popolare” movement, and shared our sense of urgency to pull back the curtain on the immigrant experience, often lost in the endless political debates, and provide a stage for immigrant voices from Ancient Rome to modern Italy.

“In the theatre,” Ferrarini told me, “we can touch on one of the most important, compelling and unavoidable issues of our times: the integration of peoples. This process is inescapable, and our role is to reintroduce in the theatre the challenges of immigration, or better, the migration of people on earth.”  

Damnatio Memoriae unfolded as our struggle to recover the past, and its presence in modern times. We open the curtains with an Italian troupe doing Shakespeare and his portrait of “Aaron the Moor,” in his outrageously bloody play about Ancient Rome, Titus Andronicus. Borrowing a time-bend device from Sicilian playwright Luigi Pirandello, we bring to stage a troupe of immigrant actors in search of a stage, attired in Ancient Roman costumes, led by the historical Septimius Severus, a Libya-born Ancient Roman emperor who died in present-day York, England, and whose son, the eventual Emperor Caracalla, enacted the historic Antonine Constitution, which granted citizenship to all free men in the Roman Empire – a right to native-born citizenship that no longer exists. 

In our troupe, Caracalla and Geta, the real life sibling rivals for the throne, are played by Loua Hervé from Guinea and Don Lukasz Senghore from Gambia. 

From the clash of two theatre troupes, one Italian and one composed of immigrants, a new play comes into view, weaving together the stories of the actors and their ancient and modern conflicts over migration, birthright, citizenship, family conflict, fatherhood and motherhood, redemption – and even love.

Amara, playing the role of Emperor Severus, is part of bringing these new stories and voices to the stage, in his own way.

“It’s one thing to watch films or reportages on migrations, including problems of drought and environmental crises,” says Guy Lydster, a celebrated sculptor in Italy and a New Zealand-born actor who trained in the theatre in California. “But when you hear these stories from the very people who have experienced them, and incorporate them into characters, it places a new sense of urgency and meaning on the stage.” 

In Damnatio Memoriae, Lydster plays the role of the director of the Titus Andronicus Italian theatre troupe, who is confronted by the intrusion of immigrant actors demanding the stage for their side of the ancient story.

At first offended by their unprofessional arrival on his stage, the veteran director must wrestle with his own conflicts over who has the right to tell their story on stage, and what role the theatre plays in giving life to certain voices. Or, whether the stage can provide a safe, healing and creative space, as well as a historical and narrative context, for immigrant stories to be voiced and heard and expressed in more authentic and compelling ways.

Countries like Mali, among others in the central Sahel, are facing mega droughts, floods, and other environmental crises from climate change that have transformed the region’s agro-pastoral systems and led to conflicts over natural resources and land. In actor Luciana Milani’s native Amazon rainforest in Brazil, fires have increased by over 80% last year, destroying one of the world’s greatest carbon sinks in staving off cataclysmic climate chaos. 

The roles of the actors on stage also reflect the roles of our own counties in climate change: the average American or Brit, for example, emits more CO2 in two weeks than someone from west or central Africa over the entire year.

Standing on the shores of Sicily years ago, the jagged remains of a shattered boat at my feet, I listened to an Italian villager describe the voyage of migranti across the Mediterranean. The survivors of the boat crash, which had been launched from Libya, included Somalis, Nigerians, Eritreans, and Syrians, among others. Framing the issue as part of a cycle of migration, on an island whose ruins and current ways betray millennia of migration realities, the Sicilian fisherman understood better than anyone what the UN Refugee Agency recently termed a “paradigm change” in unprecedented levels of forced displacement. 

As we see in Damnatio Memoriae, today’s immigrants in Italy continue to walk along the ancient road of Via Appia in Rome, where a mysterious Septizodium monument constructed by Severus in Ancient Rome once welcomed their arrival from Africa.

Ex Africa semper aliquid novi, the Ancient Romans declared: From Africa always something new.

That includes the theatre and our stories on stage.

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Jeff Biggers is the founder of the Climate Narrative Project, and author of numerous books, most recently Resistance: Reclaiming an American Tradition. More on his play, Damnatio Memoriae, can be found here

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Wild Authors: Katy Yocom

By Mary Woodbury

For this post we head back to India, this time with Katy Yocom, author of Three Ways to Disappear. Ecofiction is a type of literature that handles nature-oriented and human-impact plots while telling a great fictional story that imagines or reflects real environmental concerns, in this case the plight of endangered Bengal tigers.

ABOUT THE BOOK

Leaving behind a nomadic and dangerous career as a journalist, Sarah DeVaughan returns to India, the country of her childhood and a place of unspeakable family tragedy, to help preserve the endangered Bengal tigers. Meanwhile, at home in Kentucky, her sister, Quinn – also deeply scarred by the past and herself a keeper of secrets – tries to support her sister, even as she fears that India will be Sarah’s undoing.

As Sarah faces challenges in her new job – made complicated by complex local politics and a forbidden love – Quinn copes with their mother’s refusal to talk about the past, her son’s life-threatening illness, and her own increasingly troubled marriage. When Sarah asks Quinn to join her in India, Quinn realizes that the only way to overcome the past is to return to it, and it is in this place of stunning natural beauty and hidden danger that the sisters can finally understand the ways in which their family has disappeared – from their shared history, from one another – and recognize that they may need to risk everything to find themselves again.

With dramatic urgency, a powerful sense of place, and a beautifully rendered cast of characters revealing a deep understanding of human nature in all its flawed glory, Katy Yocom has created an unforgettable novel about saving all that is precious, from endangered species to the indelible bonds among family.

The manuscript of Three Ways to Disappear won the 2016 Siskiyou Prize, and the novel was published by Ashland Creek Press in 2019.

While at its heart Three Ways to Disappear is a book about family tragedies, lost connections and a seemingly failing marriage, endangered tiger conservation in the Aravalli forests forms the epicenter of the novel’s plot, where most of the action takes place … The book makes the reader contemplate on larger questions: At what cost is tiger conservation worthwhile? Can the persistent human development around forests be stopped to avoid conflict situations? Is the goal of tiger conservation without expansion of tiger territory really sustainable?

— Prathap Nair, Firstpost India

The topic of the environment must by necessity include economics and the reality of politics. Yet in these vitriolic times, how do you find words to bring disparate voices to the table without further polarizing the conversation? Literature can take that role as it bridges a strong fictional narrative to the complicated world in which we live…. Yocom’s novel achieved this with clarity and grace. Not only are the characters changed by the end of the story, we are changed for having known them.

— North American Review

CHAT WITH THE AUTHOR

Thanks so much to Katy for talking with me about her new novel.

I’m interested in your research for Three Ways to Disappear. You traveled to India, where your novel’s main character also ends up. What was your trip like?

India is an intense, vibrant place. I was there for three weeks, the first half with my mom, the second half traveling on my own but always with a guide. We were there during an intense cold spell that arrived the same day we did, which meant we hadn’t packed warm enough clothes. We spent a lot of the trip shivering, but the cold turned out to be a huge advantage, because it brought the tigers out into the open. I’d heard lots of stories of people going to tiger reserves and never seeing a single tiger. We had the opposite experience – seeing tigers, sometimes close up, nearly every day we went into the parks.

I built the trip around extended visits to three national parks: Ranthambore, in Rajasthan; Kanha, in Madhya Pradesh; and the Sundarbans, in West Bengal. Each was fascinating in its own way. Ranthambore is spectacular – the landscape itself with its towering cliffs and ancient ruins – and then you’ve got tigers and other wildlife prowling through. I’d never seen anything like it. It’s where I decided to set my novel, because the landscape is so beautiful and the tigers came out of hiding, so I was able to see how they interacted with the landscape. I also got to visit two villages not far from Ranthambore, and the people I met there and the experience of being in the villages ended up being integral to the story I was telling.

I liked reading Three Ways to Disappear because of several reasons. One is that I was born in Louisville and spent a lot of time there during my life. It’s always good to revisit the area. Another is that the story also takes place on a tiger preserve in India, which I guess most of us have never experienced. So there’s an American setting and then an entirely far-away place, which might ground a lot of readers while also journeying somewhere they’ve never been. How was the writing experience as you shifted between these places?

To be honest, it was a challenge to render Louisville as vividly as I rendered India, because India was so new to me. India was just a pleasure to write about because it brings the senses alive in so many ways. Louisville – a city I love, where I’ve lived for nearly 30 years – is the setting and backdrop of my life, and for that reason I found it more difficult to bring to life on the page. Familiarity creates this false sense of default, this sense that the neighborhoods, the houses, the cars, the topography that form your experience are basically the same for readers everywhere. It’s not true, of course, but it’s a hard trick of the mind to get past.

India upended all that. Aside from the simple need to describe people and places that wouldn’t be familiar to many Western readers, I also found that I had to render certain activities with extra care. There’s a scene in the book where Quinn, at age 10, is drawing a bath for her siblings. If that scene were set in the States, I could have described it just that simply – I’d write, “She drew a bath,” and you’d know what I mean. We can all easily imagine what that looks like. In India, though, that act becomes something completely different. Had the servants been in the house – and, of course, her family had servants; it would have been considered wildly radical for them not to – Quinn never would have been allowed to draw the bath at all. Then there’s the fact that the house wouldn’t have had hot water pipes, so she had to heat the bathwater on the stove. Drawing the bath became a huge challenge for her. That said, it also became much more interesting to write and, I hope, much more interesting for the reader.

Sarah DeVaughan, the main character, grew up in India, then moved to Kentucky with her family. She feels called back to India, as a journalist, to help preserve the endangered Bengal tigers. The book is part romance, part environmental story, part journey. How do you weave together such powerful parallels that will end up inspiring the reader?

First of all, that’s lovely of you to say, so thank you. I’d say if the story inspires readers – and I hope it does – it’s because Sarah is a deeply passionate character. Her career in journalism has kept her on the outskirts of events, and she wants more than that. So she leaves journalism to throw herself into the effort to save the tigers. She literally throws herself into a river (well, she ends up in the river accidentally, but still) to save a tiger cub. When she develops romantic feelings for one of the other characters, she throws herself into that, too. I hope readers will feel the liberation that comes with following one’s passions, even though it’s a messy thing to do. Sarah’s sister Quinn, by contrast, spends most of the book mired in fear for her son, afraid of the dangers of daily life. She’s not wrong to be afraid, given her son’s illness, but her fear stifles her and creates a drag on all her relationships and on her creative life. She has to work hard to overcome it and to begin to reshape her life. Her story is quieter, but I hope in its own way, it’s inspirational too.

There’s also some family secrets back home. This adds suspense to the story. I felt that the act of forgiveness was also an act of family preservation – so the idea of preservation is involved throughout the story. Do you have any more thoughts on that?

I love the way you put that! Is it okay if I steal that idea? I hadn’t thought of it that way, but you’re absolutely right. The family members have each kept their secrets out of guilt and shame. In trying to protect themselves from the judgment and rejection they fear, they’ve built walls around themselves. And you can see the way those walls have damaged them. By confessing their secrets, naming their guilt, and asking for forgiveness, they are taking enormous risks in order to open up the possibility of healing. And when the shoe is on the other foot and they’re being asked for forgiveness, and they are able to offer it, they let the healing begin.

Thank you for putting it that way. You’ve taught me something new about a story I’ve been living with for close to fifteen years. I love that.

Steal away! Environmental fiction seems to be increasing these days due to the many ecological crises we find ourselves in. What are your thoughts on how this fiction might enhance the world? And how did you feel when the manuscript won the Siskiyou Prize?

Thank you! It was such an honor to have this story win the Siskiyou Prize. I can’t tell you how much it meant to me.

I agree, environmental fiction is moving more to the fore. The world is waking up to the reality of a climate crisis that is already affecting all our lives, and that will affect the future of life on this planet. You’ve got climate strikers – young people demanding that people in power address the issue of climate change after shoving it to the side for far too long. You’ve got fiction writers like Barbara Kingsolver and Amitav Ghosh, who have both been writing about the environment for years. Ghosh’s most recent book, Gun Island, addresses climate change and human migration in a way that will appeal to readers who love mysteries and action-adventure. I think that’s key, that the fictional stories being told are not didactic, or at least not only didactic. That first and foremost, they’re good stories. I was really pleased when Three Ways to Disappear was named a Barnes & Noble Top Indie Favorite, because I took it to mean that Barnes & Noble sees my book as having fairly wide appeal. It can only be a good thing that environmental fiction is moving into the mainstream.

One of the key differences between environmental fiction and nonfiction is that you’re not likely to pick up a nonfiction book about environmental issues if you’re not feeling psychologically prepared to face news of planet-wide disaster. It’s just too overwhelming. Fiction allows us to enter into a story that perhaps addresses the same topic but takes it down to a human level. That’s absolutely key. We meet characters, we empathize with their dilemmas, we take heart from – or have our hearts broken by – their struggles. With their courage and grit, they allow us to feel the elation of their successes and imagine ourselves taking action, as they’ve done. With their failures, they teach us to mourn, which means opening ourselves up to the pain of truly grievous losses.

Regardless, it’s the particular genius of fiction to inspire empathy in the reader. And empathy is exactly what we need in order to find a way to care about the difficult truths about the natural world without succumbing to the paralysis of despair. My hope is that by creating empathy and a sense of urgency, fiction can release people from both self-protective apathy and self-defeating despair. It can create an openness that allows for action, whether that action is attending a march, making a donation to an environmental organization, or simply talking about these issues with others in our community. Each of those actions is so important.

I think you hit the nail on the head regarding the importance of this fiction. Are you working on anything else at the moment?

Right now, I’m busy traveling the country with this book. I’ve got an idea for my next novel cooking, but for the moment it’s on the metaphorical back burner.

I cannot wait to hear more; have a great time on the tour!

MORE INFORMATION

Thanks to Katy for the following links, which can give readers a place to take action as well as learning more about endangered Bengal tigers.

  • As far as links, my go-to is World Wildlife Fund, which is leading the global effort to save the tiger.
  • I found this article really interesting, about the need to involve tribal communities more in wildlife conservation efforts. 
  • At home, the issues tigers face are different – mainly the problem is that tigers are kept by private owners in inhumane conditions. The Big Cat Public Safety Act is currently working its way through Congress to make private ownership illegal, which would put an end to some of the horrors endured by captive big cats.

This article is part of our Wild Authors series. It was originally published on Dragonfly.eco.

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Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change(Routledge). Mary lives in Nova Scotia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Olivia Oguadinma on Storytelling and Shane Petzer on Artful Recycling

By Peterson Toscano

For Olivia Oguadinma in Nigeria, storytelling has become central to her life. Though she is studying to be a chemical engineer, it is her passion to promote the UN Sustainability Goals among her peers that has led her into storytelling through her podcast, Gems on Earth. For the Art House, Olivia discusses the role of storytelling in motivating her peers toward meaningful action.

While in university in Nigeria, Olivia joined Enactus, the world’s largest experiential learning platform. Through the projects she helped organize with fellow Enactus members, she was able to put into practice some of her ideas about storytelling and social change. She then decided to form a learning community. Now, in this time of pandemic lockdown, she has turned to the internet, and through her Gems on Earth podcast, she reaches young people throughout Western Africa and beyond. 

Artist Shane Petzer in Barrydale, South Africa talks about turning trash into art. Through the Magpie Art Collective, he and fellow artists create breathtakingly beautiful chandeliers all made from trash. Two of these hung in the White House in Obama’s private quarters. During this time of coronavirus lockdown, members of the Magpie Art Collective have partnered with the Quakers in the Western Cape to create #QuakerPeaceDoves. Find out about how you can take part in the collective remotely and turn your trash into art.

Next month, illustrator and comic book artist Violet Kitchen talks about the role of the artist in taking on big issues like climate change. She also talks about creating art with constraints as she collaborated with Solomon Goldstein-Rose for his new book, The 100% Solution – A Plan for Solving Climate Change.

If you like what you hear, you can listen to full episodes of Citizens’ Climate Radio on iTunesStitcher Radio, Spotify, SoundCloudPodbeanNorthern Spirit RadioGoogle PlayPlayerFM, and TuneIn Radio. Also, feel free to connect with other listeners, suggest program ideas, and respond to programs in the Citizens’ Climate Radio Facebook group or on Twitter at @CitizensCRadio.

(Top image: Magpie Flower Ball by the Magpie Art Collective.)

This article is part of The Art House series.

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As host of Citizens’ Climate Radio, Peterson Toscano regularly features artists who address climate change in their work. The Art House section of his program includes singer/songwriters, visual artists, comics, creative writers, and playwrights. Through a collaboration with Artists and Climate Change and Citizens’ Climate Education, each month Peterson reissues The Art House for this blog. If you have an idea for The Art House, contact Peterson: radio @ citizensclimatelobby.org

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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