An Interview with Editor John Freeman

By Amy Brady 

Here in New York City, I’m squeezing all I can out of the last weeks of summer: sitting on my stoop with a good book, drinking iced tea, joining Zoom calls with local climate activist groups. I’m nostalgic for years prior when the husband and I would spend the summer traveling to visit friends and family. But we’re taking small joys where we can find them. I hope you are doing the same. 

Even as COVID-19 continues to wreck havoc on the United States – and elsewhere – climate change brings its own wonders and horrors. Last Sunday, the temperature in Death Valley rose to 130 degrees Fahrenheit, perhaps the hottest day ever recorded on Earth. That’s why books like John Freeman’s recent anthology, Tales of Two Planets, are so necessary. They bring the climate crisis to the forefront of our attention, while revealing just how hard it’s impacting people all around the globe.

John’s book is truly outstanding, which is why I’m delighted to bring you an interview with him this month. The former editor of Granta, current executive editor of Literary Hub, and founder of the literary annual Freeman’s, John is not new to editing or publishing talented and outspoken literary voices. Indeed, Tales of Two Planets is his third anthology on the subject of inequality (and the first to focus primarily on climate change) and features dozens of writers, including Edwidge Danticat, Anuradha Roy, and Lauren Groff. 

Tales of Two Planets follows two previous anthologies: Tales of Two Cities (about New York City) and Tales of Two Americas (about inequality in the U.S.). Why focus on climate change in your third anthology?

Climate change is the biggest problem facing the planet today, and the inequality in who it will affect and when appears to be unfolding in inverse proportion to who did the polluting – as in the richest countries with huge carbon footprints are better off than poor nations across Asia and Africa where the climate crisis is already a reality. Ultimately, and very soon, the climate crisis will severely alter all of our lives. It’ll force us to move, to change every one of our habits, and also question who we are – whether a global “we” is conceivable, as that’s the only way to save ourselves. A massive imaginative leap needs to happen right now – which is that people around the world, but especially in rich English-speaking nations, need to be able to imagine that what they do has an effect on the world, thousands of miles away. To me, the best way to imagine that is through stories. I’ve assembled these tales from all across the globe so readers can see what is happening right now. I hope they’re tales to help enchant people into action – because numbers clearly don’t work. 

Your book includes essays, short stories, and poetry. Why the mix of genres? Can each show us something different about climate change?

When I think of the books I’ve loved, they’re all over the map. For example, would I know how to love without Shakespeare… or Rumi… or Toni Morrison? That’s three genres right there. Form holds us in different ways. Sometimes it’s a close embrace, other times it’s like a chaperoned stroll. We need those varying degrees of intimacy and engagement to look at the world prismatically. 

In your introduction, you write that “To believe in a nation has increasingly meant to believe in a certain kind of person. Increasingly, it means my nation’s citizens are worth more than yours.” Could you expand a bit on this idea and how it may have informed your decisions on who to include in this anthology?

Hypernationalism, like we’re seeing right now, is a fear reflex, it’s an attempt to flee complexity. In recent decades, our governments have failed to create better stories for what they are. Imagine if there were more national narratives tuned to a world of many-sidedness? National identities of compassion, rather than of what – purity? Instead, many governments have chosen to retreat and demonize migrants, to shut up borders, or make certain people illegal. In his piece chronicling people coming from the Middle East to Turkey, Burhan Sonmez shows this to be true even in a nation that needs those very migrants to come to do certain kinds of labor. This is an infernal situation – it’s anti-human, and it’s also anti-literary. After all, where would any of us as readers be without travelers tales, without trade winds? 

The journeys of migrants are so startling – to pick up everything and literally flee – I wanted some pieces in the book to reflect the new realities their undeniably heroic decisions create. I didn’t specifically commission anyone to write on this topic; I only asked the writers to tell me how the climate crisis felt where they lived, and how it intersected with existing inequalities. But some of them did and I was glad. For example, Mariana Enriquez writes about a polluted river in Buenos Aires, but in doing so she has to address why people leaving rural northern villages wind up there and how the city treats them. In his great poem, Khaled Mattawa writes a modern-day calypso around multinational fishing, how it destroys rivers and lakes and seas – only for the people who move as a result to be demonized. 

You also write in the introduction that “We need to create a new language to deal with the scale of the crisis we face.” How did this idea inform your role as editor?

This book isn’t just a compendium of tales – a 21st century Canterbury tales set as we sit, watching the seas rise – it’s a lexicon. In Ligaya Mishan’s essay, you’ll learn a number of Hawaiian words for rain. Andri Snær Magnasson’s memoir about the vanishing of a glacier in Iceland introduces the term “geologic time.” As in, previously the earth moved at the speed of geologic time: our crisis in the climate is spurned along by the fact that we’ve now yoked the planet onto human time. In Lawrence Joseph’s poem, which harkens back to Walt Whitman’s vision of a sinister president, he uses the word “jubilate” next to “cruelty” – as in what happens if those who seize power in a government jubilate in cruelty? Words are not just decoration; nor are they tools to help us say hello or goodbye, ask for a drink of water, conduct business or trade. Words are how we see reality. They enable us to define it. When we’re living at the cusp of a tornadic reality, as we are now, the scale of change we face is so large it’s hard to even conceive. We need all the words we can bring to bear on the present. We cannot afford a species dying off in language too.

As someone who’s read a lot of essays, novels, short stories, and poetry collections about climate change, I recognize that writing on the subject can be incredibly valuable. But I believe that anthologies hold a unique power. As an editor of three, you seem like someone who might agree. Why are anthologies such powerful books? What can they provide that perhaps other types of books can’t? 

Very simply, I think anthologies allow us to see an issue from many sides at once – and from many places at once. There are all kinds of parallels within this book that emerged without planning. Yasmine el Rashidi, for example, describes in her piece having to move out of her family home in Cairo, and beginning to look for a place to live; Ligaya Mishan, whom I mentioned earlier, is watching her mother refuse to leave a family home, which every year floods more and will soon be inhabitable. To think of a place as rainy as Hawaii and one as dry as Egypt having such a shared fundamental issue – where to make and build a home – is very powerful. In this way, anthologies can build or at least reflect a collective we may not have known was already there. In times of political action, that’s potent. 

Many of the pieces in Tales of Two Planets share themes having to do with migration, anger at governments, and sadness over the loss of animals and wildlife. Were you looking to include pieces that have certain themes? Or did these themes arise organically?

They all arose organically. The huge variety of pieces that came in gave me a lot of hope for what is possible in a discussion when we don’t reinscribe the border attitudes so many of us resist politically on what (and whom) we choose to read. 

Finally, what’s next for you? Anything you’d like my readers to look for? 

These books on inequality have made it impossible for me to imagine a life in books without a lot of collaboration. I have learned far more from other people than any book. That’s why I love events which are conversations. I have one coming up with A. Kendra Greene, a marvelous young essayist who has a book out about the imaginary museums of Iceland, and then at the beginning of September with Aimee Nezhukumatahil, who has braided an account of her upbringing around a series of appreciations of various plants and fish and animals. 

As for work on the page, I’m not done with anthologies yet. I’m finishing up editing a Penguin Book of the Modern American Short Story, which has been loads of fun. It’s how I spent quarantine once I got better, reading stories. The best of them can do so much. This fall the Freeman’s issue on love will come out, and not fast enough for me. I think a lot of us are desperate for some tenderness, right?

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.

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