Climate Justice Fiction: Movement Building for the Win by Aya de Leon

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For decades, science fiction and fantasy writers have been warning us about the type of future we may face if we don’t transform our current society. In the past five years, Octavia Butler’s 1993 Parable of the Sower has felt particularly prophetic, because she predicted 2024 with a changed climate, greater income inequality, widespread privatization, and an authoritarian leader who pledged to “Make America Great Again.”

Sci-fi and fantasy climate fiction is a rich body of literature in which some writers include myth, magical powers, and fantastical elements and others lean more on the science. Whatever the case, these authors have been writing nearly half a century of cautionary tales to warn us of what may happen if we don’t change our practices of toxic pollution, environmental racism, burning fossil fuels, extractive industries, and exploiting the earth for maximum profit.

These dangerous practices have brought us to the point of complete consensus among scientists, authors of science NON-fiction, that our actions have changed the climate. Scientists have given us a deadline to change these practices, lest we damage the climate so much that the planet may not be fit for human habitation.

The facts are scary. Some people have just given up. Many say we’re doomed. But we’re not. To be clear, there is a ticking clock, but averting these large scale climate disasters is TOTALLY POSSIBLE. Their challenge to us is to act now, particularly those of us in the US. The United States is disproportionately responsible for carbon emissions and is in a highly strategic position to take global leadership in ending the crisis. Unfortunately, our economy is so wrapped up in profit-making and corporate interests hold much sway in our political system, that many of our political leaders are unwilling to make the tough choices and big changes that are required to address the climate emergency at scale. 

But if our leaders won’t use their power to do it, we need to build our power to make it happen. To be clear, it’s no longer about our consumer choices: using solar, buying a hybrid car, going vegan, recycling or composting. We need massive political and economic policy changes at the national and international level, to transform the entire system of how our lives are fueled and organized worldwide, to get us to zero emissions. In order to achieve this, we need to build the movement that can put the necessary pressure on our leaders to make that happen. And it won’t be easy. 

Which is why I want to invite authors to write about THIS MOMENT. To the science fiction and fantasy writers who have been carrying the torch in climate fiction for all these decades: thank you. And keep up the good work. But for the rest of us, writers of contemporary fiction, it’s time for us to start doing our part.

In 2017, when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, I was writing feminist heist fiction. I have roots in various parts of the African Diaspora, including Puerto Rico, and I was devastated. I was working on my fourth novel in a series, and asked my editor for permission to change topics to write about the hurricane. My publisher, Kensington, offers two-book contracts, and the second book is generally unspecified. This was one of those unspecified books, and I was able to pivot quickly. So my first novel of climate fiction, SIDE CHICK NATION (2019), came out less than two years after Hurricane Maria. 

If I could go back and edit some of the book, I would. I’d include a lot more of the concepts from the first two paragraphs of this essay, because now, after several years of climate activism, I have a much clearer picture of what is needed in the climate movement today. But I feel incredibly proud of my work in that novel, because I took action. I didn’t wait to do it perfectly. I felt racked with impostor syndrome. Who was to be the first novelist to publish a book about this massive disaster. I didn’t feel like I knew enough, or that I was Puerto Rican enough. And would people think I was somehow disrespecting the tragedy by writing about it in the context of popular fiction? A heist/romance series? But I didn’t let those fears stop me. I decided that this was my opportunity to make a contribution, and that I would just do the best I could.

That novel started what has now become my wheelhouse in climate fiction: stories of everyday people who have no intention of becoming active in the movement for climate justice, who get politicized by events happening around them, and who decide to take a stand. I used this same character arc in my 2020 novel A SPY IN THE STRUGGLE. I had been working on this novel for decades–since my 20s. I had originally been writing about FBI infiltration of a racial justice organization. It wasn’t that much of a stretch to make it a racial and climate justice organization. This novel had more of my developing climate justice analysis, and more movement building. 

Ultimately, the climate crisis caused a deep reorganization of my priorities. I decided to put climate in the center of all areas of my life. As a working mom who taught college and wrote novels, I didn’t have time to drop everything and become a full-time climate activist. But I decided to center climate in everything I was already doing. If I was a poetry teacher, I would teach young poets to write about climate. If I was a novelist, I would write novels about climate. If I was parenting, I would find ways to center climate justice activism in my parenting (shoutout to Mary DeMocker, author of The Parents’ Guide to Climate Revolution: 100 Ways to Build a Fossil-Free Future, Raise Empowered Kids and Still Get a Good Night’s Sleep. I also started a multi-genre climate blog with several other women writers as a place for people to come to find writing about people choosing to face this emergency from a perspective that we do have the power to turn the situation around.

Recently, climate activists have been pointing out the following statistic: 3.5%. Historically, any time 3.5% of the population becomes active in a non-violent movement, it has ALWAYS led to change. So we don’t need EVERYONE to agree to take climate action. We’re just aiming for that 3.5%. This number gives me great hope. 

So I became determined to do my part to get us to 3.5%. As a fiction author, I continued to write adult thrillers about characters who became politicized by the climate crisis. And I wasn’t the only author doing so. In 2020, I read Natalia Sylvester’s young adult novel RUNNING, about the daughter of a presidential candidate who becomes disillusioned with her father’s environmental policies as a senator in Florida. I LOVED this book and I wanted to emulate it.

So in December 2020, I began writing THE MYSTERY WOMAN IN ROOM THREE, about two undocumented Dominican teens in Florida who uncover a senate kidnapping plot to stop the Green New Deal (GND). The GND policy framework, first introduced into congress by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey in 2019, calls for sweeping public policy to address the climate emergency along with achieving other social aims like job creation and reducing economic inequality in order to move quickly to zero carbon emissions. The name refers back to FDR’s New Deal in response to the Great Depression. 

It felt really timely to publish this GND novel during 2021–the first year of the Biden administration, now that we had flipped the senate. However, I faced the challenge that I wasn’t under contract for this book. Around that same time, I had just sold my first YA novel, and it wasn’t going to come out for 2-3 years. The climate crisis is increasingly urgent. This newly inspired novel was intended to publicize the Green New Deal as the type of solution required for the climate crisis. It wouldn’t do to have it published in 2023. So I decided to look for an online outlet who would publish it serially. I partnered with one outlet, and we had a deal set up. The contract was on my agent’s desk. But then a new senior editor took over and decided they didn’t have capacity for the project. I was back to square one. 

At the same time, I had a new climate justice novel for adults, a love triangle between a naive young woman, a fossil fuel mogul and a climate activist. Ultimately, she begins to spy on her mogul boyfriend for the movement. I was hoping to sell this book to a Big 5 publishing house. I had been working with an independent publisher, and my advances were small. I had done better financially with the YA. I was hoping to level up with my adult books as well.

Like many authors, the dream is to write full time. And it seemed like it would come true! A Big 5 editor wanted my adult book, and we had a great phone conversation. Unfortunately, she got back to me that while she loved it, the higher ups at her press couldn’t see it for their list. I got this bad news within two weeks of losing the serial publication. I had two new climate books that I loved, and no place to publish them. I was so discouraged. If I couldn’t find publishers for these books soon, they would no longer be politically relevant. Worst case, they might not be publishable at all. I sank into a funk for weeks.

I was particularly discouraged because–SPOILER ALERT–both of these books included visions of our climate movements winning. And not just happy endings for the protagonists involved. THE MYSTERY WOMAN IN ROOM THREE ends with (SERIOUS SPOILER) the senate passing the Green New Deal. Yes, I know it’s not realistic that two teens will change the course of the climate crisis. But they don’t act alone. They work with the Sunrise Movement and become a tipping point for climate justice, where the will of the people is finally implemented by our leaders. In reality, very few people profit from the system that is causing global warming, but those who do have disproportionate power and influence. These books are creating a new story to pair with our abundant dystopian literature: we have many cautionary tales for what will happen if we don’t act in a timely fashion. My contemporary books are roadmaps to winning if we DO take collective action NOW.

Our fight against the climate crisis demands resiliency and commitment. I couldn’t let the publishing disappointments get me down. I just kept trying. I changed my strategy. I edited the adult novel and pitched it to my independent publishing house. I continued to reach out to everyone I could to try to find a serial publisher for the YA novel. And after months of hustling, both books were picked up. Orion Magazine serialized THE MYSTERY WOMAN IN ROOM THREE in fall 2021, and the other book (not yet titled) will be published by Kensington in 2022/23.

I was incredibly relieved and I had learned a very important lesson: writing urgent political fiction is much more stressful if you don’t have your work under contract. I vowed not to make that mistake again.

So I continue with my strategy to infuse climate into my novels, however I can. In December 2021, my latest book came out QUEEN OF URBAN PROPHECY. It’s about a young starlet rapper who faces unexpected public scrutiny when she releases a song about a girl shot by police after school, and a girl with the same name gets killed by police under those circumstances. Again, I’m working with this accidental activist character arc. But given my activist commitments, I had to find the opportunities to work climate justice into the narrative. These opportunities proved to be quite abundant. The book is largely a romance that takes place on a the bus of the rapper’s national tour. I decided to make her love interest (a DJ) a Puerto Rican guy who lost family in Hurricane Maria. As she travels across the coutnry, there were opportunities for her to confront past tragedies like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, as well as current crises like heatwaves, floods, and droughts. As she takes small steps towards activism, other activists contact her and urge her to get more involved in both the movement for climate justice and the movement against police violence. 

My latest project is a work-for-hire. Like many genre writers, I got tapped to write for an entertainment franchise. My current goal is to get them to approve a plot that centers on the climate crisis. If I’m successful, this will definitely be my largest platform yet. Stay tuned!

I share all of this about my own journey because it is my hope that we can build a here-and-now brand of climate justice fiction. This body of literature could become a wonderful companion to the flourishing what-can-happen-if-we-don’t-act brand of climate fiction in sci-fi/fantasy. I invite all of my contemporary writer colleagues to consider getting involved in climate justice fiction, and helping visualize a world where we fight and we win.

Find out more about Aya’s latest novel, Queen of Urban Prophecy, or read her serialised YA novel The Mystery Woman in Room Three.

Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program, teaching creative writing at UC Berkeley. Kensington Books publishes her award-winning feminist heist/romance series, Justice Hustlers: UPTOWN THIEF (2016), THE BOSS (2017), THE ACCIDENTAL MISTRESS (2018), and SIDE CHICK NATION (2019) which was the first novel published about Hurricane Maria in Puerto Aya de León teaches creative writing at UC Berkeley. Kensington Books publishes her novels for adults, including her award-winning “Justice Hustlers” feminist heist series. An alumna of Cave Canem and VONA, Aya is currently working on a memoir of her body that explores the intersection of food, body image, race, and the environment. In March/April, she is organizing an online conference entitled BLACK LITERATURE VS. THE CLIMATE EMERGENCY (exact date TBA). Finally, her Justice Hustlers series has been optioned for television, and she is currently working on the pilot. Find her at ayadeleon.com

Climate News

Transforming the stories we tell about climate change: from ‘issue’ to ‘action’ [Research paper]

Does Climate Fiction Make a Difference? [Lithub]

Dragonfly ecofiction newsletter

Published by Lauren James

Lauren James is the twice Carnegie-nominated British author of many Young Adult novels, including Green Rising, The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker and The Loneliest Girl in the Universe. She is a RLF Royal Fellow, freelance editor and screenwriter. Lauren is the founder of the Climate Fiction Writers League, and on the board of the Authors & Illustrators Sustainability Working Group through the Society of Authors. Her books have sold over a hundred thousand copies worldwide and been translated into six languages. The Quiet at the End of the World was shortlisted for the YA Book Prize and STEAM Children’s Book Award. Her other novels include The Next Together series, the dyslexia-friendly novella series The Watchmaker and the Duke and serialised online novel An Unauthorised Fan Treatise. She was born in 1992, and has a Masters degree from the University of Nottingham, where she studied Chemistry and Physics. Lauren is a passionate advocate of STEM further education, and many of her books feature female scientists in prominent roles. She sold the rights to her first novel when she was 21, whilst she was still at university. Her writing has been described as ‘gripping romantic sci-fi’ by the Wall Street Journal and ‘a strange, witty, compulsively unpredictable read which blows most of its new YA-suspense brethren out of the water’ by Entertainment Weekly. Lauren lives in the West Midlands and is an Arts Council grant recipient. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the Guardian, Buzzfeed, Den of Geek, The Toast, and the Children’s Writers and Artist’s Yearbook 2022. She has taught creative writing for Coventry University, WriteMentor, and Writing West Midlands.

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