It was easy to be distracted at the start of 2017 when I was writing a manuscript about a potentially cataclysmic event. It wasn’t the one I feared, nor was it the one lying in wait at the turn of 2020. I focused on a plot with cosmic collisions; comets and asteroids are fascinating, after all. They held my attention until I couldn’t ignore current events that read more and more like the science fiction I was crafting.
That year, the incoming Trump administration removed all mention of climate change from the White House website in January, and ordered the US Environmental Protection Agency to do the same. The following month, Trump acted with his majority in Congress to revoke the Stream Protection Rule, which had placed certain restrictions on the disposal of mining waste in waterways, and confirm Scott Pruitt as the new head of the EPA. While he was Oklahoma’s acting Attorney General, Pruitt had often sued the agency to challenge its regulations. All around me, there was a backlash against environmental protection, science, and truth itself.
Writing a novel about saving the only known life-sustaining planet in our galaxy compelled me to save the Earth in our own timeline. So I began researching the last wild places on Earth: the Amazon and the Arctic, where the last battles against the climate crisis will be waged. For humanity to survive, it must stem the burning of the Amazon, halt the melting of the Arctic, and prevent the further rise of global temperatures and the extreme weather that results from it.
I studied first-hand accounts of those landscapes in writing, photography, and video because I couldn’t physically travel to the South American equator and the northern pole (I had a full-time job and those ecosystems would likely kick my ass; being hostile to human habitation is how they survived in our Anthropocene age). But I had to tread carefully; as The Economist has stated, “Climate change is a notoriously tough subject for novelists,” a fact that is as real to me now as it was in 2017.
One big reason for that: A story about climate change needs an ambassador for the cause. For many people, the facts just don’t make a difference; ecocide, deforestation, and the loss of species that are evolutionary marvels just don’t register. At least, that has usually been the outcome of my own discussions around climate change. Only when humans are affected directly, do others feel compelled enough to act. I needed a real human story as a basis to inspire empathy and show the threat of extinction to a people, as well as the creatures that surround them.
That was when it became clear to me that my story needed to feature the Wayãpi of the Nipukú River, one of the last Indigenous tribes to exist completely independently of modern technology. Most other such tribes had been wiped out or forcibly assimilated by 1974, the year that anthropological linguist Alan Tormaid Campbell arrived in the Wayãpi village by the Nipukú in his account Getting to Know Waiwai. These Wayãpi came close to extinction when their numbers dwindled down to only one village with 152 people. Here was the potential permanent loss of a people, a culture, and a language; here were my ambassadors.
I couldn’t find any current information on the Wayãpi, although the different spellings of their name—Wayapí, Waiapi, Wayampi, Wajãpi, etc.—made research difficult. I feverishly hoped that they were still living in the northeastern forests of Brazil and surviving invasion from illegal gold panners, loggers, missionaries, disease, and deforestation. Today, the forest where they lived was burning at such magnitude that the astronauts on the International Space Station could see the fires at night.
As I wrote a chapter about those astronauts, the Wayãpi hit the news after almost four decades. Michel Temer, Brazil’s president, issued a decree that removed protection from a large area of Amazon forest that included eight conservation parks and two Indigenous land reserves. Environmental activists alerted the international press and journalists followed up on the story. With the world watching, a federal judge blocked the decree. Temer was not a king, but a president that needed approval from his National Congress.
However, this was only one victory among the many environmental defeats in Brazil. From 2006 through 2017, the country lost around 91,890 square miles of forest, which scales to an area larger than New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Connecticut combined; mass destruction had happened in just in ten years, and fires kept spreading into the future. In the fall of 2018, Brazil elected Jair Bolsonaro as its 38th president. He wasted no time on his agenda, announcing, “Where there is Indigenous land, there is wealth underneath it.” Bolsonaro attacked the legal protection granted to Brazil’s 305 ethnic groups, the last stewards of the Amazon forest.
This is what the Wayãpi ambassador in my story faced. He has two names—Gustavo, a Brazilian name given by a missionary, and his Wayãpi name, Wanato—and I hope he can bear witness to this destruction.
Now, my manuscript had two potential apocalypses included. But I was going to need heroes to save the planet—lots of them. It’s no wonder that I chose scientists. During a rise in nationalist politics when our new president pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement and walked away from a pact with our allies, I created characters that knew how to reach across borders and collaborate for the greater good.
Most of my characters were invented, like Dr. Benjamin Schwartz from NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies, Dr. Maya Gutiérrez from UC Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute, and Dr. Zhen Liu from China National Space Administration. Chapter by chapter, these characters demonstrate the cooperation, ingenuity and altruism of our species when the chips are down.
Heroes like these exist throughout history. In fact, some of my characters are modeled after specific instances of them. Dr. Siegfried “Ziggy” Divjak is inspired by Dr. Siegfried S. Hecker, the Director of Los Alamos National Laboratory during the collapse of the Soviet Union. Hecker collaborated with Russian nuclear physicists—former enemies—to secure nuclear arsenals during growing unrest. He’s the perfect example of how scientists have fought to protect our future—sometimes from ourselves.
I had all the characters I needed to save the planet and complete the manuscript. I found a literary agent at the end of the year, and then a publisher in early 2019. Together, we titled the book The Effort for the work that is done by Indigenous peoples like the Wayãpi, environmental activists, and scientists that point to danger and plead: Don’t look away.
This essay was originally published on Lithub here.The Effortby Claire Holroyde is available now.
Claire Holroyde is a graphic designer, writer, and storyteller living in the Philadelphia metro area. Her novel The Effort is sci-fi for readers of Station Eleven and Good Morning, Midnight, an electric, heart-pounding novel of love and sacrifice that follows people around the world as they unite to prevent a global catastrophe.
Bren MacDibble and Bijal Vachharajani discuss their childrens books, set at sea and on land.
Bijal:Sometimes the clichés just become the truth. I had an early morning meeting the next day, but there was Neoma making her way in the most perilous of journeys to the Valley of the Sun, and that’s it, I spent most of my night reading Bren MacDibble’s Across the Risen Sea.
Like the waterbody it’s set in, this middle grade book is full of unexpected twists and turns, joy and darkness, depth and frothiness, and the uncanny ability to sit in the present while looking towards a future shaped by the before-times. Here the before-times is where climate change turned farmlands into ‘salty swamps’ and cyclones destroyed many homes and the sea took everything everyone owned. Now Neoma and Jag’s families live gentle lives on high ground enveloped by the risen sea. Their lives change even more when strangers from the mysterious Valley of the Sun arrive and Neoma has to cross this sea to help her best friend and her community. A sweeping story of the climate crisis, social justice, fast friendships, and what home means in a changed world.
Bren: I hope you got your eyelids closed for a couple of moments before that early morning meeting! Savi and the Memory Keeperis a book I found enchanting on so many levels especially the major themes: connection and loss.
A little background: It’s a story about a girl who loses her father and they move to his childhood home to take over a family apartment. She loses not only her father, but the only home she’s ever known, her friends and her school. Savi’s sister and her mother are processing grief in very personal ways so she’s struggling to process her grief alone. She’s the only one up to caring for all the plants they bring with them that were her father’s. Savi feels a connection to him when she starts out but suddenly every plant she touches stirs up vivid magical memories of her father. This extends into her new school where an ancient tree grows. Then the tree shows her other visions and it becomes clear this tree and the whole city need her help. Initially, she keeps her visions to herself but other people are aware of her gift, those who want to help and those who want to stop her and it’s very hard for Savi to navigate them and this bizarre gift she definitely does not want, but one that also connects her to her dead father.
Bijal:I have to ask! You are an expert on being a kid on the land. How did you write such an immersive sea book?
Bren: I’ve always loved being near the sea, in the sea. Growing up in New Zealand, the sea was never too far away. I guess it’s a Kiwi thing? Childhoods spent digging toes in the sand for pippi! I have only been sailing a few times but I live right on the sea.
There’s so many moments of loss in Savi and the Memory Keeper, not only of Savi’s father, but also the connection with her remaining family, as well as the dwindling biodiversity and the loss of mild weather and clean air. This is a loss that we feel all around the world with dwindling ecosystems and wild weather events causing more devastation. Also in a COVID world, a lot more people are feeling the loss of a loved one and that loss can overwhelm our environmental losses as it does with Savi when she first moves to Shajarpur.
Was it a conscious decision on your part to entwine these two losses and have Savi bounce back and forth between them? Is this a reflection of something we’re all doing right now?
Bijal: Savi and Tree’s story comes from many places, from the day I stepped out a few weeks after a deeply personal loss, of the changing planet and the grief that comes from it, and the isolation of the COVID-changed world in which so many of us turned to our windows for comfort. I started drawing parallels between different kinds of grief as I turned to the clouds outside my balcony, and the trees around me for conversation. While I was forgetting the keys outside my door in my grief fugue, I began thinking about this environmental generational amnesia that we are facing collectively. It just happened that I started writing about all of this, reluctantly. Just trying to make sense of this strange new world, and also the familiarity and recuperative power of all things green and magical became Savi and the Memory Keeper.
How did Across the Risen Sea come about?
Bren: I was travelling Australia in a bus and I loved how many features in the landscapes were carved out by the great inland seas of the past, but I saw how coastal erosion was affecting small towns. I felt like the inland seas were returning. I was also following the plight of many Pasifika nations and Jakarta dealing with water inundation and it all seemed suddenly very close. Jakarta draws up massive amounts of groundwater that destabilise the land under the city. Parts of Jakarta have sunk two metres in the last ten years. Sea level rising has only got more mentions in the news since, so I feel like I’m writing real fears into survival scenarios.
My friend Gabi Wang pointed out a while ago, it feels like children’s writers are all writing our childhood selves over and over as if we can repair ourselves. Has the loss of family or of environment affected you personally the way it affects Savi in your book? What are you repairing?
Bijal: I so resonate with your friend, I was completely bewildered by the world as a child, lost in one of my own making – from making up stories to even an imaginary dog. Maybe hat’s why my protagonists– whether it’s the children of A Cloud Called Bhuraor Savi –seek refuge in books, animals and trees. Yet, they are very unlike me, because in fiction I can give them a lot more agency than what I had. I always wanted to do things, like try out for a play or raise my hand in class, but no, it just did not happen. (I lost my partner three years ago, and the only way I center myself is by writing. Even though I am a reluctant writer.)
The jerky-walking crab baby is going to haunt me a long time. Could you tell us more about our present and how it becomes Neoma and Jag’s before-times?
Bren: Ha! This is where our books cross over the most. Tree loss and soil degradation is a major player in sea level rising. A land full of living roots and water ways lined with trees can hold so much more water mostly due to the actions of the mycorrhizal fungi mentioned in your book and their secretions of sticky substances that allow water to go deep into the soil. Also, of course, global warming accelerated by us continuing to cling to fossil fuels is speeding the melting of the poles and glaciers. We’re entering a period of wilder weather which brings coastal erosion. I mention a particularly bad summer of cyclones in Across the Risen Sea as a major contributor to the flooding.
Speaking of mycorrizal fungi, the connectivity of the trees was an amazing feature of Savi and the Memory Keeper and a topic we’re all becoming increasingly familiar with and love to hear about. You’ve shown that the trees are sentient and connected but you’ve given them a kind of royal tree that is magically sentient, talks to Savi and the other trees and tries to protect all the trees in the city of Sharjarpur. I loved that it made them all flower and enrapture people at once! How much are trees actually connected and sentient in real life? How important are trees to our environment?
Bijal: I read about the Wood Wide Web and Dr Suzanne Simard’s research, and it just blew my mind. I researched non-stop, read books and watched videos, went on walks and spoke to naturalists, and that’s how Tree came into being, inspired by the mother trees. It’s amazing how forest trees communicate, there’s drama in the underland, how they share nutrients, sunlight, information. And yet, the mycorrhizal network that makes this magic happen is also vulnerable to climate change. Without trees, there’s no us. Forests are home to our water resources and our food systems, apart from being home to so many species. They are our keepers of soil and regulators of climate. Also, it would be very boring and horridly concrete without them.
Your books bring together the climate crisis and the human and wild world. What keeps you writing these powerful themes with such heart-warming prose, in the face of all the apocalyptical things that we are surrounded by now.
Bren: I feel like the climate news is overwhelming. Humans are not good with overwhelming, we tend to turn away, but if we stop talking about these issues nothing will change so what I try to do is say it could look really bad, but also, here are people surviving and thriving anyway. They have love and family and purpose and morals. They have everything they need to be good humans even though they have lost so much. And I hope that’s empowering for young readers and that talking about Across the Risen Sea and Neoma’s world is a safe space for examining sea level rising and keeping the conversation going. Children don’t deserve to be overwhelmed.
And you, top marks for the addition of a wise bossy cat and the pot plant overwatering. Seems very covid lockdown adjacent. I like that Savi is a typical teenager, both smart and tough but also lost and emotional and sometimes feeling foolish and defensive.
I especially like the language that’s full of Indian words and food and is very modern and easy for me to enjoy. I love the energy of it, there are times that seem full of teenagers just making noise as they do. I love to see English mutated for people’s own use. It’s a perfect language for that. But rather than butchering it like I do in my books, you’ve used it much more eloquently.
Is this true to Indian teens, and what time do you envisage this story is set? You mention Covid-19 at one point which is now a great scar on the timeline of humans so it must be now or slightly in the future? Who’s your main audience?
Bijal: Savi’s story is set somewhere just in the hopeful future, where we think that we’d have decided to ‘look up’ like the recent film, and yet no one does. Except the children, and well, some grown-ups.
I do write like I talk and think, and like a lot of multilingual Indians, I pepper my writing with a lot of Indian words, much to my autocorrect’s annoyance. And food is pretty much a constant preoccupation, plus there are such different regional words that we use for them – like I say pauva for beaten rice, my friend says avalakki, and my partner said pohe. All of that just goes in pretty subconsciously.
A teacher recently told me that she felt I gave children a voice with my books, and that’s all I can hope for. I think I write for them, children who love books and who like my childhood self, find companionship in these stories.
Neoma’s just one of my favourite protagonists, she’s spirited and amazingly loyal, but Jag has my heart with his torn shorts and his courage in the face of daunting events. In fact, the friendships in the book are really the anchors of the story, and their banter and little fights and anecdotes. To me this is really a story of different relationships, of friends, of relationship with the sea, with strangers, with shifting realities. Take us a little behind the scenes of how you built this compelling world?
Bren: I like when friendships are formed even though kids are so different. Girls at 8-12 are often more physical than boys and in a culture where people don’t teach girls to be quiet and tidy this would be true. She’s very sure they are living good environmentally-friendly lives and I think there’s power in that. I have an island which used to be a hill, and all the human detritus the sea can wash in, so houses are made from old vehicle bodies.
Furniture, utensils, tools and clothing are foraged from abandoned apartment buildings now surrounded by sea. Solar panels run ovens, a sea wall is built from old car chassis. We have so much stuff in the world now, we’re probably set for any future! The sea may be claiming the land, but it can also give food and transport.
Other elements of connectivity in Savi and the Memory Keeper were the house plants and bonsai plant in the boardroom of the corporate greedy Uncles and Aunties (yes, I saw that subtle little spy tree – well done), the people from Savi’s father’s past, the connection to the land his people had belonged to since early history, and the sharing of grief amongst Savi’s new friends.
Savi has to figure out all these connections and how they affect her, but it’s beautiful to watch it all coming together. Her growing awareness. You continually mention the distractions, social media, shiny things, luxury things and how they lull people into a false sense that the economy and nice things are what we should be paying attention to which lets greed push aside the natural world. The messages contained in this book are very clear. Don’t sell out the environment!
India is a country of great philosophers and landscapes but also a country of amazing human history and new technological and scientific advances. How do you feel it’s coping with this surge in technological advancement? Is there an awareness of the importance of environment?
Bijal: I am lucky, I know amazing people who champion the environment in the work they do –teachers, activists, filmmakers, bookmakers. I acknowledge that I end up being in a bubble of like-minded wonderful people, at the same time, I get to witness what we are fighting for. I go to classrooms with my books, that’s really when I get to meet children and listen to them –students who are keen defenders of the environment and have trivia at the tip of their fingers, children who have never heard the term climate change, despite environment studies being part of the curriculum; kids who are curious about the world once we begin talking. I think we have a long way to go when it comes to making environment a priority in decision making at all levels, across industries and while making policies. It again comes from us perceiving the natural world as different, seeing our place separate from the environment.
The crocodile! Genius. I co-interviewed Romulus Whitaker for my book 10 Indian Champions Who Are Fighting To Change The Planet. He has worked for many years with crocodiles and came away with a feeling of awe for these prehistoric reptiles. You do that as well, and you make us see the natural history side of this animal and also a very compassionate side. How did you decide to bring in this amazing twist in the tail (tale)?
Bren: A little girl out on the risen sea all alone in a sail boat? She really needed back up. A crocodile isn’t such a good back up because you can never trust a hungry crocodile, but I feel like they had some mutual respect, and it did keep other people away from her boat. Also its a children’s novel, there should be a few things that push the line of the absurd just because it’s fun.
You’ve written a lot of non-fiction and picture books for children about the environment. What’s one thing kids can realistically do to help save our environment? And where can they turn for more advice?
Bijal: Whenever I work with children, I always come back overwhelmed. Children care, so much. They want to be part of the change making process, they still have that inherent sense of wonder Rachel Carson wrote about. I truly believe for anyone, children or adults, who want to save the environment, we need to first get them to fall in love with it. We protect what we love, and I think we need to create more opportunities for children to engage with trees, spiders, fungi, the natural world around them. After that it’s easy, protecting that bush which is home to ten caterpillars, or starting an anti-plastic drive in their school, voting for green policy makers when they grow up, all of that comes naturally to them. They need wild spaces to meander in, to fuel their imagination, and well-meaning adults who can walk with them on these nature trails for a bit at least.
Could you share with us a little bit about the amazing cover and working with Jo Hunt, and also working with your editor on Across the Risen Sea?
Bren: This is the third book cover Jo Hunt has done for me, and I adore them. She reads the books and creates the art just perfectly. Input from me would be irrelevant. She’s the expert. I love the two-tone layered images. Internally, she has little black outline images for chapter ends as well.
You also have amazing cover illustrations and chapter header illustrations. So gorgeous! I love the hugging of the ancient tree and its roots reaching down into the city and above all the hornbill perched in the tree. I spent three days trekking in a jungle in Malaysia with just four packets of two-minute noodles trying to see a hornbill, so to me this is a very rare and exotic bird that just lives at Savi’s school! Amazing! Who made them for you?
Bijal:Rajiv Eipe’s a genius! He worked very closely with Nimmy Chacko, my editor, on the cover. He made tonnes of iterations – Tree’s many avatars in purple and pink, and yellow, and green, 42 plants and Bekku the cat, a wasp singing Figaro to the ficus. For me, the cover represents the way end up othering green spaces especially in cities, yet offering hope in the form of Tree and their companions. I love the symbiotic chapter headers, where Rajiv gives voice to tree rings, wasps and earthworms in his own wondrous way.
Like me, you won’t be able to put Bren’s book down, and really no regrets on being a little late for that meeting the next day.
Bren: Thanks Bijal! I always feel like scientists can talk about how important trees are but for people to really comprehend what it means, we need to put it into story, show how it affects individuals. Stories have been handed down and kept humans safe since the beginning of time. We are the descendants of people who listened to story-tellers and I thank you for this story of Savi and the Memory Keeper.
Bren MacDibble lives in a national park right on the beautiful Indian Ocean in Western Australia. Her adventure novels for children set in futures affected by environmental issues have won multiple awards, including Across the Risen Sea and her next book, The Raven Song, written with Zana Fraillon, which will be published in Aus/NZ/UK late in 2022. Bren also writes for young adults as Cally Black.
When Bijal Vachharajani is not reading a children’s book, she is writing or editing one. Her books are about all things green and blue, including Savi and the Memory Keeper and A Cloud Called Bhura, which won the AutHer award in 2020. She is usually found talking to a tree or worrying about the climate crisis.
The light that falls through the rainforest is always mottled. By the time it reaches you it has passed through the layers of the leaves and vines, the branches and trunks that fold and twist over and among each other. The humus and leaf litter are soft and moist underfoot because the light that reaches them is muted. They cook down there in the wet, and are thick with insects, worms, and new ferns just emerging like green beetles.
When it has been raining some of the fungi that grow on the forest floor seem implausible. In the first year we were here in Kangaroo Valley, I photographed an extraordinary form that was larger than a tall man’s boot, bright orange and porous like a sea sponge. Last year, I walked down the slope to the place where the mushrooms used to grow and the earth smelt dank. Now the leaves crackled beneath my boots. There was no give in the earth.
Down where the rainforest slopes towards the river there is a grove of huge trees, their ochre trunks reaching high above the canopy. It hurts your neck to try to see their upper branches. There is one whose trunk must have a diameter of three metres at least. You’d need a good eight people, arms outstretched and holding hands, to encircle it. He is remarkable and when you see him, he stops you in your tracks. He is also, quite evidently, part of a larger multi-generational family, not only of the trees of the same species but also of creepers, bird’s nest ferns, other trees, the animals and insects that live in and on him, and the mycelium that stretches beneath and among them. Even when he dies, he will continue to nurture this community. The hollows that form in his trunk will be homes for small marsupials such as bush rats, possums, and antechinuses; for bats and gliders; goannas; frogs and snakes; parrots and owls. The decaying wood will provide habitat, breeding grounds and food for beetles, ants, worms, and snails. Those wonderous orange parasites that catch your eye when you walk through the forest will form a line along his body when he eventually lies horizontal.
And as they all do this, they will transform what he has become into nutrients in and on the forest floor, from which others will grow. I named the tree Isaac.
Isaac was my grandfather. He came on a boat to Australia with Hela, my grandmother, and John, my father, in April 1950. Right after the end of the war they fled from Poland to Paris, and it was from there that they obtained refugee status and a passage to Australia. Other than Hela and John, no one from Isaac’s family survived the war. He told me that his business partner had escaped to Argentina, where he changed his family name from Zając — Polish for hare — to Królik, which means rabbit. Or perhaps it was the other way around. Isaac and Hela’s daughter, my father’s sister, Alma, was taken by the Gestapo in 1942 when the family was in hiding in Warsaw, and murdered. She was twelve.
When the three of them arrived in Australia with barely a word of English, they virtually stopped speaking their native tongue. Their lives were, and, I came to understand, had to be, about the future. As he had learned from his Jewish forebears, everything that Isaac did was oriented towards the community he felt part of, and to the lives of his grandchildren, and their children — down seven generations. People who did not yet exist, and whom he would never know, but whose yet-to-be lives guided his. It is one of the human qualities that takes your breath away, this capacity to be consciously present not only to what you might make from what is immediately in front of you in time and space, but to what that could become, long after you are gone. We continue to draw nourishment from the spring he opened.
When I turned fifty it occurred to me that it was my turn to live towards seven generations. It sounds like a romantic idea, but when you actually go about realising it you start to fathom the difficulty of the task — to orient yourself, and to start to act in ways that are given by your care for future lives whose context and shape will always remain opaque to you. It means imagining not only what those lives might be like, but what nourishment they might most need. And even if you have a model to inspire you, as I did in Isaac, your time is not their time. 2014 was not 1950.
When I tried to look forward, to feel forward, what seemed most vital was access to fertile land and sources of clean water. And, along with that, lifeways and understandings that would have those seven generations feel at home in, delighted by, grateful for, and responsible to the earth and the other beings who supported and accompanied them. That is what had us find our way to this valley, and that is why the most magnificent tree in our midst bears the name Isaac.
What Isaac “knows”
Around me I hear whisperings, almost shamefully spoken, of people’s fear for the future. Since the fires began to consume the worlds around us, the reverberations of those whisperings have intensified. People have started to use the term “existential threat” to convey the idea that not just human lives but human life is at stake. It is not inaccurate, but it does not quite make present or bring close what is happening in our bodies as we sense this peril. Maybe it is easier to adopt an abstract idiom than to speak out loud about the intimate, palpable, and direct losses we would prefer not to name. Maybe we believe that if we don’t give them shape in the form of words, they will cease to exist. Or maybe we are trying to shield ourselves from the flood of feelings they would elicit.
But it is only fantastical thinking that has you believe that silence will not stop the dreaded future from coming to pass. I’d hazard a guess that wrapping words around our still-amorphous feelings, and giving voice to the ones we already know we harbour might be a corner piece in the puzzle of learning how to live in this world. If we are to have any chance at mitigating that dreaded future, difficult actions lie before us. Speaking the feared future, and being present with each other to how desperately we do not want it, may give us the clarity and resolve we need to act. And if or when it is too late for such actions, if there is no more to be done to prevent that future, honesty will be the only solid ground to stand on. To stand and hold on to each other.
Sometimes I take a walk to visit Isaac. He is good for being straight with. These last few years, through the work of scientists, as well as novelists and artists, we have learned so much more about trees than we in the West have ever allowed ourselves to acknowledge before. So I would not presume even to guess what capacity Isaac has to “know” about the future. It took us suspending our certainties about the order of life for long enough to pay attention to trees as something other than resource, aesthetic object or environment for (other) sentient life. Already we have learned that they communicate with each other about drought or disease or harmful predators using chemical, hormonal, and slow-pulsing electrical signals. They know, and share with each other what they know, about what might threaten them. I’d hazard a guess they also know, and share what they know, about what pleases them.
I wonder what Isaac has come to know, both in these last years, as the temperature he lives in has risen, the rainfall has declined, and now, as the fire that is approaching has already killed others like him who lived in the millions of hectares that form his larger home. I wonder whether Isaac had received the message that others’ immediate worlds are disappearing as the fires move from root to crown, from the leaf litter to fungi to trunks to leaves to birds. I wonder how Isaac, who by his nature orients his life to seven generations, looks to the future now.
Catherine Bush and Nicola Penfold discuss their novels, which focus on wild nature.
Catherine: Nicola, one of the things I loved so much about entering your upper MG novel Between Sea and Sky was feeling uncanny resonances to my novel,Blaze Island, written for older readers yet with young adult protagonists and being released in the UK and US this spring.
At moments I felt like your platform island, built of lashed-together boats on a bay that reminded me of Morecambe Bay in the northwest of England, was on one side of the Atlantic while my wild and wind-swept Blaze Island, off the coast of Newfoundland, lay in a parallel world on the other side of the ocean.
Both novels feature resolute and protective daughters who live with their grief-stricken fathers and don’t want to leave their islands. In my novel the climate scientist father has forbidden his teenaged daughter from leaving Blaze Island. In the futuristic world of your novel, one daughter longs to take off for a life on the mainland, the other passionately resists. Both will find their lives transformed.
Fathers teach their daughters about the natural world in both novels. In Between Sea and Sky a boy arrives on Pearl and Clover’s rigged-together sea farm bearing a secret, in mine a young man tumbles through Miranda’s door in the midst of a violent storm, hiding his true identity. Both our novels gesture to Shakespeare’s The Tempest – how could you not in stories of young women living with fathers on islands?
Climate-engineering science becomes a kind of magic in my novel. And when I came upon the greenhouse, which plays a key role in your novel, as a greenhouse does in mine, my mind felt a bit blown. I was immersed in your story, by your characters, who move with such energy and vitality. And though the future world that you describe felt bleak, you also invite the reader to be beautifully and tenderly transported into wonder.
Nicola: Catherine, hello! Thanks so much! This honestly feels like such a great pairing, doesn’t it? My mind was blown in that section of Blaze Island when the storm brings in old treasures – sections of clay pipe, fragments of pottery, seaglass. Mudlarking is such a big thing for my characters. And then the use of seaweed as a carbon sink too. Our worlds have so much in common, and yes, The Tempest of course. How indeed could we not?! I love referring to other stories – I think it can give extra weight to a novel.
Blaze Island was such a seductive a setting for me. I love remote places, and characters living on the edge of society, and it felt so fitting that this was the kind of place Miranda’s father would seek refuge in, after he was cast out by climate deniers. But I was impressed with how reports from the outside world still came in, and that sense of ever worsening climate catastrophe – hurricanes, blizzards, intolerable heatwaves, forest fires, a brown sea surging through Manhattan subway stations, icebergs dying in the bay… It was genuinely terrifying, all the more so because these things are of course real. And there’s such a sense that Blaze Island won’t be a refuge for long: the bad weather is coming in.
Catherine: Yes, the bad weather is definitely coming in, and I wanted that realism. Blaze Island isn’t futuristic, it’s an alternate now. Between Sea and Sky is your second speculative, environmentally themed novel for young readers. In your first, When the World Turns Wild, two children escape from a walled city that has shut itself off from the natural world after a deadly virus released by eco-activists runs rampant, a plot that given our pandemic reality sends eerie shivers down my spine. Can you describe the spark that began Between Sea and Sky and were you writing the novel during the pandemic?
Nicola: Yes, I was writing this in the pandemic. I’d already agreed to the premise with my editor, but it was written in the UK’s first COVID lockdown. This definitely impacted my writing. It was the first time I’d lived through a period of such tight rules and regulations, and this helped build the claustrophobia of my fictional world, the loss of freedom. Then because it’s a sea novel, and I live in London and was feeling very landlocked, all my love and longing for the sea poured out into this book. It didn’t feel like it at the time, but in retrospect, I’m really grateful I had it to write!
Were you writing in the first lockdowns too? How did this influence your writing?
Catherine: I released Blaze Island in Canada during the first year of the pandemic. I spent those early months of lockdown on my own in the country not really knowing what was going to happen with the book’s publication, which was agonizing. Collectively everyone was trying to figure out how to publish during a pandemic and make the transition to online events. I was really preoccupied with that.
I found myself thinking that even though Blaze Island was written before the pandemic, there are all sorts of correspondences between Miranda’s isolated life on an island that she can’t, or won’t, leave and our lockdown lives, which left most of us feeling as if we were living on our own version of an island. So I spent time writing about this condition of feeling ‘islanded’ by the pandemic, our need to cultivate self-reliance amid isolation, and I produced a short film called “We Are Islands,” in collaboration with an experimental filmmaker and two artists from Fogo Island, the magical place that inspired my fictional Blaze Island. Like you, I’ve been haunted by the fact that I can’t get to the sea, especially because my next novel is also a sea novel. On this continent, the ocean is over a thousand kilometres from me. All these months later, I’m still dreaming!
Nicola, would you describe the future world that you create — in which the earth is poisoned, much of the UK has flooded, families live under intense social surveillance by a Central Government, grow their food in vertical towers, and are only permitted one child — as dystopic?
Nicola: Yes, absolutely. Like my first book, this is a dystopia, but with light and hope, which is important I think, for the age I write for. In my first book, Where the World Turns Wild, the characters leave the dystopic city behind, and head out to the wild. Here too, my characters quickly escape: on land, Nat and his friends explore the forbidden fields of solar panels, where nature is returning; at sea, the sisters live outside of the rules, they’ve run away from them. This is rather like Miranda and her father have run to Blaze Island in your book. They’ve left the real world behind. Actually, I’m really interested to know, how long have you wanted to write an island story? An island is a compelling setting for a writer, huh?! I almost got there with my offshore oyster farm in Between Sea and Sky, but I think I still have an island story inside me to tell!
Catherine: Oh, please write an island story. I’m already eager to read it. I will say that the makeshift island of Between Sea and Sky feels like an island – and, yes, I’ve long wanted to write an island story. In the midst of all that early pandemic isolation, I found myself thinking back to the island literature I loved as a child. Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy. Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins, a classic from my youth, about a young indigenous woman left behind on an island off the California coast who learns to survive on her own while befriending a wolf. Islands are magical in part because they’re microcosms of the world. Maybe that’s why writers love them. In climate terms, island thinking is so crucial, isn’t it – because ultimately, we all live on a planetary island.
I’m curious — how do you create a world that might compel us to recognize the threats to our familiar lives but doesn’t terrify or depress young readers? I’ve been thinking recently about the place of dystopias in climate literature. In Blaze Island I try to stay close to an elastic realism, containing nothing that couldn’t or isn’t happening now – a massive hurricane barrelling up the east coast of North America, melting Arctic ice, research into climate engineering. What appeals to you about creating a speculative future in which we can see traces of our own world?
Nicola: It’s definitely that relatability. Mudlarking was a great way of weaving this in actually. Sisters Pearl and Clover find washed up toys, jewellery, crisp packets…familiar things to my readers. I wanted to reach across to them from the future world. But you’re so right, not completely terrifying and depressing readers, particularly young readers, is important! I was very conscious of this, and it felt a fine tightrope to walk – how to include enough of the climate emergency to do justice to what a huge thing it is in all our lives, but not to make readers despair. For me, the natural world is always the answer, and particularly natural climate solutions. In my first book the focus was very much on rewilding, and in Between Sea and Sky, it’s rewilding too, but this time of the seas. People retreating has given nature space to recover.
Catherine: Attention to nature feels key to both your novels and this was certainly essential to me when evoking the world of Blaze Island in which Miranda and her father, and Caleb and his mother, live very close to the land. I spent eight years returning to the actual Fogo Island for research, talking to people in its communities, living near to sea and wind. In Between Sea and Sky, I felt transported into a watery zone where nature seems on the verge of recovering from human ravages. Porpoises swim in the bay. You invite young readers to notice, really notice, the living world beyond the human.
As the novel opens, mainlander Nat discovers some small crawling creatures munching on the leaves of a plant. At first, like Nat, I had no idea what they were. You do a brilliant job creating suspense out of whether the caterpillars will survive long enough to pupate into butterflies. Perhaps there’s metaphor here, but above all there’s ardour in the way we are invited to pay attention to the natural world through your characters’ care and noticing. Can you talk about this aspect of your writing and why it feels so important?
Nicola: I loved the nature on Blaze Island! It was as alive as the characters for me. I especially loved how Miranda has been raised alongside it, how she names berries, lichens, flowers, birds. She knows the direction of the wind. She can read the clouds. She makes bread and fire. It was beautifully done. For me, reading your book, which is essentially of course a story of growing climate disaster, the natural world was the space and the light and the hope. You got the balance just right, and this is absolutely why I include nature too. I mean practically all the solutions to the climate crisis that make any sense involve nature.
I don’t want to preach or be didactic, first and foremost I’m telling stories, but I do consciously want to promote a connection with nature. A relationship with the natural world is a huge gift in our lives, it brings solace in hard times, it makes us happier, healthier. And of course, it’s been said by many more articulate people than me, we protect what we know and love. We want, we need, our leaders of tomorrow to have this relationship with the natural world.
Catherine: As I was writing up these questions I was listening to Spell Songs, created from poems by writer Robert Macfarlane, illustrated by artist Jackie Morris, in their books Lost Words and Lost Spells, in which they bring back to life nature words, and worlds, at risk of being lost. Spells play a crucial role in Between Sea and Sky. As a reader I felt both spellbound by your world and bewildered – that is, invited to be wilder, to enter a world growing wilder again. Do you think fiction can cast a spell and bring readers into closer relation with wild nature?
Nicola: Fiction does cast a spell. Reading Blaze Island, I certainly was under the spell of Miranda and Caleb as their lives adjusted to the newcomers on the island, and the incoming hurricane, and working out what all this means for them. And yes, I do think this is something good writing can achieve, taking us into wilder spaces, even as we read in our city bedrooms and urban classrooms.
Catherine: What’s your own relationship to the natural world – as you live and write? Do you live close to the sea?
Nicola: No, sadly. It’s a dream of mine, to someday live near the sea, but I live in north London, thankfully with many green spaces nearby which help restore me. I do seek out water. I swim in a nearby lido, I walk pretty much most days by a little urban waterway where I see cormorants and a heron, and ducks, swans etc. I seek wild places out like medicine. As I’ve got older, I’ve recognised this about myself: I’m happier when I’ve been somewhere green. Calmer. There’s even evidence that being outdoors in nature can make us kinder. I found this out, and many other things like this, from an amazing book by the writer Lucy Jones. It’s called Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild. I now recommend it to everyone, so am here recommending it to you!
Tell me about where you live and where you write, Catherine!
Catherine: Oh, I love this book recommendation and I just read an astonishing, horrifying statistic in the Guardian review of it: “three-quarters of children in the UK, aged five to 12, now spend less time outside than prisoners”. I hope the spell of your books helps to counteract that. I’m lucky these days to write between city and country.
Some years ago my soul said, I need more nature, and I was lucky enough to be able to buy an old stone one-room schoolhouse, set amid fields, for what was very little money though a lot to me. So I write in both places but mostly out here. The green world is my place for nurturance. I totally agree with everything you say about the need to bring us back into connection with nature. To notice and care for the aliveness of the world around us. I’m lucky in Toronto to live surrounded by trees and a nearby forested park but there’s more space for wonder and awe out here in the country — and complications, like the fields around me being sprayed by glyphosate. It’s rural but not far enough out to be wild, whatever that means these days. Still, I love it.
Nicola, can you imagine writing fiction for young readers that doesn’t somehow respond to the climate and ecological crises we face? In a recent piece for The Guardian writer Ben Okri spoke about the need for ‘existential creativity.’ I know you’re working on a new novel about the Arctic – can you say more?
Nicola: That was a tremendous piece by Ben Okri. It felt like a call to arms to creatives. Yes, I am working on a novel about the Arctic and I’m finding it a strange and tricky thing to do, because what I want to do most is to take the readers there in their imaginations, to write about the beauty and the wonder of this extraordinary landscape. Which so many people will never have seen in real life, and quite possibly won’t ever. And it’s desperately sad to know we’re losing these icy landscapes at such an unprecedented rate. But I want to write about hope, and imagine a different kind of future where we have stepped up to save our beautiful planet, where the balance has shifted in favour of the natural world. I’m still working out quite how to do this.
I was very moved by the icebergs that drift into the bay in Blaze Island. You had a line about how little time it takes for eternities to vanish. These parts must have been emotional to write?
Catherine: There was one summer when, perhaps because of wind or water currents, so many icebergs stranded in the bay off Fogo Island. The water was full of them. It was the most astonishing, beautiful and, yes, heart-rending sight. The little house where I lived, and which inspired Miranda’s house in the novel, sits on a cove on the ocean-side of the island and I could literally watch icebergs float past my back door – melting.
It’s so hard to wrap our heads around the scale of that ice, ten thousand years old or more, broken off the Greenland ice sheet that helps hold planetary life together – and you’re right it’s something that many people will never see; I’d never seen an iceberg until I went to Newfoundland. I wanted to bring icebergs to the page in a way that made them not scenery but presences, presences in time, disappearing presences; I wanted to give readers the chance to have an encounter, come into relationship with the ice on which we all depend, to imagine swallowing ice containing bubbles of ten-thousand-year-old air. As my character Frank does and I have done. If you take that into your body, you become a little bit iceberg, as old, as ephemeral, and, I hope, transformed, more open to attention and care.
When thinking about the future, we cannot bring into being what we can’t imagine, and so, even beyond offering hope, the imagination and stories play a crucial role in our path ahead. Nicola, what are your thoughts on this?
Nicola: It comes back to the natural world for me. David Attenborough said at COP26, addressing young people, “In my lifetime I’ve witnessed a terrible decline. In yours, you could and should witness a wonderful recovery.” This is what I really want to write about, the wonderful recovery of the natural world, and what a marvellous story it is to write.
Nicola Penfold was born in Billinge and grew up in Doncaster. She studied English at St John’s College, Cambridge. Nicola’s worked in a reference library and for a health charity, but being a writer was always the job she wanted most. She is married, with four children and two cats, and is an avid reader of children’s books.
Catherine Bush is the author of five novels, including Blaze Island (2020), a Globe & Mail Best Book, and The Rules of Engagement (2000), a New York Times Notable Book and a Globe & Mail and L.A. Times Best Book of the Year. Her books have been shortlisted for the Trillium and City of Toronto Book Awards in Canada. She was a 2019 Fiction Meets Science Fellow at the HWK in Germany and has written and spoken internationally about responding to the climate crisis through fiction. She is the Coordinator of the University of Guelph Creative Writing MFA, located in Toronto.
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 I 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.
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
Authors Venetia Welby and A. E. Copenhaver discuss their adult climate fiction novels.
Venetia Welby: I loved My Dark Green Days of Euphoria. It’s such an original idea – and absolutely of our time, encompassing the generational divide, the visceral exhaustion of the professional activist. Can you tell me something about what inspired you to write this novel?
A. E. Copenhaver: Why thank you! I’m so glad you liked it. I really enjoyed writing it. Part of what inspired this novel is the absurdity of what’s going on here on Earth. You don’t even have to be a professional activist to watch the headlines every morning to think, something is really wrong here.
In the novel the main character Cara works at an environmental non-profit so it’s her job to witness these issues and then help temper them. So the professional activist helps shed light on the magnitude of these compounding issues—climate change, ecocide, genocide, social inequity, racial injustices, all the daily atrocities skipping across our screens—and the cultural drivers exacerbating the issues.
I’ve always been drawn to the intersection between ethics and individual vices (like drinking and smoking and doing drugs), and to me it feels like we have reached a point where we can conceive of societal vices driving societal inequities.
For example, given what we know about industrial animal agriculture, is eating meat when we don’t have to considered a personal choice or a societal vice? And at what point are we no longer considered good people or no longer seen as making good choices in our daily lives, and who’s judging us?
So this novel is inspired by magnifying those curiosities, by wanting to explore someone who is straddling that line between doing (her own version of) good on one side and then indulging in actively choosing not to care on the other. And—once we know and care, is it even possible to truly turn that caring, compassionate part of ourselves off? Or do we have to find other means of relief, and if so, what might that look like?
AEC: As for your novel Dreamtime, I am floored by the sharp writing, by the urgency of the story (set in a near-future Earth plagued by climate change devastation) and yet at the same time, the slowed warping of Sol’s reality as she seeks her long lost father. Would you share a little more about if or how you imagine the climate crisis is affecting our experience of time?
VW:You’re absolutely right that the doom news is right there for us. We cannot say we didn’t know: it’s inescapable. Being human means having to confront our own inevitable individual deaths, but watching the climate catastrophe unfold forces us to contemplate this on a grand scale. Now we must consider the end of our species, of civilisation, of all that we have known the earth to be and contain. Seeing the spectacular rate at which we’re destroying our only available habitat creates a sense of time running out, and I hoped to recreate this sense of urgency in the novel as Sol battles to get across Japan before commercial aviation ceases.
There is also a timelessness involved, a sense of the eternal that is magnified when we think of humanity on its deathbed – its myths, beliefs and legends. Our collective psyche is also potentially on the way out and making itself felt. Sol and her friend Kit grew up in a commune called Dreamtime, a name based on the founder’s experience in the Australian outback. For the Aboriginal people, the Dreamtime or Dreaming is at the heart of a complex religio-cultural belief system: a time out of time, a place out of place, in which the ancestral spirits of creation and their stories still live. In the Dreamtime cult, however, this eternal otherworld is reduced to a prize for the stoned who seek it, and appropriated as a cover for predation.
Much of the novel is set in the Ryukyu Islands, in particular Okinawa, still in 2035 at the mercy of its Japanese colonisers and the vast number of US military bases that currently occupy it. This is a place where the suffering, pollution and abuse has been so pervasive that the past is still alive in the present, and its ghosts continue to haunt even the near future I’ve envisaged. The timelines are blurred in a place like this, and invisible boundaries are constantly shifting. Time is stretchy, and the eternal world is just beyond the veil.
That all sounds extremely depressing, I know, but there’s humour in Dreamtime too. How – and why – did you balance creating such a funny, relatable narrative with the harrowing subject matter? Despite the prevalence of the news, I still learnt terrifying new things from My Days of Dark Green Euphoria, but I also laughed. A lot.
AEC: As for why I paired humor with atrocity—I just find satire a really delightful genre. I remember reading Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposalin grade school and feeling totally thrilled—I thought, “Wow, is this even…allowed?” I loved the concept of using absurdity to parody atrocity, which then places our actual behaviors into stark relief—so that what we believe to be normal (maybe it’s eating meat or using people as a means to create commodities, whatever)—suddenly seems outrageous. There’s something magical and satisfying in that formula, so I’m really glad to hear you learned something but also laughed. That’s what I was hoping for!
I keep thinking about the concept of time in both of our novels. A lot of people have reported experiencing a sort of time warping since the pandemic especially. In my novel—even I as the writer lost track of the main character’s timeline—the publishers and I had to piece everything back together. We found that not even three months had passed since my main character Cara’s boyfriend departs and then she ends up entranced and entangled with his ecologically ignorant mother Millie, trying to escape her clutches. But to me it felt like 10 months or something—that time had slowed and expanded, took up way more space.
I wonder about how humans are asked to contemplate all these different timescales when even just imagining the magnitude of the climate crisis. We have to clumsily count on our fingers from the last ice age, make tally marks for the dinosaurs and the glaciers melting, add up the five separate mass extinctions, plus one for this current (sixth) mass extinction.
This exercise puts our own mortality in context, as you said, but also, at least for my character Cara, forces her to consider her own legacy and what she wants to be remembered for.
Humans have always been concerned about their legacy, but at one point Cara—whose defining feature is her crippling eco-anxiety—thinks about how maybe the best legacy to leave is nothing—nothing needing to be repaired, mended or solved or healed. Alternatively, I think a lot about other cultures—like, the myriad Native American cultures of the Pacific Northwest, and how though so many of those different cultures and Peoples were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands, their legacy, the ways they lived in their corner of the globe, perseveres in greater ecosystems there. There’s something called ‘forest gardens’—wild places where Native Americans cultivated a foundation of health and resilience and vitality that to this day allows greater biodiversity to thrive in those same spaces—even though the Indigenous People who once lived there have been removed and no longer have a regular presence there in the same way as their Ancestors. This is the kind of legacy I’m so fascinated by and I think Cara gets around to considering, too.
This brings to mind the concept—explored extensively in your novel—of healing and recovery. Sol and Kit are coming to terms with their childhood spent in a truly damaging cult (maybe ‘damaging cult’ is redundant?). In many ways, modern society feels like a deranged, toxic cult that we all participate in, some more than others. And at this point in time the collective ‘we’ seems to be coming to terms with this cult.
And also permeating both of our novels is this desire for, as Sol puts it, “the state of divine apathy […].” Sol of course was talking about actual heroin, and Cara in my novel uses similar language to describe how she feels when she’s with the ecologically unconscious and blind Millie.
I think this desire for oblivion, for some kind of instant relief, when paired with the profound oppression and atrocity spanning the globe, is what makes for moments of hilarity. Like, “oh our species might not survive in any meaningful way through the end of this century, and we might take most all other species down too, but why not enjoy this rack of donuts? It’s probably the right thing to do.” What you said earlier about humor—how you learned some terrifying new things in my novel but also found yourself laughing a lot—I had a nearly exact experience with your novel! The Ryukyu Islands and Okinawa in particular are such a perfect setting for showing the persistent violence of colonization and, as if the colonizers are fighting their own homesickness, the vapid and comedic display of often eye-rolling elements of that home (in this case American) culture. Those moments where Sol and Kit watch this clash take place on the back streets were exceptional and often amusing to witness.
Now, I know you’ve written about this before in other outlets, but I’m hoping you can share more about your own experience in Okinawa and in the States. I was impressed with how your novel absorbs both of those cultures so seamlessly—you’re from the UK originally, right? Do you find that your extensive travels push you to find new and creative ways to explore disparate places, cultures, and people?
VW: I agree with your idea of the whole world as a cult – there’s certainly something cultlike in the way we slavishly pursue the very things that make our own destruction assured. I wonder if my extensive travel is part of this – there does seem to be a raging hypocrisy in me setting a novel in deepest climate crisis yet flying to Japan to research it. Travel is the thing that most thrills me, and exploring other cultures, experiencing other lives. Mostly I’ve travelled for work – for example to tutor A levels at an Arizonan rehab clinic. I stayed nearby in the Sonoran desert, in a hotel which aped local rituals, lifted from exactly those displaced Indigenous Peoples to which you refer. These six months informed the beginning of Dreamtime, Sol’s futuristic rehab, the soulless void of which is crammed with stolen rituals. Separated from their spiritual and cultural roots these practices become increasingly ridiculous – bloated and obscene.
So yes, I’m from the UK but I’ve spent a lot of time outside it, living – for example – in Beijing in the early 2000s to tutor children on their way to UK boarding schools. This certainly helped inform the wider political situation in my novel, in which the current volatility between China and the US has reached fever pitch. My travels through Japan and the Ryukyu Islands were a long-held dream. I had intended to go ten years prior, but had to cancel my trip due to an alarming online stalking incident. The novel I was writing morphed from Japan-set odyssey to a stalking story, and thence to the bin. When I went back, the situation in Okinawa a decade on was only getting worse, despite assurances in 1995 – when a 12-year-old girl was gang-raped by three US servicemen – that the island would be alleviated of some of its burden. I wanted to explore a possible future based on its present trajectory and a novel seemed like the most intimate and creative way of doing this. I hoped that because I am neither American nor Okinawan nor Japanese, I could show a broader canvas – and thereby direct to more authentic interior voices.
The ethicality of flying has been much on my mind and it’s a theme both our novels share. In Dreamtime aviation (and other travel) is banned not to save the planet, but as a nationalistic bid to save rich people’s land from climate migrants. The end of flying in fact allows environmental destruction to take place with impunity – if you’re not physically in a place to see it, you have to rely on Virrea, the dodgy virtual reality company that’s replaced Apple, and therefore the big corporations (including the Pentagon) can get away with whatever they please.
It’s amazing to think how little time humans have been able to fly, in the grand scheme of things – and so much has happened in that short space, not least two world wars and the nuclear bomb. But easy connection with other humans, our friends and family around the globe, is something very hard to give up.
In My Days of Dark Green Euphoria, Cara refuses to fly to see her sister’s kids, of which there are many, something she views as intensely selfish. What are your own feelings about flying? Is local living an inevitable answer? Your novel is not didactic but raises many possibilities for being greener on a personal level. I think it’s interesting that though you’re exploring thoughtless vice, when Cara and her friend Renée get high, they actually start to talk creatively and expansively about solutions, an ideal future. What role do you think writers of fiction have to play in the climate crisis? And with that in mind, who would you particularly recommend?
AEC: Yes, the lack of air travel in Dreamtime was such a creative element because it means that environmental destruction, which would have been witnessed by people from around the world, was no longer documented and shared in the same way, and this of course gives free rein to corporations to blur reality as they see fit—something that is already happening now. Dreamtime paints such a vivid picture of how compounding inequities can morph and exact a cascade of impacts that no one can ever quite predict until those impacts are upon us.
I read recently about how the Borough of Islington in London will be harnessing excess heat generated by the Tube to keep homes warm in the area. In the article, a scientist was interviewed and he said something like, we need to work with nature and the Earth’s systems to optimize the use of heat. And really, this is what I find most exciting. I love seeing humans apply their intelligence and ingenuity to solve seemingly insurmountable problems.
I have a similar opinion about flying. I think airplanes, taking flight, being able to travel the world with relative ease and convenience are some of humanity’s most remarkable feats of engineering—however, this advancement, like so many others, comes at the expense of our global climate and therefore, the integrity of our very civilization. So is it really an advancement or accomplishment if the things we create undermine our ability to survive as a species?
I’d like to see humans create systems and technology that ensure the non-violent evolution of humanity—that is, the development of our consciousness and conscientiousness and our experience on this planet without harming ourselves, animals, and the ecosystems we all depend upon for survival. It’s pretty much as simple as that, for me!
This era of ‘progress at any cost’ is proving to be disastrous, but that doesn’t mean we have to muzzle human ingenuity—quite the contrary. This is a massive opportunity for humans to say, ‘let’s see what we can design, build, achieve, accomplish without inflicting harm on others. Let’s really test our imaginations to see how harmoniously we can design these systems—and what elaborate goodness and abundant peace might come of it.’
I think that scene you mentioned in My Days of Dark Green Euphoria where Cara and Renée are imagining future possibilities for how humans might exist on this planet is probably my favorite in the whole book. I love the idea of reframing what appear to be colossal limitations or constraints as catalysts for wild creativity.
Because something we haven’t seen on a large, global scale yet, is what humanity could contribute positively to the planet, and in turn, what we can experience together without these horrific negative externalities—one of which is this increased sense of anxiety and dread, sadness and fear associated with this traumatic diminishment of our living world—‘solastalgia,’ as Glenn Albrecht calls it.
As far as living (and buying and producing and existing) on only regional or local scales is concerned, I don’t think that has to be an inevitability, or the only inevitability, I guess. I love the idea of living locally, lowering our carbon footprint by drawing down on our consumption; and I am equally intrigued with the idea of how humanity can advance technologically and as a global civilization but within the constraints of non-violence and all without compromising our global climate. If we apply our intelligence to these challenges with the assumption that we need to work with nature, with each other, and with animals and plants, I think paradise becomes the reality instead of the dream.
In this sense, I hope that writers of fiction continue to find creative ways to show not only the reality of what’s happening now, but the possibility of what we could create in the future if we start to see limitations as inspiration. Right now in fiction I’m enthralled with how the history of the most extreme extent of commodification—literal enslavement of human beings by other human beings—can be interpreted as the genesis of the climate crisis. About a year ago I attended a virtual lecture by Vanderbilt University Professor Teresa Goddu who has written about the “Plantionocene,” or, how white supremacy ‘inaugurated’ the climate crisis. When I started thinking about how the enslavement of people (in the States especially) could have set the scene for the rampant injustices and disparities, especially climate disparities, we are witnessing today, it was like I could feel my brain rewiring. To that end, I hope to dive into some of the books that Dr. Goddu recommended, books that she says exemplify the relationship between historical chattel slavery and the current climate crisis. Those books are The Underground Railroadby Colson Whitehead and The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
This idea of writers being a product of their time, whether they can tell or not, is interesting to me, and raises questions about the role of fiction (and writers of fiction).
I’ve heard a handful of critics saying how every work of fiction that is published today and beyond, in some way, whether overtly or not, will address or explore the climate crisis. Might it be inevitable that all art created in this current era, including fiction, will somehow explore the climate crisis, even if not overtly? And, depending on your answer, what do you think about the idea that fiction should address the climate crisis and its impact on people, animals, and planet?
VW:This is really the crux of it, isn’t it: ‘Is it really an advancement or accomplishment if the things we create undermine our ability to survive as a species?’ Thank you for putting into words the conflict at the heart of mankind’s struggle with self-destruction. Everything, anything, can be justified as progress. And seemingly unequivocal positives, such as the invention of antibiotics, must now be viewed with a longer lens.
As for current art addressing the current catastrophe, hm … maybe obliquely – plenty of fiction captures the rolling state of panic we live in, the sense of dread we inhabit as a result of the climate crisis. But do we know it’s because of that? We humans, as I cheerily mentioned, already have the knowledge of our own deaths to deal with; as Jenny Offill puts it in Weather, ‘I know that one day I will have to let go of everything and everyone I love.’ We live with this innate fear on a personal level and in response we have developed a whole raft of ways to deflect, distract and demur. We need them to survive such a life: it ends in total annihilation. When the issue is on a larger scale, as is the case with the prospect of global apocalypse, we can only deploy bigger defensive guns. So no, I think the scale of climate change in reality is not reflected in the scale of fiction that attempts to deal with it, and particularly not in literary fiction, as Amitav Ghosh argued in The Great Derangement.
Ghosh wrote in 2016: ‘It’s our job, as writers, to make imaginative leaps on behalf of those who don’t, can’t or won’t’. Many writers felt this call to action, including me. I had already written a literary novel, Mother of Darkness, which touched on climate change anxiety, and in Dreamtime I wanted to go further. However, I found that as soon as some publicity highlighted this issue as central, booksellers started to reclassify the book as eco-fiction or cli-fi. Why must literariness be sacrificed? This crisis is the backdrop to – and imminent end of – all life on earth. How can it not have a place in literary fiction, and all contemporary fiction? It worries me that the writers and readers of eco-fiction may be building an echo chamber out of books. Segregating such novels matters, since classification determines how they are marketed, who they can reach and the weight attached to them.
I hope My Days of Dark Green Euphoria gets the wide recognition it deserves – it’s such an extraordinary and affecting novel – and wish you every success with it. It’s been great talking to you!
AEC: Likewise—I hope Dreamtime is a soaring success, as well; it’s spectacularly written and covers such urgent topics with profound sensitivity and insight. The world needs your creativity and imagination! Thank you for the fantastic conversation.
A.E. Copenhaver is a writer, editor, science communicator, and climate interpreter. She’s worked in the environmental and nonprofit sectors for nearly a decade. She has ghostwritten book chapters about cities plagued by factory farming, air pollution, and automobile traffic, and she has written about migrating white sharks, threatened sea otters, and depleted Pacific bluefin tuna. She holds degrees in English and environmental studies from Santa Clara University, and in 2009, she earned her master of art degree in culture and modernity from the University of East Anglia in England. Born in Bellevue, Washington, A.E. Copenhaver has lived in Carmel, California, for most of her life.
Venetia Welby is a writer and journalist who has lived and worked on four continents. Her debut novel Mother of Darkness was published by Quartet in 2017 and her essays and short fiction have appeared in The London Magazine, Review 31 and anthologies Garden Among Fires and Trauma, among others. She lives in London with her husband, son and Bengal cat.
My first nonfiction book for children is published by Templar Books next month. Talking History, co-authored with Joan Lennon and illustrated fabulously by André Ducci, takes a critical look at 15 famous speeches and the people and events surrounding them. Two of the speeches relate directly to the climate crisis. The team behind the book, however, sees all of these speeches as highly relevant to the cause, and our hope is that young readers will too. Evidence from Human Rights Watch shows that the way we treat each other is intimately related to the way we treat our planet.
And how we treat our planet is a growing category of books for young people.
Book cataloguing and marketing depends on categorisation – and in nonfiction, this is dedicated to ‘issues’ as well as genres. Importantly, the way books are categorised changes over time and across different spaces. After all, the labels we give to objects, fellow humans, and situations are never immutable facts – they are invented. So, a book of stories about people with neurodiversity will no longer be placed exclusively under ‘The Human Mind’, but also, perhaps, in a section for ‘Diverse Voices’. And it will share a shelf with a book about indigenous rights that had previously been located in ‘World Culture’. I teach travel writing for a US liberal arts college. It’s a shrinking section in the bookshop. The books are still being written, but they’ve been labelled differently – ‘Memoir’ or ‘Nature Writing’, mostly.
Sometimes, books and their authors defy categories. Dara McAnulty’s books sit in just about all of the sections named above and a few others, including ‘Inspirational People’ and ‘Activity Books’. His Wild Child: A Journey through Nature is a gentle set of lessons on how to engage with the natural world on our doorsteps. One thing I love about McAnulty’s books is how he demonstrates the personal rewards our connection with the world around us can give; and we know that connecting with nature improves our physical and mental wellbeing. He also explains to young readers that the idea of ‘nature’ is relatively new – it, too, is socially constructed – a lesson many adults have not yet absorbed. Simply, we cannot keep separating our own species and its needs from the natural world.
There are many brilliant books on nature and natural history. They are hugely powerful in sparking young people’s compassion and fascination with other forms of life on Earth, especially for children who find fiction a challenge. There are dozens to choose from. My favourites bridge a gap between straight fact and storytelling. From Shore to Ocean Floor by Gill Arbuthnott and Christopher Nielsen is a stand-out for me, as is The Big Book of Belonging by Yuval Zommer – both are beautiful and brimming with nuggets for readers to take away, think about and share. And Leisa Stewart-Sharpe (Blue Planet II, What a Wonderful World, How Does Chocolate Taste on Everest? and more) is a wizard at pulling in readers for the narrative adventure, and then equipping them with knowledge and confidence along the way.
There is a growing emphasis in kids’ books on learning about the natural world not only for the joy of it but for the explicit purpose of rescuing it. Titles such as It’s Up to Us (Christopher Lloyd), How You Can Save the Planet (Hendrikus van Hensbergen), Activists Assemble – Save Your Planet (Ben Hoare and Jade Orlando) and Kids Fight Climate Change (Martin Dorey and Tim Wesson) almost warrant their own set of shelves. These are, doubtless, driven by young people wanting to act. I do worry, though, that these prescriptive books place the onus on the next generation, when the industry behind the books is still struggling to reduce its own carbon footprint and guarantee ethical supply chains. We need young people on board, of course, but a more accountability on the part of publishers might see more immediate impact.
One of the marvellous things about publishing with Templar, part of Bonnier Books, is how seriously they take issues of sustainability and inclusion. In January 2021, Bonnier went beyond carbon neutral to carbon negative, by reducing and offsetting emissions and investing in projects that capture greenhouses gases. They currently offset by a significant 20%. So, technically, if you buy a book from a Bonnier subsidiary, you are helping to reduce carbon emissions. Bonnier has taken a holistic approach to sustainability that tackles social inclusion and the climate emergency as intimately connected. Perhaps this is why, for me, Talking History, at its core, has grown to be about both those things. I am curious to know how the book will be catalogued. It won’t be under ‘Nature’. On the face of it, the speeches in the book are wide ranging – about war, voting rights, girls’ education – but each one is actually about empathy and the need to act together, urgently, for positive change. And if that doesn’t speak to our current environmental predicament, I’m not sure what does.
Joan Haig, born in Zambia, was weaned on avocados and stories. When she was twelve, her family moved to the happy isles of Vanuatu in the South-West Pacific. She has lived and travelled all over the world, most recently settling with her husband, children and cats into a little cottage in the Scottish Borders.
Joan has researched and taught at the University of Warwick and University of Edinburgh; her teaching has won awards and her work on migration and belonging has been published in academic journals and edited volumes. She now works for Arcadia University’s Edinburgh Center.
Her writing dream is that her stories for children are enjoyed far and wide -and touch some grown-up hearts along the way.
Nicola: Hello Chitra! I was so grateful to have the chance to read your second Sona Sharma book, Sona Sharma Looking After Planet Earth. It’s such a warm and happy story. I fell in love with Sona and her family, and your words are so delightfully accompanied by illustrations from Jen Khatun. I love all the plants! You must have been very happy when you saw Jen’s artwork?
Chitra: Yes, Jen’s artwork brought a lovely comic book feel and yet so warm and inviting. Her elephant especially is spectacular.
Nicola: I thought your story was a really fresh way of reaffirming messages about taking care of planet Earth. When Sona hears at school that our world is in trouble, she doesn’t need any persuading that she and her family should do more. But in the beginning her methods are heavy handed. She turns off the fan in her grandparents’ room as they sleep, unplugs a video game her dad is still playing, and I did giggle when Sona takes off her baby sister’s nappy because “nappies live in the rubbish forever”! Do you think humour can help get important messages across?
Chitra: Humour can always get both adults and children to see the underlying truth. And also, Sona is just earnest. Her focus on the task at hand – saving Planet Earth – takes over and results in funny situations at home and school. Just like her teacher Miss Rao, hopefully readers, especially adult readers who read the book with their children, will laugh and figure out the serious messages embedded. We all need to be a little Greta inside and if you follow Greta on twitter you’ll know that she has got an amazing sense of humour.
Nicola: The main part of the story is about kolams, traditional artwork drawn outside people’s homes for certain festivals. Sona is alarmed when she realises plastic, glitter and chemicals are being used in some of the designs, but Sona and her grandmother Paatti show us it doesn’t have to be like this. Can you tell us a little about kolams and why the traditional ways are the best? And do you think returning to old ways is often helpful as we try to reduce our impact on the natural world?
Chitra: My parents still live in India and kolam is a living art. Every woman of the house draws a kolam every morning in front of their houses. And these kolams were intended to decorate but also help other creatures of the planet. The more I think back on my growing up in India and still the many habits of my parents and grandparents, we follow many things that are planet friendly – from mud pots for storing water, to eating on banana leaves, to using cloth bags for shopping, making just enough for a day and not reheating food. There are so many little things that help us protect our planet.
While we adopt modern conveniences, I think we should all pause and ponder on some of the little inconveniences can help save our planet – like walking to the shops or not buying things whenever we need them or not using too much gift wrapping or carrying a water bottle instead of buying water when we travel.
Nicola: I’ve written a couple of books for older children, the latest of which is Between Sea and Sky which is set in a future world, to which much climate related devastation has occurred, but to which hope – and nature in fact – is returning. I was very aware of my audience – children who have inherited this incredibly beautiful but damaged planet, and who are so keen to protect it. I wanted to write about hope and solutions, and empower change and connections with nature.
Sona Sharma is set in India, which is a country hugely vulnerable to the effects of climate change. You must have been particularly aware of this writing this book?
Chitra: Yes, we grew up in a coastal city and every monsoon season we’d worry about floods. I remember when I was 8 when our ground floor flat was flooded and I had to climb up a shelf to sleep. But in the last 10 years, our city has been flooded three times, we’ve lived through a tsunami and every rain now causes panic.
The industralisation of western economies, that push their manufacturing to the poorer countries, send their waste to other countries to deal with, are adding to the already fragile state. While I’m writing for a western audience primarily, I’m acutely aware that the story is set in India and Sona sees it from that point of view. Her worries and anxieties are based on what she sees in her part of the world.
We might be different countries by “artificial” borders. But we are all interconnected by the oceans and the changing weather patterns and our green habits. If someone in Europe or the US buys one dress less, goes without a new toy or stops using plastic straws, perhaps it will save another child half the world across whose parents work in a garment factory or recycling plant.
Nicola: I adored Elephant, Sona’s toy friend. Children can have a natural affinity with animals. Did you have fun writing Elephant’s character?
Chitra: Elephant is my favourite character in the story, even though there is a little bit of me in every character. I loved writing his comebacks, observations and warnings, and he resembles my inner-voice with whom I often have lengthy conversations. I wanted Elephant to be cheeky and I’m so happy that often the first thing a young reader tells me about is how much they love Elephant.
Thank you. Nicola. for reading my book and asking such thoughtful questions. I hope all our books, inspire young readers and their families to do more to save this planet and fill them with hope of a greener tomorrow.
Chitra Soundar grew up in Chennai, India. An award-winning author of more than 40 books for children,she loves writing picture books, fiction, non-fiction and verse. Chitra travels the world visiting schools and appearing at festivals to bring Indian stories to children everywhere.
Nicola Penfold is a children’s writer. She writes adventure books about the natural world. She studied English at St John’s College, Cambridge. Nicola’s worked in a reference library and for a health charity, but being a writer was always the job she wanted most.
In 2019, I started flying. It had been over ten years since I went on my first and last, until recently, flight, a trans-Atlantic one that had lasted 12 hungover, painful hours. I’d vowed never to fly again, and, until my work as a writer began to gain a little traction, I didn’t have to. I took buses and trains, I drove long, anxious hours on the highway in pristine, rented cars. I always rented an SUV or a pick-up truck to feel safer as the whale-like hulks of buses and semis passed me on the road.
On my first flight to Portland in March of 2019 to launch one of my books at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ annual conference, I looked at the carbon emissions printed on my ticket and wondered if it was worth it. This was after the doomsday reports of climate change had begun, and, seated with many other people on the plane, dosed up with CBD to curb my flight anxiety, I thought of the cost versus the benefit. Sure, there was a personal benefit, but what was the larger one? My book, a tiny collection of essays about my life as a transgender person, was something I should be promoting, should be getting into as many hands as possible. But I looked and looked at the carbon emissions, tried to calculate what harm I was doing to the planet and humanity versus what good I was doing. How many people would I reach with a message that transness was as valid a part of humanity as any of the myriad human variations? How many minds or hearts could I change? Would those people who needed the changing even be somewhere like where I was going, anyway?
I am bad at math, and such things cannot always be measured in numbers.
There is much talk, here at the seeming end of things, about how we, as individuals, can change the direction our world is hurtling in with terrifying speed. We can eat less meat. We can travel less. We can recycle. I think these things are, often, a red herring meant to distract from the true culprits of climate change: massive, untaxed, unchecked capitalist ventures, underhanded politicians and leaders, billionaires who never do the sort of calculation I did on that plane. I am not sure that the individual actions of many could ever counter the bad behavior of the privileged few. Yet, the ways I could and sometimes don’t change my own behavior haunts me. I was raised in the ‘80s, a “gifted program” child who was told every day by teachers that the world was in crisis, there was a hole in the ozone layer, and that we, bright-faced, eager young people, would have to be the ones to save it. I didn’t do anything. I wrote a few books that may or may not be worth the trees that died for them. The expectations of those grade school teachers that we would save a world they would long be gone from still haunts me.
There have been multiple, interesting studies done on trees. About how they form bonds and care for each other, feeding one another through a complex forest root system. How they “talk” to one another in subtle, intricate ways. I am fascinated by this life that exists calmly under the perception of human beings. I am moved by their interdependence, their quiet communication, and gentle care. I wonder if the words I print on pages made from their deaths could ever be worth these soft things.
Many suggest that if we were to apply ourselves deeply, as humans, to planting new forests, we could change the path of our own doom.
My book tour was an incredible waste of resources, speaking in terms of the planet. It was ironic because it clearly negated any of the work done by my second novel, which was about building community and surviving climate change. I went all over the country in cars and planes and buses to speak to people. At one event, a man asked me if I’d feel different about the things I’d written about if I had money.
I am trying. A book on climate change — how many trees did that take? How many carbon emissions to present it to little groups of people who were already on board with its message? Does it count not to change hearts, but to strengthen them?
I tell a room full of people to look at the faces around them and know these others are the ones they will be fighting alongside for their and their children’s survival.
Towards the beginning of fall, I am home from my book tour. What it has cost is heavy on me, but I am light as I rent a car and begin to drive. I am driving an hour east, towards Geneva, Ohio, where my best friend since childhood and her family live. She is having a baby, a little boy, my nephew.
Along the way, I drive back roads, even though it takes more time, more gas, more emissions. I listen to the Tom Waits song “Jersey Girl.” It is a song about driving from New York City to New Jersey regularly to see someone the singer loves. I weigh the cost of that constant trip in my head, measure it against when the song was written, in the ‘80s, and now. What is the cost of love? What is the cost of distance? Can you possibly measure the benefits?
I think of my niece, Bella, who is 12, who I love with all my heart. She is waiting at the end of this trip, at the end of the planet-damaging ride. She has been nervous about her new baby brother coming, behind a facade of tween angst. It is worth it to be there, to take her out to lunch, to talk to her as much as she will let me. It is worth it to see the face of this new little person in the world as soon as anyone does. It is worth it to be able to talk to him when he is new to the world, to let him know how scary things are getting, and that much more of it will fall on him than on us. I will not give him solutions or tell him he is responsible for the mess all the rest of us have made. I will end this ceaseless weighing of costs, just for today. I will hold this new life, and let him know that I have seen many faces over the last month, ones rife with hope and personal commitment to doing the right thing, try to describe these faces so that he might recognize them one day, when all the benefits are gone, and we are left with the horrible cost.
All City is a novel about climate change, gentrification, street art, and a near-future, storm-battered New York City from which the wealthy escape while those without means are left to die or rebuild on their own. You can find out more here.
Alex DiFrancesco is the author of All City, Psychopomps, and Transmutation. They live in Cleveland, OH with their Westie, Roxy Music, Dog of Doom.