For our May podcast, we discussed books about nature and the environment. This happens to be our theme for May for the Adult Year-Round Reading Challenge, but we also found it to be fitting given the beautiful weather we’ve been enjoying! Kevin, Kari, and I discussed the following titles, all available through NPL:
- Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
- Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
- The Overstory by Richard Powers
- World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
- Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You: A Lively Tour through the Dark Side of the Natural World by Dr. Dan Riskin
- The Grizzly in the Driveway: The Return of Bears to a Crowded American West by Robert Chaney
- Last Chace to See by Douglass Adams
- Upstream by Mary Oliver
In addition to our recommendations this month, I also spoke with staff member Emily Fontenot, who is writing a climate fiction novel as her dissertation in her PhD program. She was gracious enough to agree to a short interview about her novel and the environment, which is included below:
Can you tell us a bit about your novel? How did you arrive at the topic, and why is it important to you?
I'm currently writing a speculative climate fiction novel (that will also serve as my dissertation) that takes place between the US Gulf Coast south and the US West Coast. In the novel, regions throughout the world are suffering from the worst of their natural disasters. The Gulf Coast south was hit by an off the charts hurricane and since, for approximately two years, it has yet to stop raining while the West Coast is in an extreme, two-year drought that is also causing massive forest fires and other disasters. Because of the disasters going on, the US has broken down as a country and each region has formed its own governmental body. The leaders--and one over-eager scientist--of the West (called the Western Frontier) have reached out to leaders of the south (called the Gulf Coast) to come to an arrangement: The Western Frontier is in desperate need of water and the Gulf Coast is drowning. The Western Frontier leaders propose an irrigation canal that would funnel water to a purification plant in the West that would make the water usable for them and help remove some water from the Gulf Coast. However, the leaders of the Gulf Coast don't see this as a permanent solution, not to mention that their people are dying and in need of rescue. So the Western Frontier leaders put an extra option on the table. One of its top scientists, known for his sometimes outlandish ideas, is certain that children from the Gulf Coast are predisposed to life in watery and wet environments and believes that, given his research on evolution, he can force a sped up evolution of the production of gills which would allow people of the Gulf Coast to live underwater. The leaders of the Gulf Coast agree to these terms, not out of belief, but because at least that means the Western Frontier will get children out of harm's way, or so they think.
This is the backdrop of the novel which zooms in on a singular family in (what is now) south Louisiana, the Richards. Trapped in their home, Lorraine and David do the best they can to continue teaching and helping their daughter, Milly, but they are getting increasingly worried as the isolation worsens. They agree to send Milly off to the Western Frontier to get her out of the flood zone. We follow Milly as she and other children from the region undergo tests and trials, experiments that have failed for the last year--though the Richards knew nothing about it.
I came to this story idea first as a short story, then, understandably, realized that it was a novel. I was taking a literature course titled "Regionalism and Nationalism" during my first semester of my master's degree. In the course we talked about defining regions and the act of othering that it often creates. Though we weren't focused on the US South--or the larger Global South from postcolonial theory that I study--I kept coming back to thoughts and ideas of the US South and how it is perceived--and how I've felt myself perceived as a southerner. One day as I was stuck in a cycle of contemplating this, I recalled a test I was given when I was in fifth grade. The tester played a word association game with me where she gave two words and I had to say what they, semantically, had in common. One of the pairings was drought and flood. The answer was water. From there I got the idea, saw clearly in my head the final scene (I often write backwards) and developed the idea.
How far along are you in writing your novel?
For the completion of my master's degree, I wrote the story as a novella, but, after three years, I realized that it is still not complete and I can't get the story, or the implications, out of my head. So, I have decided to turn expanding it into a full novel into my dissertation. The novel will be complete hopefully by December, early February at the latest. I hope to be shopping it to publishers next spring, if not earlier. As of now, I have about 30,000 words of it (120 pages in Word) complete.
Did you read any climate fiction in preparation for writing your own? If so, what titles did you find most influential or most interesting?
I've read so many climate fiction books in preparation! I've also read a lot of theory on climate justice and environmentalism, as well as regionalism. And my list keeps growing! So far, most influential would probably be American War by Omar El Akkad as well as Sherri L. Smith's Orleans. In the realm of theory and journalism, I keep coming back to Rob Nixon's Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor and Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild.
Has this writing process changed or challenged how you view our environment?
Writing this book and researching for it has absolutely changed and challenged my views on the environment. I've always considered myself sensitive to issues like climate change, but the process of working on this novel has made me more sensitive and also made me so much more aware of the social dynamics involved in it as well. Rob Nixon, in his book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, talks about the concept of "disposable people." The basics of this concept is that marginalized peoples and communities, peoples and communities that are already suffering and struggling to survive, often bear the brunt of environmental disasters and climate change. The theory also deals a lot with how corporations and even governmental bodies sacrifice the environment and health of marginalized people and communities for profit and resources. This idea is one of the main driving forces behind a lot of my current research--both academic and creative--as well as, of course, for this novel. (For books more directly on this concept, How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue and Animal's People by Indra Sinha are great novels.)
Until next time, pod people!