Reading as Activism:
Recalibrating reality with authors from the climate fiction anthology Fire & Water: Stories from the Anthropocene
The Ultimate Cli-Fi Book Club for Sustainability in Higher Education
Last night I met a friend for a walk in the neighborhood. She had experienced a long illness, and I was gladdened to see her long swinging ponytail as she jogged towards me in the twilight technicolor of the Honolulu valley where we both live. I love a good walk-and-talk. My friend does very intense climate work in the Pacific region, so our conversations are exchanges of projects and ideas, sharing stories and swapping recent statistics while we get our steps in. My friend is so smart, and dedicated to her work, which is supporting conservation workers in the Fish & Wildlife service, sanctuaries, and areas of refuge throughout the Pacific region.
It’s the work of managing extinction.
We talked about the COP in Egypt, and whether it was worth it for so many people to fly to a desert to talk about climate change. She was telling me how every degree beyond the 1.5 global mean temperature increase that the Paris targets described means thousands of more endangered animals on the dockets of these fish and wildlife staff. (Thousands of species, or tens of thousands? That’s the difference of the degree.) They have work plans for different scenarios — the plans are about how to relocate not just species, but entire ecosystems, so they might survive cataclysmic change. Tens of thousands of conservation specialists; this is their job, this is what they do.
I was like, “dude, how do you move an ecosystem?”
I found myself picturing a portal, with these tens of thousands of species on the docket for extinction, filing through it one by one. What if the animals are choosing to leave? The conservation experts are standing by: doing their best to stop the exodus, but still: witnessing, observing, listening, counting.
And so are fiction writers. The portal that came to my mind was from a funny and weird short story, “The Doorman”, by Wisconsin-based writer Jennifer Morales. In the story, a guy with a bad back discovers a portal opening in the corner of his trailer home. He and his neighbor drink brandy and watch different kinds of animals jump through the portal one by one. Like a reverse Noah’s ark.
The neighbor says:
“You don’t think it’s the climate thingy, do you? The animals…do you think they know something we don’t? Her eyes were wide again, and sad” (p. 41).
“The Doorman” is one of 17 climate-themed short stories in the anthology Fire & Water: stories from the Anthropocene, edited by Mary Fifield and Kristin Thiel. That word, anthropocene. It means, the human-caused time, this “climate thingy” that humans have created. But there are both human and non-human beings in this anthology. (One story, “Nature Morte” by Etan Nechin, is written from the perspective of a lake.)
I reviewed the anthology for the academic book review site, H-Net, where I wrote: “Fire & Water recalibrates the standards for literary climate fiction by invoking new realities, both external and internal.” I liked the book so much I made it the October selection for the Ultimate Cli-Fi Book Club, which is hosted by The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. Several of the contributing authors attended our book club meeting, stimulating an engrossing conversation which you are welcome to listen to, here.
I read a lot of cli-fi. And sci-fi, or speculative fiction, and dystopian, post-apocalyptic fiction, and hopepunk and solarpunk. (I’m also not above a good zombie novel, and I have watched the seven-minute film, Night of the Mini Dead more than once.) But I’d been looking for a collection of short stories that were both climate-themed, and teachable, which means: accessible, interesting, challenging, well-written, not too long. And literary, whatever that means. Fire & Water is a perfect teachable anthology, and I’m thrilled that several of the book club participants are developing courses or assignments for their spring semesters around this book. Because that’s the point of the Ultimate Cli-Fi Book club — what can we do with literary themed climate fiction in a college classroom?
This collection did indeed recalibrate our understanding of the genre. Cli-fi became a buzzword about ten years ago and began to be taken seriously after 2016 when Amitav Ghosh wrote The Great Derangement, a book of literary criticism which was based on a series of lectures. But as the climate crisis accelerates, this type of writing is now just…what IS.
So is cli-fi even still a thing? And if so, what is it?
Our discussion occurred just as Hurricane Ian was hitting Florida. One of the authors, JoeAnn Hart (“Reef of Plagues”) said “It’s gotten to the point where it’s hard to keep up with the constant disasters. No matter what I’m writing in fiction, the next day it’s outdone in the world…climate fiction just addressing the world as it is.”
Ghosh uses a term that I like, mimetic fiction. Exploring this term, I came across this elegant description in a 2004 PMLA editorial about historical fiction, in which George Bellis and Christopher Lane wrote:
“Mimetic is grounded in fact — it copies the world. Its language is literal, its perspective earthbound, and its goal is a clear connection between fictional and factual event or, preferably, between a fictional and a factual sequence of events.”
Later, they write:
“There is no such thing as nonmimetic fiction. Writing that refers to nothing real is gibberish, not fiction.”
Wow. Let’s think about that in relationship to climate writing.
One of our participants, William, described the stories in the book as “creating a believable world and populating it with people behaving in believable ways.” He said that climate fiction tries to show us “How do people respond, or how could people respond?”
Another participant, Jim, said:
“What kinds of stories are relevant in literature, now? If you can spend time studying a big novel like War and Peace, while the climate dissolves around us, maybe the cli-fi story is the thing that needs to trigger us or provide an imagined framework for reviewing things. Hoping that readers can imagine a better way… As writers and teachers we have to trigger that imagination to visualize the potential. “
Fire & Water author Stefan Kiesbye (“Smokeland”) added that:
“Part of the problem is that dystopian fiction has created a nostalgia for the open spaces. You read something like (Cormac McCarthy’s) The Road and others of the ilk, it strangely romanticizes decrepitude. And the vast empty spaces kind of are appealing. Even the more harrowing moments still feel like an adventure. Almost like a neo-western. I used to teach creative writing at a small college in New Mexico and I asked my students why they were so fascinated with dystopian fiction and they said:
“‘We wanna know what we’re gonna do once it hits.’ So they were reading it a little bit as manual, but there’s this romanticized notion that ‘it’s gonna be kind of cool.”
“I think climate fiction takes the cool out of the subject and cuts it down to size,” Stefan continued. “Now, the people having lost their homes in Florida, there’s nothing romantic or adventurous about that. There’s a place for all kinds of devices in climate fiction but it cuts it down to realize that this is real peoples’ lives, not some romantic notion of the frontier. Cli-fi is good in a setting where it spreads out and people take it into classrooms and do something with it other than just read it. To make other people read it and discuss it.”
“We all have to become activists because we are running out of time.”
It doesn’t matter what you teach or even what you do: focus it on climate change, and your teaching becomes a form of climate activism. Read books and talk about them — that’s a form of activism. I say this to my students all the time: do whatever career you dreamed of, just do it in the context of climate change. Be a hairdresser who talks about food insecurity. Be an accountant who factors climate risk. Be a nurse who knows why pandemic is a climate impact. If all mimetic novels today are climate novels, then all jobs are climate jobs, all action is (can be) climate action.
Fire & Water is actually not “about” climate change; it’s just about what IS.
There’s a story, “The Places She Journeys” about a Sámi woman who works for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The author of the story, Vivian Faith Prescott, commented on her motivations. She said:
“I live at a fish camp and we eat from the land and sea and I’m always writing about that. I write from the perspective of a woman who is working in the western world for the fisheries and she has to work with community members and the decline of salmon and things like that.”
She described some early feedback on one part of the story where someone suggested, “this language is a bit stilted, here”. But, Vivian said, “It’s stilted for a reason; it’s a stylistic choice for the narrator go back and forth to her own natural voice and back to her academic voice.”
“I know that academics know how to flip that switch on and write your lovely papers….so that’s going on and she’s conflicted about the loss of knowledge and having to deal with the new knowledge about the loss of the salmon.”
Which brings me back to my friend, and the Fish and Wildlife people she supports, the conservation biologists who are doing the counting. The ones monitoring the extinction portal. That’s the work to be done. These are the jobs that our students are preparing for. How are we teaching to that?
I have my own portal of doom in my mind, that yawns open periodically and tries to draw me into climate despair. That’s why it’s good to read these books with others, to talk about them. Another of the participants, Derede, kept me from falling into my portal of doom when she said, with sincerity:
“It’s a matter of getting into the curriculum, of getting literature faculties aware about climate fiction. Literature is so powerful for making people feel things, to imagine what the future could be: the negative and the positive, reading is putting people in other people’s shoes. It’s just getting this into public consciousness more and once it’s there, it’s going to be revolutionary.”
Cli-fi is about responses to reality. It de-glamourizes apocalypse and helps us see things that we just can’t seem to grasp. It recalibrates our reality. And, at its best, climate fiction awakens us to responsibility.
Stefan said that readers love horrible things, like murder and zombies. “But when you read a zombie story, it doesn’t impart a sense of responsibility. Your awareness of the struggle of the characters doesn’t leave you thinking “what do I need to do with this.”
“But a collection like this,” he said, “you leave the reading thinking “what responsibility does this impart on me?”
Fire & Water is available at independent bookstores, everywhere that you can find one to support! It is also available from independent publisher Black Lawrence Press, with multi-user contracts available for libraries. You can find reviews, events, and resources for teachers and for book clubs at Fireandwaterstories.com.
Next month I’ll be announcing four selections for our next book club cohort, starting in June. Drop your contact info in the comments if you would like to know more about the book club, hosted by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainablity in Higher Education.
Bellis, G. and Lane, C. (2004). Mimetic and Nonmimetic Fiction. PMLA. 119.1, 133–135
Fifield, M. and Thiel, K. (Eds) (2021). Fire & Water: Stories from the Anthropocene. Black Lawrence Press.