Michael: You pack a lot of significance into 250 words. One of the ways “Insanitary” gets to me is as a depiction of personal nature lost. I’ve experienced something like this as a kid and as an adult: I fell in love with a beautiful piece of nature, it shaped me, and then it was taken away from me. My parents still live in the house I grew up in, but the woods I grew up in are gone. I suspect this is a common experience for people who go on to care about the natural world and want to protect it.
Would you tell me about your inspiration for “Insanitary”? Were there some Singing Caves in your past that got a TM put on them?
Danika: First off, thank you. I’ve become quite the fan of flash fiction. It’s the space between poetry and prose for me. I love when writers craft work that says what it needs to in the least amount of words. I like when writers make us think between the lines.
So many places in the natural world have been lost to us, and they will never come back. It’s an ongoing heartbreak for me, the loss of the natural world combined with touristication. And it’s either speeding up or I’m noticing it more or both. Just the other day I came across an entire building where a forested city block had been about six months before. I was so disoriented I thought I was on the wrong street. It was the last plot of “nature” in this particular neighbourhood, and my first thought was, “Where did all the wildlife go?”
This story was partially inspired by a location on the Big Island of Hawaii where the volcano’s geothermal heat creates a warm pond (inside human-made lava rock walls). When I first visited it many years ago it was a lovely little tucked away spot for locals. Now there’s a paved lot and tour buses stop by. One time a busload of tourists stood above us bathers on the rock wall taking pictures, the pond a 10-minute stop on their tour. I thought, “Why are you here and what’s the point?”
What’s the point of this sacred spot being a check mark on a tour bus schedule? How can you really understand this place without bathing in Pele’s waters, meditating as you float in the sun soaking up the vibe? I started wondering when someone would start charging to get in, or how much longer we’d be allowed to float around before someone deemed it too unsanitary to do so? That led to wondering about all the other places in the world we had stolen from both nature and natives. I wondered about my own footprint, about why I thought I had any more right to be there than anyone else?
I now live on the Sunshine Coast of British Colombia, where people used to move so they could live among the trees. BC’s old growth forests are some of the most amazing in the world, and the majority of them on the south coast have been lost. The Sunshine Coast is quickly becoming a suburb of Vancouver, people buying property, razing it of all trees, and selling the wood. There’s a gigantic earth scar on the hillside one can see as one commutes on the ferry. Each new empty patch of earth makes my heart break. Next door to where I was last renting, a few acres were gone in a matter of days. I caught a deer standing at the edge of it, its former path gone, cement and wood skeleton in its place. The deer looked shell-shocked.
Honestly, I’ve sometimes had the thought that humans don’t even deserve to be here.
Michael: How did you learn from that experience? Are there places in nature now that you consider private and personal and the same way as the ones you’ve lost?
Danika: I don’t know how I’ve learned… I suppose I’ve learned how to be sad and angry all the time and still live in this world. I wish I were a billionaire so that I could use my money to protect the land and support organizations protecting the land. I struggle so much with the idea of “owning” land in the first place, yet my family just bought an acre. There was this thought that if we buy this we can protect it, because if we don’t someone else might and take everything down. There are old growth trees on it (in a neighbourhood of old growth trees), and I feel like I’m preserving something by leaving everything be.
Michael: I’d also like to ask what you think about the other side of that–about when the co-opting of nature corresponds to making it more available. Marissa Lingen’s Reckoning 1 essay, “How Far Are We from Minneapolis?” is about the value of public nature. For some people, if you don’t put down a boardwalk in the Singing Caves they’ll never get to experience it. But of course, there’s a cost. (It’s almost painful for me to resist bringing up the Tragedy of the Commons, but I think that kettle of fish may be a little beyond the scope.) I remember going to Yellowstone, and finding that the awe and the uncanny in my experience of natural wonders like Old Faithful came just as much from the surrounding weirdness of the human accommodations: 1950s era tourist lodges, paved walkways among treacherous hot springs, vast parking lots, trash cans elaborately secured against bears. Yet without all that, a lot of people wouldn’t get to see these things. Do you think it’s possible to be as personally invested in nature, to be motivated to defend it as fiercely, based on that kind of encounter as opposed to the intensely individual, unmitigated kind of experience “Insanitary” exemplifies for us in soaking up cave songs through the soles of your bare feet? How can we strike a balance between those two, and how can we continue to do that as there get to be more and more of us and less and less of untouched nature? Is it even possible?
Danika: I, too, have been to Yellowstone and Yosemite and struggle with the same thoughts you have. The last time I ventured to Yosemite I wanted to get out of there as soon as I could it was so overrun with tourists and RVs. And I know I have no right to be there any more than anyone else does, so how can I complain?
I used to live in Colorado and loved hiking in the Rockies. Once after hiking to the top of one of the 14,000 ft peaks I was describing it to my grandmother and she said they should build a road to the top so that everyone could see it. I immediately thought, NO! I believe there are places on the earth humans should never see, never have access too. We can’t put our fingerprints and footprints on everything.
You’re asking all the questions I’ve asked myself and ones I unfortunately don’t have the answers to. I do believe creating places where current and future generations can enjoy and witness nature is important. I do believe it’s a balance. But how do we decide how much space we take up and which spaces we should develop in this way? And once we start developing them for accessibility, have we taken something essential away? I don’t know that it’s truly possible to be as personally invested, to be, as you put it, “motivated to defend it as fiercely” based on boardwalk parks and paved paths to waterfalls. When a family returns home from a road trip to Yellowstone with their moose photos and geyser keychains, do they suddenly become environmental activists? Or do they get reabsorbed by technology and comforts, caught up in the capitalist cycle, that defense of the natural world gets pushed to the back of mind? Do they even see their own connection to it at all?
Michael: What does this story look like when we run out of singing caves? Like one of those imagined future dystopias we read about or see on film?
Danika: At the rate of our populating and developing the earth, more and more singing caves will either get touristicated or destroyed. I think a lot about what I’ve missed that’s already gone. I think a lot about the cyborg generation, who only gets to view such things in virtual settings without any experience of feeling it through their feet and into their bones. I think that kind of connection is vital to our “spiritual” survival, the part, ironically, that makes us humane.
Michael: We have in these Reckoning 1 interviews done a fair amount of thinking by now about generational understanding of humanity’s interdependence with nature and the conflict, at times epic, ensuing therefrom. “The Hole in the Reef” depicts such a struggle, one that appears to me at least figuratively epic, though when interpreted literally, of tiny, nigh-insignificant scope. There is a piece of what amounts to trash on the floor of the ocean—one piece among untold billions—and the battle father and son fight over it seems to me ultimately futile. What that result signifies for the relationship of father and son, and the relationship of both to the ocean, to the world, isn’t obvious. As the kind of person who picks up trash when he encounters it in the woods, on beaches, at the bottoms of rivers, I am well familiar with the accompanying sense of futility. The next person who comes along will in all likelihood replace that piece of trash with a new one. Another thing I’m afraid I’m in the bad habit of doing in these interviews is asking authors to do the work for me. What does it mean? Is Oliver changed by this experience—demoralized, galvanized? I don’t think his father is. Does that discarded piece of ocean liner or whatever it is signify that it isn’t worth trying to clean up this mess, that we’d be better off letting an older generation habituated to pissing on the natural world drink themselves unconscious and then pushing them over the side?
Ben: The Hole In the Reef has on its surface a story about two generations of men—a father and son—who have very opposite takes on the world. The father is a loner who defines himself by his opposition to nature. He could easily have played a stand-in role for Old Man and the Sea if called upon. He’s not averse to suffering, physically talented, and sees nature as something to be conquered. He’s also a terrible father. His son is clearly involved with people. He’s an urbanite—I don’t get into his backstory terribly far, but I imagine him as the type of individual who shows up on school cleanup days, who is involved in things like neighborhood committees, and who is politically concerned. Metaphorically, his father is the hunter, he is the gardener—I express this via his desire to have his own children experience a different life:
He vowed that thirty-five years hence, when his two small offspring were grown and thought of him, their own father, there wouldn’t be a hollowed, rotted acorn in place of their hearts, their real ones having been left abandoned at the bottom of some ocean.
So this is a struggle that plays out on the surface — of the responsibility to those around them, and the responsibility we have toward our environment; i.e. don’t drop your damn anchor in the reef. At one point the father even threatens to sink his own boat, so that his son will have to swim to shore.
But there’s a deeper, momentary crisis in Oliver in the course of the story as he allows himself for a very brief moment to succumb to his father’s mania for the hole in the ocean, and to momentarily believe it exists: that there is an actual, designed, hatched hole in the bottom of the sea. This is a worldview-upending moment:
To ponder it was to upend reality. Did humans put it there? He could not imagine why or how they could. The hole’s existence implied some other’s intention. Amidst all of the slow, wild processes, here was something that was a fabrication. It suggested he lived in a playground, a test bed, a Petri dish. Where the light of the lab might be turned off at the end of the work day.
In other words, he briefly sheds his scientific understanding of the world and allows himself to ponder the idea that the Earth was designed. To believe that the Earth is designed is, in my mind, to discard your responsibility for it. It is someone else’s (God’s) plan. His father disappears—probably down the hole—and so he goes to find the answer to it, opening the door. What lies on the other side? Nothing. It’s not a door, it’s trash. He angrily realizes his mistake, and sees that he must do what is right, despite the personal risks: assume responsibility.
A side note about the story: I often try to use constraints on my work in order to push myself, which I find will often make the work more interesting. This story had the initial constraint of: If they were in the boat, it was all dialogue. If he was in the water, it’s all narration. And with the regularity of the dives, there’s a sort of rhythm, one page of dialogue, one of narration. As the story progressed I had to break these constraints a little.
Michael: Thank you so much for sharing this rather intense window on the front lines of climate activism. Reading it was a vicarious thrill for me. I do what I can—we’re all doing what we can, as many in the US have been telling ourselves frequently over the past five months in order to maintain our sanity. Reckoning is one of the things I’m doing. But what you’re doing strikes me as more—more powerful, more visceral, more direct—and reading about it is inspiring.
Would you tell me a little about how you got started in this kind of activism?
George: A decade ago, I used to live in Malaysia, working on a drug rehabilitation programme in a little kampung in the jungles. It was famous for being one of the last hide-outs of the Communist partisans during the Emergency. The drive from Kuala Lumpur to Batu Arang used to take a side-road through a vast expanse of reserved forest. You could feel the air cool as you turned off the highway, the sudden chill humidity of the under-canopy sheltering the van from the oppressive heat of the equatorial sun.
One time, we went back that way, and behind a gigantic, authoritative sign announcing severe fines for illegal logging, suddenly we saw the vicious brown scar of red soil. We stopped the van. For miles in every direction, the tangled, virgin forest had been cleared. It had been flayed to the bone—only barren red soil stretching over terraces and hills into the distance. The sun beat mercilessly down. We shook our heads in silence.
Afterwards, every time we drove down that road, we saw hordes of hungry monkeys lined up along the motorway, their babies clinging to them, their prehensile hands toying with bits of trash and the scraps that passing cars fed them. Their home had succumbed to the relentless march of development, and what had been a flourishing forest had been reduced to a desert of rubber plantations. Now they sit, in families and packs, watching the cars driving by, waiting for someone to fling a bundle of half-eaten fast food to them on the roadside.
After that, I decided to get more involved.
I reject the label activist as the language creates a false dichotomy. I don’t consider ‘non-activists’ as ‘passivists’. For me, it is about choosing sides, and there are extremely ‘activist’ people on the other-side—venture capitalists, lobbyists, politicians—all extremely active.
Environmental justice for me is rooted in anti-capitalist, anti-oppression and explicitly anarchist struggle. The reduction of our environmental heritage, ecosystem and indeed the life support systems of Gaia to commodities, markets, services and resources is representative of how autodestructive, cannibalistic and, to be melodramatic, pure evil capitalism is. I realise this is not how everyone views it. That is fine. That is their choice.
Michael: How did you first realize the need for this kind of story to be told?
George: There needs to be a record of the struggle—a Peoples’ History—for posterity and for us. I started writing about squatting in London—the subject of my first book Total Shambles—because we identified that there was a dearth of current creative nonfiction on the subject and a need to find new ways to engage emotionally as well as intellectually on the subject of housing. These were stories that we told one another verbally all the time, but there was no written record of them. Academic research and political rhetoric on squatting were well-covered, but we wanted to tell a personal, human story that connected with the social implications.
Afterwards, I realised that the most urgent issue that needs humanising is the struggle to save The Big House We All Live In—Mama Terra. Often issues around climate justice seem so huge, so overwhelming, so abstract, that people have difficulty connecting with it. Generally, we seem unwilling or unable to deal with the scale of the changes we need to make. This is why recycling is very popular, and the concept of not having children to save the planet less so. One of the great powers of creative nonfiction is to give people the experience of visiting a place like Hambachforst in their mind’s eye and spending time with the people and ideas that exist there. As you said, to enjoy it vicariously. My hope is that it is an uncathartic and dissatisfying experience, and leaves the reader with discomfort over their own complicity in the ongoing ecocide. Not you personally Michael, but the reader in general, myself included.
Michael: (Oh yes, me personally. Me too, absolutely. This is what your essay made me feel, uncomfortable and that I’m not doing enough. It’s how I feel all the time; it’s what I was getting at in the Reckoning 1 editor’s note about being incapable of editorial distance.)
Who was your inspiration?
George: The people who, to quote Ken Kesey, would rather be lightning conductors than seismographs. People living for years on protest sites, in treehouses, underground, people going to prison for defending forests, environmental defenders who are murdered in the course of their protest. (117 this year, as of July.)
All I do really is write stories and clumsily wander around places where people are literally dying to defend the planet. As mentioned in the story, Barry Horne was a big inspiration for the piece, and indeed, all of those people who have been living at Hambachforst and other protest camps across Europe and the world, putting life, limb and liberty at risk. George Monbiot is a fantastic environmental and political writer, and advocates using different modes of language to try and engage with more people on these issues, and for my part, if I can find new ways to communicate, connect and captivate people, then that feels worthwhile.
Michael: What would you say to the criticism that this kind of activism is too out-there, that it alienates and interferes with the cause being taken seriously by a moderate majority?
George: As Howard Zinn said, ‘you can’t be neutral on a moving train’. I respect a diversity of tactics, and would agree that direct action will always upset a certain section of moderates, mainly as it highlights their own complacency. I strongly advocate individual responsibility and autonomy to decide their level of involvement. I would probably endeavour to enter into a dialogue with them on the matter and discuss the severity of the situation currently—
THE PLANET IS DYING. IT’S FUCKING DYING RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU. ITS BURBLING ON BLOODY VOMIT, CRASHED OUT ON THE PAVEMENT, CRYING LIKE A CRIPPLED DEER AFTER YOU HIT IT WITH YOUR CAR.
—I’d probably discuss with them the statistic that 50% of the world’s wildlife has died off in the last four decades. That we are entering the 6th great mass extinction and that it is intimately connected to human activity. That by 2050 there will be more weight by plastic in the oceans than fish—
TURN ON A FUCKING TV. HOUSTON IS LITERALLY UNDERWATER IN A ‘ONCE IN CENTURY STORM’. THERE ARE GIANT RAFTS OF FIRE ANTS FLOATING THROUGH IT. HELLISH GREAT FIRE ANT ISLANDS RIDING THE FLOOD WATERS. 12 YEARS AFTER NEW ORLEANS WAS FLATTENED. HAVE YOU BEEN TO MIAMI? WELL GO NOW BECAUSE IT WILL BE PERMANENTLY 3 FOOT DEEP IN A DECADE—
I would argue that ‘extreme’ actions such as the occupation of forests and violent attacks on machinery used to destroy our forests and oceans helps further involve and inspire the mainstream moderates, rather than alienating them. Once people see how far people are willing to go, they hopefully begin to question whether they are doing enough by recycling, or marching in a protest, or living in a treehouse in a 12,000 year old forest, or lying down in front of a bulldozer.
ALL CARS ARE TARGETS IN A RIOT. THE WORST DECISION YOU CAN MAKE FOR THE PLANET IS TO BREED. YOU ARE WHY THE AIR AND THE WATER AND THE FOOD WE EAT IS POISON. THERE IS NO FUTURE ONLY THE CLIMATE APOCALYPSE—
Or perhaps I would just sigh in exasperation and save my breath. If people cannot see the value and necessity of ‘this kind of activism’ then I am not one to try and change their mind, only to point out the other options.
OPEN YOUR FUCKING EYES THE MODERATE MAJORITY IS MODERATELY MASSACRING THE ENTIRE WORLD WITH MEDIOCRITY. WARGH! WARGH! FUCK YOU
The moderate majority won’t remain so moderate when the food riots start, but meanwhile it’s important to maintain one’s sanity.
Michael: What have you been up to since Hambach Forst? What are you doing next?
George: I try to remain upbeat in the face of an ongoing climate catastrophe. I’m writing a new book all about that merry mission called Good Times In Dystopia. It covers our adventures of the last 3 years, including our recent return to Hambachforst in July 2017, where we were subsequently arrested, strip-searched, and robbed of 100 Euros by the local cops for having a picnic in the wrong place.
We also recently visited Bialowiezca forest, which is the last primeval forest in Europe, a world heritage site, and currently being logged. Of course it is.
We spent most of 2016 squatting some disused offices above a fried chicken shop in the very centre of London. During that time there were ongoing terrorist attacks, including one directly on our street, as well as the ones in Paris, Belgium, and beyond, as well as the ongoing state-terror and bombing campaigns overseas. During that time hundreds of thousands more people were displaced by war, famine and climate collapse, and during that time countless millions more plastic bottles, toothbrushes, iPods, condoms, hairbrushes, floss, and trainers were created, a few billion more barrels of oil extracted, fracking became an acceptable way to get more natural resources out of the ground, the UK voted to leave the EU, and Delerium Tremens was elected President in the US.
For 8 months, me and Mierda devoted ourselves to organising an exhibition—OUROBOROS—at a proper gallery in London. We went fully legit. We brought together over 30 artists with experience of social exclusion—homeless, LGBTQ+, persons with mental health issues, differently abled, migrants—to exhibit artworks as a creative response to the destruction of nature, consumerism, oppression and capitalism. We got funding from the Arts Council. It subsumed every waking minute of our lives for that whole time. We opened the first night with over 300 hundred people in attendance, with noise acts designed to be interactive for members of the Deaf community, visual arts with volunteer interpreters for the visually impaired, sculptures made from old car tires and paintings on gender politics and habitat destruction, photographs of abandoned buildings and shadow theatre performances about migration. It ended in a small riot, and the next morning the gallery shut us down. We took it that the moderate majority wasn’t ready for what we were trying to do, and that we were to remain excluded from the mainstream. Perhaps, as you suggested, we had succeeded in alienating them, as they have alienated us.
Faced with such a world, I have begun taking refuge in Absurdism—the act of living defiantly in a universe that has no meaning, within which our every action is essentially futile, except that very act of defiance.
I’ll finish with two quotes from Albert Camus which I use to frame my daily experience and my expectations for the future. Perhaps also just to prove how ultimately pretentious I am.
The first: The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.
And the second: The only serious question in life is whether to kill yourself or not.
Read “The End of Occidentalism” in Reckoning 1. Or don’t. Maybe read the interview first and then decide.
Michael: “The End of Occidentalism” is explicitly about resistance to colonization. It’s complex, there’s a lot to parse, and I have quite a lot of fun attempting to do so. I don’t get every reference, not nearly–the man in the metal hat in the first line, for example. But it’s addressed to the native, I think. So the first thing I’d like to ask you: what is nativeness? Who is native?
“The colony extends within”, you say, and I agree, we’re all born colonized, to a greater or lesser degree. Some more than others. That’s the part I feel obligated to interrogate on behalf of Reckoning. One of our founding ambitions is to be a platform for Indigenous voices, for people marginalized by dominant culture, by the colonizing force. So I asked JR McConvey, whose story “The Eel of the Lake” features an Indigenous main character, and now I’m asking you: who gets to speak for the native? Where does the colonizing force end and the colonized individual begin? Do you consider yourself Native? What does it mean to assume that authority for the purposes of fiction?
Fiction as a medium for radical thinking fascinates me because it has the safety net of fictionality. I read “The End of Occidentalism” as radical political thinking, in earnest–but I don’t have to. If I wanted, I could take it as thought experiment, or purely as entertainment. I think this safety net is particularly present in genre work that adheres to an expected form–which your work, insofar as I’m familiar with it, does not. How do you think about that when you’re writing, if you do? Another way I’ve asked this in the past: what is political fiction capable of, what are its limitations, what is it for? Do you write in the hope or expectation that what you write will change minds or influence opinions? And if not, what good is political fiction?
Thanks very much for talking to me.
Below is Robin’s complete initial interview response, unedited but for formatting.
Robin: Yes nativeness is so ambivalent; a helic force perhaps, as it is encoded.
We have to begin in space; evidence is mounting that we began there, since bacteria appear to have survived there before, and so may have come from far away.
Of course, this may be wrong. But since I ascribe now to Aristotle’s world without end (a worldview China Mieville adapts, elegantly and gracefully, in his Embassytown), there is no beginning, and so only degrees of recent.
Colony comes from a root word for cycle.
In looking at slavery: the work of the slaver and of the slave, of force, and reaction to force, we are in a cycle, but what kind?
Obviously all kinds of ramifications of violence are perpetuated down the timeline, surfacing in odd ways.
Of course with Benedict Anderson we have imagined communities; I think it is actually imagination which is the “original” (whatever that means!) communion; we are bonded in the mind, elsewhere, or also here, and given the conundrum of existing in multiple places at the same time (which we all do!), we’re forced to construct identities, which again are cycles: idem et idem (identity’s root), again and again, the same faces, the same habits.
But the beauty of history is there are all these outliers, all these freaks, who artists are doomed to become, and so we know better than anyone else, how much fun and dangerous it is to do something different, to, god help us, resist, without the hashtag.
To really slug the slaver in the face and then cut off his nuts. It happens. But not often.
In looking at the question of the origin, we are looking at god, which is only to say, again, looking at ourselves: what are we capable of?
Even now we uncover through archaeology horrendous facts about the origins of white people, and this mystery extends at least as far as Gobekli Tepe in Anatolia.
Genetics tells us the Etruscans were Anatolian; the Lord’s prayer, and its submission to bread, and “bread givers” is thousands of years older than Christianity. It is as old as wheat and its cultivation.
So when we are talking about colonization we are talking about life not only on earth but in the universe.
Life colonizes life. Life cycles through life. Copies, but changes.
So: is there an afterlife?
Is there justice?
Maybe, but only in stories.
As to genre, it is not well understood. I think of it as a cage, and so we’re slaves again.
But I suspect the horrible revolution is to accept that slavery, and learn to acclimate yourself to the exceptions of various genres. I would like to be wrong about this. And it annoys me when writers I respect such as Michael Chabon opine that they would like to “write a book in every genre,” like a kind of slumming, or a gentleman’s tour of the continent to finish him off.
Stories are weapons and like weapons they have various categories.
And like weapons they can be used in ways that are original; that impress other weapon fighters. That make a name for yourself.
The absolute worst thing about being an anarchist revolutionary, is, like Neo, recognizing how deeply and personally you serve the state, for as you become a better warfighter with words, you understand more deeply that this is how slaveowners originally enslaved: with the sword, of course, but never without a better story.
The better story enslaves; and covets the mind, it can create worshippers if you wish. Obviously it can create religions.
What I want to do with my stories is of course horribly bourgeois; I want to be paid some money for them, money which has become extremely hard to come by in these years. So it may well be, and indeed “should” be in some sense, that I am wrong in this desire, and should want something different, or more. Honor or fame or love or understanding. Sometimes I want those things too, though they don’t feed me.
This is another problem with genre: if you are committed, as many would say I have done, to flouting these conventions, it is much harder to make money. In many ways, flouting convention is something only the wealthy can afford to do.
“Reckoning” is akin etymologically to right, and ruling. The straight line which orders and so determines the day.
I think the secret is that the day may be whatever we wish it; and it needn’t be straight. This is how it was for the Etruscans, who were somewhat more inward looking than the Romans whom they colonized but also more scary: they believed, unlike the Romans who looked to the stars to guess at the will of the gods, that they actually determined stellar movements to a degree, and so they looked at the stars to see themselves, and where they wanted to move.
Desire also has a stellar root; it is understood to be something suns do.
You speak of fiction; the root here is dough: we’re back to bread again. The better story; the better slaver.
As an anarchist of course I want liberation, for you and for myself. But the problem is you rapidly find how few want this with you, because of what it will cost mentally, and the responsibilities that come with it.
There is a good curse in the Torah I read when I thought about becoming a Jew: “may you try to sell yourself into slavery, and no one will buy you.”
Yet the root of freedom is friend, so it is something we do together, apes clustered in the embankment, watching for the right time to move ahead, for our meat.
P.S. The man in the metal hat was supposed to be a conquistador 😉
The Reckoning 1 author interviews have not, until now, included much back and forth–I ask questions, I post the answers. This time I felt it was important not to leave the above unchallenged. Need I add that the opinions of Robin Wyatt Dunn do not reflect those of Reckoning Press? The below has been edited somewhat to omit private correspondence.
Michael: I feel I need to point out that though I have posted your interview, and I had fun reading it, I realize you dodged and talked around and thought around the important questions. And now I have a bit of a bad taste in my mouth and kind of wish I’d argued with you further before posting it. So here I am doing what it feels to me is my responsibility: calling you on some bullshit.
What would make me feel a lot better is if you’d agree to posting some kind of follow-up with me where we talk about this in greater depth. That doesn’t have to happen, but I feel like it’s warranted.
You sidestepped the question about nativeness, which, sure–nativeness is all relative from a big picture of time. But it is intensely personal and relevant from the small picture of the individual, which is the only picture any of us actually get without performing somewhat absurd intellectual acrobatics. When you say “native”, when you write about the end of occidentalism, when you write about the impacts of colonialism on culture and on the individual, you’re not talking about my experience of colonialism, a white man’s experience of it in the US, to wit, as something that happened to other people many generations ago and now is felt only in distant vague repercussions. And I have to assume that since you sidestepped the question, that’s your experience of colonialism too. That you are not in fact native in any commonly understood sense, that you’re a white dude with an education like me. You mention that your goal in writing fiction is to make money. I have less of that problem. I have enough money that I can pour some of it into a nonprofit journal of creative writing on environmental justice. So, I don’t know, maybe you’re experiencing personally some of the long-term results of the colonizing force, to wit, capitalism, that I’m not. That still doesn’t make you an authority on nativeness. It makes you a much more direct product of the colonizing force than of any elided or subsumed culture. Which doesn’t mean you can’t write about nativeness, but it makes it look pretty baldly disingenuous to do so without acknowledging that. You write about the end of occidentalism, then answer a bunch of interview questions about it with namedrops of white, entrenched Western male philosophers. That’s not what the end of occidentalism looks like.
Right now I’m reading The Heirs of Columbus, a revisionist historical/non-genre fantastic novel in which Columbus is reappropriated as a descendant of the Maya, and his descendants in turn practice guerilla culture wars on dominant white capitalist kleptocracy. It’s delightful, I’m about halfway through. I bet you’d like it. It’s by Gerald Vizenor, who is Anishinaabe, in other words an actual product of colonized culture. I recommend it. Maybe it would be revelatory for you? Maybe not.
You bring up slavery. Maybe slavery is a cycle, but it’s a long cycle of which we have in the US thus far only seen the part where the rich white Europeans treat the Natives like absolute shit. Sure, white people have a long history. So do brown people. Brown people colonized each other in parts of that history, as did white people. But that history is so distant compared to what people talk about in the modern era when they talk about slavery that making them rhetorically equivalent is glib and insensitive and hard to interpret as other than willfully blindered and frankly I think kind of insulting to their intelligence. Genre is really not slavery like slavery is slavery. Not at all.
Then there’s the fact that you conflated the native and the enslaved. There’s a lot to unpack there, but immediately, just putting those two words next to each other, it becomes obvious to me that’s a leap of logic that can only be performed from the point of view of the colonizer, the Westerner. If slavery is a cycle, then the native isn’t always the colonized. Signifiers slip. You fall back on etymology, and that’s fun and edifying, it’s relevant, but it’s not the whole of how language works. Especially when you’re talking about and in English, a language that eats languages.
How would you feel if I posted some part of this or all of it as a response to your interview response? And we could keep going like that if you want, you could respond. Maybe we’d get somewhere interesting.
The only part of Robin’s response thus far that has seemed fit to print is as follows.
Robin: You do whatever you like.
I hope he answers at more length. I do actually want to talk about all this. If he does, I’ll post it here. But since the tenor of his replies thus far make that seem not particularly likely, I’m making the decision not to wait. Because I’ve said aloud and often that Reckoning invites and encourages Indigenous voices, marginalized voices, voices of writers and artists of color, and I feel like I’d be falling down on the job as editor if I let this stand on its own.
More as events warrant.
Michael: You live in the desert. I gather you’re an avid climber, which makes me think you spend a lot of time outside, in the heat. And you’ve mentioned a number of places online that this landscape and experience colors your writing. Can you talk a little about how? Maybe that influence isn’t coming across in “When No One’s Left”—please correct me if I’m wrong—but it’s one of Reckoning’s goals to try to understand and learn from the ways different landscapes, different experiences of nature, influence the way we think about humanity’s relationship with the natural world.
Lora: Quick plug for rock climbing: Go try it. I’ve seen bulked-up bros struggle alongside their lank-armed girlfriends. Overweight mothers and tiny toddlers wrestle equally with the rock. Struggle is the crux and the reward.
Back to it. I don’t just live in the Sonoran Desert. It’s home, this brutal landscape, and humans are out of our minds to be living here. What hubris and bravery forged our desert cities? The first wanderers, they cut through the chaparral or crossed the salt and creosote flats; they settled and raided the sky islands; they plowed, paved, and planted. And now, here I am now, embedded in that bold and foolish infrastructure, writing stories—to what end?
I lost religion in this desert. I saw the canyonlands and did not see the hand of God. Instead, I saw our human species laid out against geological time, and I was full of wonder, gratitude, and melancholy.
That is what the desert gives my writing, aside from the errant prickly pear and brittle bush blossom: the space to wrestle with the extremes of the human condition.
Struggle. The desert is struggle. Life is struggle. Writing is struggle. The reward for struggling is not at the other end. It’s in the small moments. When you’re lying out in the middle of nowhere on the hood of your car at the base of the Biosphere 2, thinking about the wreckage we’re making of this planet and of space travel and of failure. Listening to the cows low and the coyotes yip and watching the stars fall. Trying to be in this body while holding the vast unknowns. Or even the small unknowns—like how I’m going to apologize for the way I stormed out on him to drive until I found myself here. The reward is in trying to hold all that human messiness like a razor-sharp cholla ball in your hand. Careful, keen-eyed, and open.
Michael: I grew up in the woods—I consider myself very much of the woods. I’ve been to the desert. I’m fairly well practiced at romanticizing it—but I also know how living someplace undermines and reframes one’s pre-established romantic views. Do you romanticize the desert?
Lora: The other day I heard an author describe herself as a romantic. When asked what that meant she said something like, “Oh, it’s a huge pain in the ass. I cry about everything.”
I have wept more tears in the desert than I have in any other place.
The desert requires you to be here. In your thoughts, you bound outward and away, you plan and prepare, backtrack and doubt. But a spiny agave, a hiss or a rattle, the surprise deluge of warm rainfall, your own parched throat—all these bring you back. You can’t tangent for long. The desert is too present for that.
Have you seen this sky of ours? When I arrived here from Texas, the sun was the first thing I noticed. Bigger, hotter, unflagging.
The desert seems to uniquely and unsubtly highlight the push/pull struggle that is the human experience.
Michael: Does living where water is already scarce give you any perspective on how the rest of the world will cope with water scarcity in the future?
Lora: Water scarcity—the future of clean, accessible water—is terrifying to me. Almost every time I turn on the tap, I think about it. I don’t know how to be part of this infrastructure and not be culpable.
Sometimes… sometimes, out of feeble rebellion against the knowledge that this way of life is a fleeting one, and that I happen to have lucked out and been born into great luxury and privilege, I let the water run excessively. Shamed, I shut it off a moment after.
Do I think of water wars? Do I fear death by water-borne disease, by dehydration? Do I consider hoarding, consider buying food on Amazon and stashing fiberglass jugs?
When I bathe in canyon water, I use biodegradable soaps or none at all. I turn off the shower when I shave. I don’t flush every time.
It won’t be enough.
I’m not prophesizing the end of our species, but change will come for us. We’re not ready.
Michael: Finally, and on a completely different topic: having recently become a dad, I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about the responsibilities of procreation. I’ve just been reading this Kate Schapira essay where she talks about giving up on having kids, in part because of fears for what having a kid would mean for her ability to adapt to the challenges of a world of displaced climate refugees, resource scarcity and political upheaval. That essay really got to me, to the point that I’m in the middle of composing a of response to it. “When No One’s Left” addresses these sorts of questions pretty directly. So I wanted to know how you thought about all this. Would you make the same choice the narrator makes in “When No One’s Left”? What about now, with the world as it is today?
Lora: Oh, Michael, Michael…. I wrote “When No One’s Left” in part because I don’t know the answer to your question. I was hoping she’d give me the answer. She didn’t. Luckily, I don’t want a child. I never have had that desire. But I can imagine being filled with want, looking around at the world, and asking these questions—feeling the push/pull. What would I do? I can only say that sometimes, I turn on the tap and stand soaking under the hot water just to spite the world and my impotent yet important place in it.
There’s a current of thought that it’s one’s responsibility to “have a child and raise them right.” I don’t hold with this. Children are people. They’ll make their own choices, just as potential moms and dads decide whether in fact to become mothers or fathers. I do feel that procreation is a self-focused act. The child in question did not give their consent to be brought into being. So, if one does decide to do it—better be certain to do the best damn job possible.
Michael: At least I can try.
Thank you very much for talking to me!
Justin: Fuck if I know. My goal is to make something that’s ripe with potential meanings. A lot of fiction and media I enjoy is less about one thing than it is potentially about many things. Making a story that shares that quality is my goal, but that potential’s going to be informed by the range of my interests. In this case the interest was in travelogues which I’m a fan of, but inverting the genre somewhat.
Michael: “Behind the Sun”‘s narrator starts out lost, trapped amid the sterile inhumanity of an airport lounge. By the end, he’s invigorated, renewed, a different person–and he’s home, in this incredibly strange new place. That’s all we know about him. I vaguely recall an earlier version of this story where you hinted he was a failed academic; that part’s gone. Instead he seems to me a vessel for the reader’s frustrations with the modern world, and his journey a version of that revolution in perspective that comes with travel, with being thrown out of one’s comfort zone. It happened that way for me. I know you’ve had experiences like this and to spare. I know it’s taking ridiculous advantage of editorial privilege, that most readers can’t and aren’t supposed to get to ask the author this kind of thing, that the story should speak for itself. But I’ve got the editor’s chair now, and the rush of power is irresistible. Is that what you meant this story to be about? Maybe a more diplomatic way of putting it: how has your experience of cultures other than the one you were born to informed “Behind the Sun”?
Justin: I am very leery of travel for travel’s sake and the quest of broadening one’s awareness experiences, as I can see that being a trap. If anything the narrator is someone who has over-traveled and is exhibiting the kind of jaded exhaustion you can glimpse in airport lounges and expat bars. When the story ends, he’s shed that need to travel. Here’s the thing: when my wife and I moved to South Korea the first place we lived in was a village of 250 people. I’d never lived in a place like that before, neither had my wife. In fact the building we had been living in back in New York City likely had more people in it than that village. Even my in-laws were shocked that places like it still existed in South Korea. Now, the culture shock I felt: was it the shock of being an American in South Korea or was it being an urban inhabitant suddenly thrust into a rural environment? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure I would have experienced culture shock moving from any metropolitan to rural environment. Of course I was now living in a culture where mine was not the dominant perspective, and even now I’m normally at a loss in communicating with strangers. If anything from my experiences informed “Behind the Sun” it was maybe this notion of letting go and not insisting on knowing, but instead seeing what comes. The narrator throughout the story is often reliant on kind strangers and must learn to subsume himself in a group effort geared for the greater good. Some folks would likely take issue with this being a positive outcome, this erosion of the character’s individuality, but I see it instead that the narrator has shed a false self he’s been clinging to. Now that he’s lost that baggage he can begin growing again.
Michael: So what’s the trap you’re talking about in travel broadening one’s awareness? Is it this potential for the traveler to impose their own potentially false sense of self on what they’re experiencing?
Justin: I’ve encountered people who seem to have climbed onto this travel treadmill where they’re searching for some transcendental experience of “ultimate reality” and all it does is make them boorish: “You think this is real, man? This isn’t real. If you want real you need to go to Thailand. That’s where the real shit is. I saw dead people in the streets, man.” So to me the trap in broadening one’s awareness is the same for anyone who chases after the ultimate high or whatever in the hope that it makes them more real. Granted, I’ve often said living in Asia is wasted on me, but there’s a big difference between being an adventurer and being adventurous as Tove Jansson point out in Fair Play. An adventurer takes what opportunities arise, but doesn’t need to go out looking for them like the adventurous do. That said, I agree it is a good idea to learn to exist outside your comfort zone. It’ll certainly teach you things about yourself, and not all of them to your liking.
Michael: Am I falling into a similar trap by claiming “Behind the Sun” as a piece of fiction about environmental justice?
Justin: Probably, but your money’s good so I won’t complain. I did try to talk you out of buying this story after all, but you fell in love with the whole notion of people working together to turn shit into gold and called it environmental justice. What could I do?
I’ve never been lost in the woods, so of course I didn’t think I was lost now. I’d simply misplaced the trail. Eventually, I’d find it, because it was around here someplace. It wasn’t until I had stomped around for about an hour that I began to get the creeps, and not because I was lost. It was the sun.
It hadn’t moved; it just hung there in the sky at about twenty degrees above the western horizon. I sat down and lined it up with a cedar branch and watched it through the needles. I watched it until my ass was numb and it stayed there as if the tip of the cedar was holding it in place.
A wind moved though the woods, making the cedar and the tamarack next to it sway. The tamarack had begun to change, and a few of its soft yellow needles drifted to the forest floor. A single, red maple leaf landed on the back of my hand. I started and picked it up, twirling the stem between my fingers. Time was passing, the leaves were falling, and I realized that I had to pee. It wasn’t like time had stopped. Just the sun.
I stood, swaying a little bit until feeling came back to my glutes. A red squirrel was surprised by my sudden appearance and chattered at me from the maple. I popped my jeans open, slid them and my undies down and squatted to pee. The smell of urine and the dusty dead leaves swirled around my face and I hung my head down and then rolled it across my shoulders, thinking.
I picked a direction, but after walking for an hour, stumbled over the same butt-flattened spot I’d started from. I rested and went out again. And again. No matter where I began, I came back to my spot and the sun still balanced on the tip of that cedar.
There was a little spring around somewhere. I’d seen it last time I was out this way. Grimacing at the sun, I licked my lips and turned in a circle, my feet carrying the circle into a wide spiral, and found the spring just west of my spot.
The ground rose and a wall of black rock thrust up a hundred feet, an ancient mountaintop buried in forest leaves, small cedars growing in the cracks of its shoulders and red mountain ash scattered across its crown. Water seeped down the face of the rock and pooled at its base. I knelt and touched my lips to the pool, sucking in a long, cool drink.
Drinking down that water was like drinking down the world. I could taste the rock, iron and deep and dark, and the earth, moist and rich. Lightheaded, I leaned my shoulder to the rock. A dribble of water dripped down my chin, landed on my chest, and slid cool between my breasts.
It was dim in the shadow of the rock. A dozen staggering steps from the spring, a pile of freshly fallen autumn leaves had collected in a hollow. This wasn’t the first time I’d spent a night in the woods. I pushed down the panicked voice that was urging me to run and burrowed down into the leaves. Piling the leaves over me, I slept, coming awake once or twice in the shadowed late afternoon light, but drifting off again to the sound of wind in the pines or the buzz of a bee, and always the soft, warm crackling of fallen leaves.
Sleep flowed across me, warm current of contentment and a strong feeling of place that held me safe. I knew where I was and it was all right. I dreamt of sunlight falling softly across a pale blue autumn sky and the last falling petals of late summer flowers. Sleek bears rooted under logs, and bucks in rut blew steamy breaths at each other across evening meadows. I dreamt of a girl picking frost-touched choke cherries on the lee of the ridge.
Until I startled awake and it was night. I blinked in my leafy bed, eyes wide in the darkness, listening to what had woken me.
It was night. The sun had set.
Something moved in the darkness and I felt the hair lift up on the back of my neck. I slid out of the leaves and the whisper that they made was no louder than the wind in the trees. My jeans and shirt hung on me in ribbons of flannel and denim, and autumn leaves tangled my hair. I crouched there, my mind skipping from the leaves to the water to the earth beneath my bare feet. This was all that my mind could hold. A breeze pushed against my face and I turned into it. The air was crisp with a hint of coming frost but there was a fetid stench that came in wisps; a rotting smell, like old garbage or road kill, like brutality and grief. I turned toward it and breathed it in so I would know it.
A full moon hung low in the west, about twenty degrees above the horizon. I grinned at the moon and then turned my eyes back to the smell, finding it in an inky spot, black upon black, a thing that shouldn’t be there, didn’t belong here in my place. I didn’t know what it was, but that didn’t matter. I had no words, no thoughts. Looking at it, I knew what I had to do.
It stilled as it sensed me, but latent violence tingled against my skin. With a crazy shiver, it launched itself, black limbs wide and a dark gaping mouth. I screamed as I met it and we came together in a flurry of claws and teeth. I gagged, the smell of its fur like rancid grease on the back of my throat. Its teeth snapped in front of my eyes and I squeezed where I held it and then threw myself forward, using my own teeth.
It was nasty, but I ate it. I ate it right down.
I staggered away from the place of blood and torn ground and collapsed into the pool, the water clearing the taste from my head. I came to half lying in the pool, shivering with cold. A late day sun sent a shaft of golden light through the trees and across my legs and I pushed away from the spring and into the sunlight. Without thinking much, I stood and began to wander around my wood, picking a few late blueberries, running my hands over the trunk of a massive beech, and pulling up a bunch of purple loosestrife. I walked for hours and finally fetched up near the swamp and sat in a patch of rose mallow, combing my fingers through my hair.
I stopped and looked at my hands. My skin had taken on the pattern of the leaves, bronze, brown and yellow, and my nails were sharp. They were strong looking hands, good hands, but not the hands that had driven my truck. I squinted down at them, trying to remember.
Only small things came to me. My truck? I remembered the feel of the shift knob as I put my truck in gear. Coffee, bitter and rich, I missed with a sudden physical ache. Did anyone remember me? Almost, I could hear the sound of my lover’s voice.
My chest felt tight, sadness welled up, and tears ran down my face. I sat in the swamp grass and watched the rose mallow sway in the breeze. Rose mallow is a beautiful flower. I cupped one in my hand. The petals were soft and cool. A yawn cracked my face and I shook my head, bleary with tears and sunlight. With another yawn, I rolled over in the grass, curled between the flower stems, and fell asleep.
I woke to the sound of singing.
Grass had grown up through my hair, and the rose mallows grew around me like a circle of pretty girls. High and sweet, someone sang a wordless aria. I looked up and over the flower tops. Some feet away, a light sparkled in the air. It hung above the ground, dancing to and fro, shining now gold, now yellow, now new-leaf green. As it bent to a flower, it became infused with the delicate pink of the mallow.
The light pushed forward into the circle where I lay. It was an odd sight; as the light moved toward me, a face came toward me as if someone were pressing into a sheet of color-swirled plastic. First a nose, then forehead and cheekbones and a small, delicate chin. The sunken eyes glowed pastel blue and the eyelashes fluttered. The light skipped back and the face disappeared, but it came again, pressing against the barrier, the eyebrows raised.
I pushed myself up, hugging my knees with my arms, pulling them to my chest. With a sigh, I propped my chin on my knees and considered her. One of her hands pressed in next to her face, fingers spread wide.
Words came through the music. “Hello? Can you hear me?”
I was never a person who liked much company. I mean, some people are fine, but I can only take them like potent liquor, in small sips. Looking at the face with its outspread hand, I realized that I did not want this face, hand, or any other part to come into my world. The song and the light were lovely, but I did not want them to join me.
With studied care, I unfolded my arms and legs and rocked forward onto my feet, crouching now, with my fingertips just brushing the ground and my head tipped back to look up into the face. I thought of the black thing, with its smell and its bones crunching and how it never had the chance to scream. My lips lifted and I licked my tongue over my teeth, meeting the wide blue eyes, staring into them and letting them stare into me.
I blinked, and the face was gone.
The song faltered, then rose again with upward slides of curiosity. The light danced back and forward but not to the edge. Was it her edge or my edge? If I looked very closely, I could see the shape of a girl there within the light. Shaking my head so that my hair flew, I stepped over the rose mallow and away, back to the wood, leaving the light and the song behind.
I slept and woke and slept and woke. When the black things came, I ate them; they never got away. I could sit for hours watching the birds flutter from ground to branch or squirrels building their leafy winter nests. Once, a bear sow wintered on the south lee of the black rock and birthed two cubs. I helped her raise them and they come to me still.
The sun or the moon were always in their place, round and full, about twenty degrees over the western horizon.
Of course, she came back. She. Sometimes I could see her shape, wreathed with light. Or she would again press against the barrier that separated us. A girl, a woman, and then a strong-faced elder, white hair in simple braids pinned across her crown. She would sing and I would growl and when she came too close I would lift my lips into something that was not a smile.
Once when she came, her song was dim. I don’t know if she was sick in body or spirit, but I could see a blackness, a place of nothingness, pulsing at her center. I didn’t think; I snatched it out and gulped it down. Her song faltered and for a moment I thought I had extinguished it. But I guided the song and the light, guided her, with little pushes and pinches and waving of hands, to the black rock with its seeping water and the pool. She drank and the water swirled into her, deep green and fecund brown and hot red iron. I could see her clearly then, flaming beside the pool, a woman in her prime with work-roughened hands and smile lines at the corner of her eyes.
“What are you?” her song asked.
“A woman,” I said. “Just a woman.”
Her smile was soft. “No.”
I visited the pool later and found a pendant of agate, worked and polished, and wrapped all around with a fantasy of silver wire. It glinted up at me from the bottom of the pool, an offering or just a gift of thanks. It is there still, shining in the sunlight and the moonlight.
When I saw her again, her face was creased with years and her back was bent. She pressed tight against what stood between us so that I growled a warning at her, teeth bare. She lifted her own lips to me and showed me her teeth and I blinked and nodded with respect. At that, she laughed so hard that she clasped her knees, rocking back and forth. I laughed with her and leapt up and danced for a moment to her song.
I slept next high in the branches of the beech and I woke to the moon and something wicked moving in my woods. It smelled ugly and mean, of shame and willfulness and the desire to hurt. I slipped from my leafy bed and slithered down one branch to another until I crouched over a darkness so profound that my eyes slid past it, unwilling to linger. I noticed that my shoulders were up around my ears, my head tucked down.
I shook my head, impatient with myself. I was awake and it was night; there was a blackness in my wood and my mouth at least, dripping with heat and saliva, knew what to do. The black thing moved closer to the beech, drawn toward me, I think. I stood on the branch, stretched out my arms and fell upon it. It whirled, mouth wide, and scored me with hatred, a poisonous, acrid bile that it spat like fire. It scars me still, but who has not been scarred by hatred?
It thought that I wanted to win and that was its mistake.
After I consumed it, I staggered through the wood. Half of my face was eaten away and my left arm hung down uselessly. I collapsed amongst the blueberries near the black spruce. With my good eye, I blinked up at the moon, the moon that hung just twenty degrees over the western horizon. It is never about winning or losing. It is about risk and joy, leaps of faith and wonder. I closed my eye and all of reality ceased.
The taste of the pool seeping past my lips startled me awake. Something touched my face, a cool, wet cloth. One edge lay across my eyes, softening the gore that was caked there while the other edge trailed across my lips, leaking soothing moisture onto my tongue. After a moment the cloth went away. I heard movement in the grass, time passed, and then more movement and the cloth was back. I sucked at it, rock and earth, towering trees and delicate flowers, buck and bear and buzzing bees. It went away and came back again, three times, maybe four.
I could hear singing now, beautiful, more beautiful than I had ever heard. Tears came to my one good eye and the cloth brushed them away. I sat up and took the cloth in my own hand and carefully worked over my face. The wounds had closed up but the left eye was gone. I opened my right eye and looked into the face that peered at me from the light. She was very old, toothless and thin.
“I had to hear your song once more,” she said.
I shook my head. “I have no song.”
She laughed, shining so bright that it hurt to look upon her. I stood and made my way limping to the pool and she followed, the two of us staggering and weaving through the ferns and small brush. I slumped down on the pool’s edge, the ground soft and cool, and touched my lips to the water. When I could take no more, I rolled away and sought the hollow with its bed of new autumn leaves.
I woke, blinking up from the leaves. There is a cedar across from the pool, and the sun balanced there on the tip of a branch. I lifted my hand and it trembled. Light-headed, I rolled out of the leaves toward the seeping rock. And stopped.
There against the blackness of the rock was a damp pile of bones. I could see a femur and several vertebra. The skull rested on its side, a few feet away. There were finger bones in the pool next to the blue agate pendant.
I gathered her all up and carried her across the woods to lay her in the ring of rose mallow. I go to her on spring evenings when the sun has not set and we listen to the forest sing. I go to her on lazy summer evenings and watch the bees as they buzz around the mallow. In the autumn, I bring her red maple leaves. I bring her water from the pool, cupped in my hands, and when I drip it upon her, her bones melt into the earth. Together, we sleep the winter away.
Sometimes her light comes and I dance to her song but mostly it is just me and the bones. I don’t know where the light goes. It tried to get me to follow it once, but this is my place. I know that I am not what I once was, though I cannot guess at what I am. I just am. The one in the wood, the one who keeps this place, the one who watches. I am mineral water and blueberries and the full moon and a quiet spring gloaming. I am the one with teeth that the blackness fears. If you come to the place of the rose mallow, or the frost-touched choke cherries, or the weeping black rock, maybe you will see me. I am here. Listen to the wind and the crackling autumn leaves. That is my song.
I have never been lost in the woods and I am not lost now.
Michael: I love this story of personal identity in the context of collective activism. As I probably told you when I bought it, it made me cry, I think partly because I know how ineffectual and insignificant working for positive change in the world can feel, and the idea of getting such a personal acknowledgement from the huge, beautiful abstraction you’re trying to defend is a powerful thing indeed. I think “Eel of the Lake” makes a fair argument that the escapism of fantasy serves a worthwhile purpose–introducing a ray of hope when we need it most.
But I want to ask you about a particular issue of personal identity this story brings up, one that applies very much to Reckoning as a whole, which is representation and cultural appropriation. To be blunt about it: I’m a white dude, you’re a white dude; Mizay, the main character, is a lesbian woman of Indigenous descent; is that okay? When I first read this, I hesitated, even though it made me cry, because I want Reckoning to be a platform for voices not my own, not like my own, and I want it to be a space where people not like me can feel their voices are being given the attention and respect they deserve. In the end, it was the making me cry that made up my mind: Mizay’s voice clearly didn’t feel fake to me, it felt respectfully and authentically rendered. Still, I have to ask myself, who am I to make that call? So, in hopes you might have better answers than mine, I wanted to ask you the same question. How did you decide to tell this story from this perspective? How did you find Mizay’s voice? If you thought about issues of appropriation, can you tell me about how that went?
J.R.: This question has weighed on me heavily in recent months, and it’s not easy to unpack. A bit of relevant background is that I have worked with Indigenous people on past projects, mainly documentaries, and feel I’ve learned a huge amount from these interactions. A few summers ago, I was fortunate enough to participate in an arts leadership program through the Banff Centre, where I met an elder who helped me further explore Indigenous knowledge, and to see both its essential wisdom, and the beauty and poetry of the stories. I believe they carry answers that will help us navigate the accelerating changes that Earth is undergoing.
When I set out to write this story, I was searching for a way to frame a discussion about climate change, resistance and the ways in which humans are connected to the landscape. It didn’t start out as a story with an Indigenous protagonist, or a story about an LGBTQ2 character – those character traits came out in the writing. But once they emerged, it made sense to me, since marginalization and activism are so connected in cultural discourse. When I wrote it, it felt emotionally true. So I submitted it.
What I can see in retrospect is that one can’t really be incidental when attempting to write from other perspectives, especially Indigenous ones. And, ultimately, you have to admit ignorance, and accept that all you have is an attempt to understand, which may or may not be welcomed by Indigenous people who feel stifled or limited in terms of how and where their voices are heard. I believe deeply in the value of fiction as a vehicle for empathy, and I cherish the freedom of the imagination as the truest freedom. But I also understand that some people feel that what’s at stake in writing from Indigenous perspectives is a more urgent matter, a question of life or death.
So, where I’ve landed with this story is that it’s out there, and I welcome any criticisms of it that will open a respectful dialogue about these questions. I’m willing to listen, which is the request I hear or read most often in discussions around appropriation: listen to us. I’ve given the story to my friend, the elder, and am hoping for an honest assessment of where it falls on the appropriation spectrum. My argument in favour of the piece, such as it is, is that I am (hopefully) not glossing over the complicity of straight white men in systemic discrimination against Indigenous people, women and those who identify as LGBTQ2. If I’m writing from the perspective of a marginalized character, it’s in part to throw an interrogating light on my own privileged position in relation to those who are marginalized.
However, at the moment, it seems an argument isn’t what Indigenous people (or LGBTQ2 people) want or need in terms of response to questions like this. Which makes sense: as soon as you take two steps into the larger discussion around treatment of Indigenous people in Canada, any would-be indignation falls apart. There are communities with no clean water. There are twelve-year-old kids killing themselves on reserves. The last residential school was not shut until 1996. Colonization is still effecting very real and painful consequences on Indigenous people.
So, ultimately, although I still like the way this story feels and reads, and believe it’s as emotionally honest as I could make it—and am happy to have it in a publication like Reckoning, which invites conversations like this one—I’ve since removed it from the manuscript of my short story collection, on the grounds that it’s not really mine to tell, or at least that there’s sufficient debate around that statement to warrant removal. It’s the last piece I’ll write from the perspective of an Indigenous character. As much as it saddens me to see how the world, in general, seems to be dividing and subdividing into closed ranks—how much “us versus them” has become the dominant paradigm—I don’t want my writing to be hurtful to people whose suffering is still so acute, and I have to believe them when they tell me how appropriation contributes to this, even if the context is a story that aims, in part, to champion decolonization.
Sorry for the long-winded response. This is a question that may take a hundred years to answer.
Michael: Because you and I also share the Great Lakes watershed, the particular huge, beautiful abstraction Mizay is protesting on behalf of in this story, I also wanted to ask you about the real-world inspiration for that. Are river outlets being paved and islands drowned near where you live? Does the resistance to it look anything like it does in the story? I’m a transplant here, and for years I was daunted by the level of degradation of the lakes–having never known this ecosystem any other way but polluted and infested with invasives, I found it harder to work up the energy to do anything about it. I’ve gotten over that, thankfully–but I’d love to hear a little of how you think about the lakes, what’s made them worth defending.
J.R.: It boggles my mind that some people would question the need to protect the Great Lakes. This is the largest source of fresh water on Earth. Like you, I’ve only ever known the lakes in their degraded state, although I’ve lived next to Lake Ontario for most of my life. It’s the sad truth that they were already degraded before I was born. I take some solace in the cleanup efforts that have happened in my lifetime—I can swim in Lake Ontario now, on good days—and in the efforts of groups like Waterkeeper Alliance, who work on spreading the message about their protection. But, while there’s not a specific, local incident of pollution I can point to (invasive species are another matter: Asian carp, lampreys, Zebra mussels…), I think we are generally now headed in a very dangerous direction, with the efforts the current US government is making to destroy environmental regulations.
What is a very visible and present problem in Toronto at the moment is the flooding of the Islands. They’ve been closed since early May, covered in water, and although the city keeps pushing the deadline for re-opening the park, it keeps raining, and I am afraid this may turn into a permanent problem. It’s also a harbinger of the kind of changes I think we’re going to see happening more and more frequently. Frankly, it makes it hard to conceive of any kind of effective resistance… I know hope is important, but the scale of change is so vast, you wonder what can happen on a grassroots human scale that will slow or reverse what’s already in motion.
In the case of “Eel of the Lake,” the point is more that resistance and love are sources of personal strength in the face of big-picture despair, and that the possibility still exists to reimagine ourselves and the ways in which we see and relate to the natural world. Or, if you want to take the fantastical element at face value, that maybe at some point the world will take over, and our struggle to be the controlling factor in nature—on either side of the issue—will be rendered insignificant. I guess there’s some skewed hope in the thought that the Earth knows what it’s doing, and will find a way to detoxify itself. What that would mean for humankind is anyone’s guess, though. Maybe the beast in this story is an omen of personal discovery… or maybe it’s hungry.
Michael: These are great answers! As thoughtful and nuanced as I could have hoped for. Thank you very much. I really appreciate your wanting to engage with me over these questions.