D.A. Xiaolin Spires Interview: “A Wispy Chastening”

Read “A Wispy Chastening” in Reckoning 2.

Michael: The sense of ambiguity in “A Wispy Chastening” evokes, for me, a question about what kind of responsibility we should feel, at a personal level, for huge, human-caused environmental problems. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, global warming, wildlife starving to death with stomachs full of plastic: what do these things have to do with whether I drink coffee out of a disposable cup?

Xiaolin: Thanks, Michael, for asking the tough questions! While plastic and disposable items are still the norm in, say, food courts, hot dog stands and other venues, it’s something that will be hard to avoid. Does that mean if you don’t bring your own cup, you should forgo drinking coffee at a conference or a beer/soda at a baseball game? I’m not so sure I would go as far as that. I will say that exposure and systemic policies might do more in terms of motivating action—the connection between disposable products and the long-range disappearance of seabirds, for example, is something that needs to be brought more clearly into the limelight.

In terms of incentives, I think it certainly helps to feel motivated to bring in that cup of yours because it will cost you 25 cents less. Perhaps money is not the perfect arbiter for moral decisions and action and perhaps should not be, but it certainly does affect consumer behavior. I think it’s the right direction to go in terms of affecting large-scale change. I think decisions such as charging extra for disposable cups or giving a discount for bringing in your own are made on a business level (at restaurants and cafes), but percolates to personal decisions (like bringing your own dishware). But, large-scale change also necessitates awareness and inciting a general urgency to the breadth and depth of the problem.

I’ve also noticed that some instances of corporate marketing involve large amounts of waste, for example, free samples—you see restaurants at food courts or wholesale stores using one plastic fork for one piece of chicken, given to passerby after passerby, to be disposed after that bite of a sample is consumed—or tiny cups filled with negligible amounts of liquid for tasting. There might be better ways to approach sample-giving and advertising. This goes for everyday supermarkets and grand events, as well, for example, wine-tasting as well, especially at major expos involving thousands of visitors and more. I wish I had an easy solution, but I don’t really. I will say that, for example, many temples in Taiwan have free water for anyone visiting and next to the dispenser are these paper cones that fold open for the water to be dispensed in (if you don’t have your own bottle). These foldable paper cones (looking much like the paper that wraps around an ice cream cone) seem a lot less intrusive (more biodegradable, less volume) as waste and more recyclable, so if businesses could move in a direction like that, even as an interim solution, it would be helpful. It’s still waste, but it’s less of it.

Michael: How do you negotiate those kinds of ambiguities, if you feel them in your own life?

Xiaolin: I’m going to focus on the issue of plastic since I’ve been reading a lot about it and I find it particularly insidious to the environment, but so cheap and versatile as to be seductive. It’s hard to avoid using plastic when it’s freely passed around. I do think there needs to be systemic change, such as Indonesia’s investment and development of new industries in disposable materials–for example, cassava and seaweed alternatives. I don’t think anyone should be harangued for using something that is presented to them so freely, but on a personal level, I try as much as I can to bring my own thermos or bottle to events and around town— and reuse any plastic items I’m given. But, really, although I do believe in personal responsibility, I think this change needs to be driven at a much higher level. The development of viable alternatives to, say a ziplock bag, that is just as convenient, would do wonders. I don’t think that’s asking for a miracle, but asking that funding goes towards this kind of research (and people to root, petition and vote for them). Certainly, taxes and investments in alternatives would be laudable ways to approach the crisis. On a personal level, I think it helps to be conscientious, but action at a higher level is key. It doesn’t rule out personal action, but should encourage it. For individuals, this could mean spreading news about the crisis, urging policymakers and other forms of encouragement that might entail wider action.

Michael: What is the role of story in helping us adapt to these huge open-ended problems–if it has a role?

Xiaolin: I think I’m not the first person to really say that stories don’t necessarily need to be parables, have a lesson or be educational. I think it would be too much to make demands on stories. To ask about the role of stories—I wouldn’t make it prescriptive as to say stories need to address this, but I think it is helpful that these kinds of stories focusing on environmental collapse and alternatives are coming out. It may be simply because environmental issues have been pressing on us and some of the most interesting advances in technology are addressing issues like environmental degradation and climate change. Certainly, they have affected my writing and reading—and I’ve written more than a few stories about this (see, for example, “Prasetyo Plastics” published in Clarkesworld Issue 134). The prevalence of stories about climate change and environmental decline and crisis might be a consequence of our times—these are the big issues that form the backdrop and foreground to our lives and there is an urgency that drives the writing and reading.

But, questions of garbage and waste have been issues for quite a long while—see, for example, recycling and reuse in Edo Period Japan as systems of implemented operations addressing these issues. It would be disingenuous to assume it’s simply a contemporary problem (though I would suggest it’s more pressing now with mechanical reproduction, the evanescence built into the intended use of materials, etc.) This focus on environmental issues is not just reflected in speculative fiction in English, but also a theme in stories across the world, for example in “Yuanyuan’s Bubbles” by (刘慈欣) Liu Cixin and “He-y, come on ou-t!” by(星新一) by Shinichi Hoshi.

We all make garbage; it’s a very human question to ask how to deal with it. Hopefully, we will continue towards better and better solutions. I hope that I might find myself one day, sitting outside on a pleasant (hopefully not-climate-change-induced-sweltering) day—watching a sports game or basking on a blanket at an outdoors matsuri—and having to choose between drinking from a disposable biodegradable cup made of bamboo fiber and a planet-friendly cassava-derived drinking bag. And everyone else around me making the not-so-difficult decision of choosing between two decent alternatives. I really want to have the best of both worlds— convenience and planetary viability. I don’t think that’s asking too much!

A Wispy Chastening

D.A. Xiaolin Spires

Too many people dream,” he said, leaning against the door.

“What do you want them to do, stay awake?”

“Maybe.”

“I’ll play Linganian flute to keep you up.” I smiled, miming tooting.

“No thanks. I don’t dream,” he said, walking away. A trail of multicolored fumes followed him, dodging in and out of his spiky hair. Butterscotch and shoe polish scents wafted my way, making me dizzy.

So, he was a Shepherd. No wonder he didn’t dream. Had his beloved herd of creatures to care over, keeping him too busy to sleep.

When I told Nana I saw a Shepherd, she gasped.

“He’s a homeless and a rogue,” she said.

“He’s just living as simply as he can, protecting the Earth’s creatures as he always did,” I countered.

“He’s crazy. He has powers no one can understand.”

I thought that would be the end of it, but she nagged me about it, her voice trembling. Her warnings crescendoed in fearful passion.

She said he herded all of Earth’s creatures, even humans, to his vision of a perfect, but dystopic future. I told her that didn’t make sense. How could the Shepherd herd humans? We weren’t domesticated; we weren’t sheep.

She babbled on, ignoring my objections. Something in her voice told me that she wasn’t speaking figuratively. I’d hit a nerve. Her hands were shaking.

She made me bathe with linderbuds. Their floral scent clung to me. Old stereotypes die hard.

That night, lucid dreams invaded my sleep.

Ducks crossed the road in single file. All cars, even hearses, waited.

The ducks paid no heed, stopping entirely. I thought time itself halted. A cacophony of honking disabused me of this.

The ducks started to twirl, wings and feathers held up like martyrs as they rotated. Around their thin necks wrapped plastic loops of six-pack cans, swinging about as they turned.

Someone got out of their car and pulled the mother duck by the plastic, leading it to the grass. The duck squawked and the beautiful choreography fell apart, little ducklings flying about, some collapsing, flapping immature wings.

A knock at my car window. I rolled it down. I hadn’t realized I was driving, but then it made sense Bach’s symphony emanated from speakers. The man who’d assaulted the ducks threw them in. Wings flapped in protest.

“Take your pack,” he said. “You did this.”

I collected them into my backseat.

“Buckle up,” I said. They honked in unison, nodding green beaks.

I drove, stopping at another crossing.

Moose. A movement at their feet caught my eye, a fluttering of yellow plastic bags.

I caught scent of him on Thursday. This time it was spumoni, bourbon and the rustic musk of aged oak. From across the diner, Shepherd caught me staring. He walked over, inviting himself to an empty chair.

“Seat’s taken.”

“Very funny.” He scanned the menu, betraying no sign of laughter.

I pulled out a peach-colored feather. Twirled it in my fingers.

“You left this with me,” I said. His eyes lit up.

“Beautiful specimen of a quill. Short calamus, perhaps holding only a few drops of ink at a time, but glorious sapphire plumage. Wispy. You’ve taken up calligraphy?”

“Now it’s my turn to laugh,” I said. “I found it in my backseat.”

“Oh? Into transporting rare animals?”

“I see why you tagged me, why you unleashed your dream power to admonish me. I dropped litter at the party. Big deal. It wasn’t outside. The host picked it up later. I’m not one of your herd.”

“You’re right. Not my herd.” A deadpan look.

“This wasn’t your doing?”

“No. This must be your imagination at work. Perhaps you ingested a placebo of your own making?”

I shook my head. I didn’t know what he meant.

“Listen, it wasn’t me,” he said. “I had my hands busy with a multinational corporation dumping sewage into the seas.” He laughed. “I don’t deal with petty infractions like personal litter.” He passed me a cloth napkin.

“You want to know what I did to those perps?” His voice dropped to a low whisper.

“What?” I asked, my voice dropping to match his conspiratorial tone.

“I made them squirm in their sleep, conjure sensations of drinking fouled seawater while watching bloated-eye fish. They glistened with their leaked slurry, their fins caked in vile. The fish appeared right in front of their sublimated eyes, gills seeping, large like heaving giants. Their mouths fetid, they opened their gills and closed them, over and over, in gasping desperation, begging to breathe, but to no avail.”

“Quite graphic,” I said.

“Yeah, I was pretty proud of it. Let me order you a drink. Laced with no pollutants or particulates, I promise. That stuff only happens in dreams and to serious criminals who deserve it.”

I hesitated, and nodded.

As we waited for the drinks, I studied my feather. I knew I wasn’t one of his tagged offenders, but I thought of all the times I’d casually thrown a used straw or dirty napkin on the side of the road.

I had lied. It wasn’t just at the party. It was cumulative, mounds of stuff. Plastic bags, cola six-pack rings, beer bottles; all the flotsam that now surfaced, floating about in my mind, that I pitched at the border of the woods or into a neighbor’s yard, too indifferent to bag it up.

I twirled the feather, watching it spin, like the choked ducks in my midnight reverie. I imagined the ducks glaring at me, imploring.

I envisioned the feather writing. Guilty. For fouling the environment. It would follow me for my entire sentence, penning infractions in the air. A chimerical prison of my own design.

I held my hands up, disturbing letters. A redolence of dirt and grime. I wondered at the power of my own imagination. Was it as dynamic as the Shepherd’s?

“As charged,” I said, as the drinks arrived and the Shepherd shot me an enigmatic grin.