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!

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Kate Schapira Interviews Michael J. DeLuca

Michael: This essay of Kate Schapira’s in Catapult, about the decision not to have kids in the age of Trump and climate change, was the direct inspiration for my Reckoning 2 editorial about making the opposite decision. We’ve talked a lot about this since. Kate has very kindly agreed to share a little more of that discussion here.

Kate: What has having a child/becoming a parent done to your sense of your range—the scale and the arenas in which you operate as a person, how much your calculations take in, where you geographically and physically go, what you consider your physical and social territory? Has it contracted, expanded, shifted the ground of your participation in the world as it’s becoming, how big you think and/or on what level of detail? This is such a written question, but I really want to know the answer!

Michael: Becoming a parent has shoved me into a lot of new arenas, given me an understanding of people I didn’t before—mothers are a huge example, a huge cross-section of humanity with which I was never before able to empathize like I am now. It has also shut me out of some arenas I used to frequent. I travel less, at least for now. But I talk to more people where I am; I have things to talk to them about, where I didn’t before. I think, in terms of my capacity to participate in all these arenas, it’s a wash. Everybody has a fixed amount of time in which to live and act; there are no fewer hours in the day now than before I was a parent, there will be no more hours in the day after my kid is eighteen and out of the house. But I see how I am forced to be more organized, and I see the potential for that to ripple out and have increasing impact the more comfortable and better I get in that. It may be the same as for any newly adopted responsibility? Starting a literary magazine, for example: much of the work there has felt like a chore, and it’s certainly work that has taken away from time I could have spent on my own writing. Filling out applications to the IRS for nonprofit status I might compare to an equivalently bureaucratic task I’m performing on behalf of my kid: filling out his passport application. It’s frustrating now; the payoff down the road I expect to be huge. So, an answer to the question about level of detail: I am forced to participate in the world at a much closer level of detail, but also to anticipate in a much larger scale than I have before. The level at which the kid sees the world is incredibly myopic, and I am responsible for so much of what he sees, but the fact that he is already in some senses an autonomous being reminds me constantly that the little details I choose to show him now are setting up bigger and bigger things for the future.

Kate: You write in your editor’s note about how you have to recast this story as a redemptive one. In order to do what—what’s the necessity?

Michael: To cope. That’s the hard answer. I’m doing that thing everybody does that makes storytelling so essential to being human: I’m choosing the interpretation that fits the narrative I’ve chosen for my own life, the new one that includes me being a father and him being my son. Now that I’ve done it, I can look at the pain and see it as a gateway to something better. And because of that, I can give the halfway constructive and optimistic answer to your questions just above. In certain real respects, it’s an act of will. I’m not even going to articulate the other version of this story; I’m not going to dignify it with my time. You could look at it as magical thinking, but in making that choice, I am encouraging myself to make decisions to further that narrative—proactive instead of fatalistic—to make the story true.

Kate: You also write about your obligation to “make the world good for him” and then later, you’ve written about some of the elements of that good world in the future tense. Can you talk about what you’re doing to bring them about–what brings that word “making” into it for you? What’s the relationship between the present pattern of your life and that future?

Michael: Small acts that accumulate. I want him to be proactive, progressive, I want him to see what’s possible and work toward it, I want him to care. I want him to know and find joy in the good things about the world so he’ll care. I don’t see how anybody accomplishes anything without caring, intensely. So that’s my starting point. Part of making the world good is not letting the awful parts overwhelm. We walk along my neighborhood brook a lot. Sometimes we go wading. We observe the Asian carp, the half-domesticated ducks, the muskrats, the feral housecats. When I first moved here I found its level of environmental degradation pretty bleak. Now I see it’s kind of amazing. He certainly sees it that way, which means I’m not just helping him, he’s helping me. Sometimes we drag a huge piece of discarded plastic out of the streambed, or pull invasive weeds and eat them. And then I go off to a town meeting to agitate on the brook’s behalf, on his behalf. I can’t stop my neighbors letting pesticides run into it off their lawns, but I can make clear to them that I’m not using pesticides and why. Eventually I’ll be able to make it clear to him. But for now it’s enough for him to be delighted at the way one duck out of twenty is always on lookout, warning the others of our presence.

The relationship between all that admittedly very small-scale action (there’s a lot more like that, more all the time, but most of it’s at that scale) and a better future, to me, is him. I know how cliché that sounds, believe me. Twenty-five year old me is rolling his eyes so hard right now. But it actually does work like that for me. He personifies the future.

Kate: Can you talk about what you do with your doubts, your fears, your griefs, when you feel them?

Michael: Sometimes—my chosen narrative and all of this above notwithstanding—I succumb to them. What that tends to look like is me lying on my basement floor staring up at the rafters for awhile drinking homebrew. Other times I channel them into something productive. Lately that’s shoveling snow, or turning over the compost, or figuring out some new small way to reduce my family’s negative impact on the world or balance it out with something constructive. For the new year, I’m getting into the habit of using cloth handkerchiefs instead of disposable tissues. I’m running a contest in my town for kids to design a logo to go on reusable cloth bags to hand out to residents at our annual cleanup event. Sometimes those little things help, sometimes they don’t. But I feel better coming up with more of them than sitting around moping. I look for inspiration in what I read. At the moment, it’s adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy. Learning helps me. Helps me believe I can get better at all of this, at thinking about the future, at helping my kid learn, at seeing the good and focusing on nurturing it instead of letting the entropy overwhelm me. I go away from people into as much nature and isolation as I can manage—sometimes I take the kid—and wear myself to exhaustion. That usually helps.

One more thing that really does help, always, is talking it out in earnest with thoughtful people who feel the same way and want to make things better. So thank you for this.

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LJ Geoffrion Interview: “Written in the Book of the Woods”

lj-geoffrionRead “Written in the Book of the Woods” in Reckoning 1.

Michael: Thank you so much for sharing this story of oneness with the woods. I made an immediate, visceral connection with “Written in the Book of the Woods” of a kind I haven’t often experienced reading fiction, and not for a very long time. I hope it has something like the same effect on everyone else who reads it, which is why I put it last in Reckoning 1: I wanted that feeling of home repeated at beginning and end to be what people take away. “I have never been lost in the woods and I am not lost now.” I know that’s a lot to ask. Everybody’s different, everyone experiences the natural world differently. Frankly, it surprised me that this story got to me this way, since I’ve never been to Michigan’s upper peninsula and I’ve never seen Lake Superior. The woods that feel like home to me are all in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire. Which is why I want to ask you about your own experience of nature, to hopefully try and understand what is and isn’t universal about this.

How autobiographical is the depiction of nature in “Written in the Book of the Woods”? Is this, as it feels, a place you know intimately? Is it a place you think of as home?

Lisa: I always feel at home in the woods. There have been times that I feels as if I could slip into the woods, a simple parting of the veil. In the woods, I feel the most present, whatever the season. It’s the fecund smell, the feel of the air, the softness of the lines — bending branches, flowing water, round rocks.

Michael: What about the way you depict time? That part, too, is eerily familiar to me, when I’m alone in the woods, the sun seeming to freeze in place, time seeming to stop or repeat. If that’s something you’ve actually experienced––where do you think it comes from?

Lisa: I’m fascinated by the way most humans conceptualize time. Toward the end of her life, my grandmother had lost her short term memory. One holiday, I plopped down next to her and she said, “My dear! How is it going?” For the next half hour, I regaled her with all I was doing; my college classes, how much I liked my new apartment, my little car, and my love interest. When I stopped to catch my breath, Grandma blinked, peered at me uncertainly and then smiled, saying, “My dear! How is it going?”

We live moment by moment, like beads on a string. But I like to imagine the string cut, or folded into pretty loops. In the woods, it’s so easy to seep into the time stream of “this moment,” and just float within that single bead. You may think at first that a moment is tiny, but if you let it, it can take in all of creation.

Michael: There are three figures in the woods of the story: the dark thing, the narrator, and the woman in the light. One way I can interpret them is as different aspects of the narrator’s relationship with the woods; another is as representative of humanity’s interaction with nature more broadly. What do they mean to you? Is there any particular myth you drew from to shape those figures?

Lisa: I’m what I’d call a back of the brain writer. Most of the time I go into a bit of a fugue state when I write, and the words pour out from the void. After it’s written, I can usually tell from what part of me it came from, but honestly, writing is not something that I do from an outline. Like anyone who knows themselves well enough to decode their dreamscape, I can look at my writing after it’s on the page and, for the most part, figure it out well enough to build it into a coherent story.

How I interpret a story depends on the day. Sometimes I see the three characters as different elements of we humans: bright lovingness and wonder; self-serving loveless destroyer; and the outsider judge and protector. All of these are parts of myself, parts of all of us, I think.

Sometimes when I read this story, I see the characters as how humans or societies interact with nature

Michael: How does anyone come to feel at home in the woods–enough to feel responsible for defending them?

Lisa: You don’t need to feel at home in wild places to feel responsible for defending wild places. You only need to read a bit of the science, because we know that the survival of our species depends on a healthy environment, and that includes a varied biome. We know this; it’s not a matter of belief.

What happens is that we get caught up in life, you know? And if someone lives far from wild places, or if wild places are unfamiliar and scary, then they might not take that need for a varied biome into consideration when living their busy, time-stressed lives.

We, all of us, have to put it out there. We have to care enough about the continuation of the species to do what is necessary for life.

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Tai Allen Interview: “third world problems”

 
Michael: I’m a first-worlder; I was born with privilege. I didn’t properly experience the third world and understand that divide–the places where it is an actual, real, economic and cultural divide and the others where it is entirely illusionary and contrived–and the reasons for all that–until I was in my thirties. “third world problems” pinpoints almost uncannily a number of the ways that experience changed and continues to change my worldview. The first time I read it, I laughed. Then I read it again and was embarrassed about that laughter, motivated to think about why I was laughing.
Would you mind sharing a little about your own experience of the first-world/third world divide?
 
Tai: Interesting question. I think I straddled the line for most of my life. I was born at the right time, my parents were not rich but we were on the other side of middle-class. Could even be considered as lil, slightly, upper middle? Therefore, I had the best education options. I had the weekend sports. I had the best clothes. My house had all the adornments of middle-class life: video games, telescope, travels on holidays, basketball hoop, computers, four car garage et al.
I never had to live in a third-world environment, here or abroad. But I am second-generation Caribbean. I know of family subsisting and working hard to just remain poor rather than destitute. I am familiar with the treaties and pacts that bleed my home area but fill the coffers of multi-nationals.
In the States, we have corners of Third-World living. The projects are underserved, under-financed and over-policed.  And education is a wanted commodity but treated as a fleeting privilege. Under develop the land and the constructs that support the people and if you squint… the Black and Brown neighborhoods look very un-American.
 
Michael: Was there something particular that inspired this poem?
 
Tai: NO. I was just musing on how easy it is to forget most of the world is suffering while we are in surplus.
 
Michael: You’ve worked in a lot of media and performed for a lot of people. Do you think there are ways for art, poetry, music, to bridge the gap between first and third world for people who haven’t experienced both?
 
Tai: The PC answer is yes. My gut says “I wish.” But more often I am speaking to the converted without the access to foster change. Or, I am performing for the people requiring the change. Those how can make change and need to work are not interested. But I am a fool who still champions the necessary and foolishly tries to change the mind of those in control.
 
My biggest goal is to get those who feel tread upon to journey with self-love and to build mechanisms for their growth. It is difficult within the current structure but Western society has machinations that allow for growth. We must remember the resources are limited unless you control them. The resources are limited but the supply is for the access-having to exhaust.
 
Michael: In your experience, does art change minds?
 
Tai: YES and NO!! I think my job is to just keep trying to make it always yes. But I know better. But I still paladin away…
 
Michael: Thank you very much!
 
Tai: NOPE, thank you!!
 
No Jewels – amazon. apple or taiallen.com
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Danika Dinsmore Interview: “Insanitary”

danika-dinsmoreRead “Insanitary” in Reckoning 1.

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.

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Benjamin Parzybok Interview: “The Hole in the Reef”

benjamin-parzybokRead “The Hole in the Reef” in Reckoning 1 first—this interview has some spoilers.

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.

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George F. Interview: “In Hambach Forst”

george-f

Read “In Hambach Forst” in Reckoning 1.

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.

 

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Robin Wyatt Dunn Interview: “The End of Occidentalism”

robin-wyatt-dunnExtended, with my notes in italics, August 22nd, 2017.


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.

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Lora Rivera Interview: “When No One’s Left”

Read Lora Rivera’s story “When No One’s Left” in Reckoning 1.

lora-riveraMichael: 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!

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Justin Howe Interview: “Behind the Sun”

Read “Behind the Sun” in Reckoning 1.

justin-howeMichael: How much meaning do you expect a reader to bring to a story, and how much do you invest it with yourself and expect readers to take from it?

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?

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