Michael: What made you want to accept this particular commission, for the Reckoning 3 cover? Your enthusiasm is heartening and contagious and precious hard to come by in these times, and I’d love to know where it comes from.
Stylo: Thank you! I love telling new narratives through found images. I’m able to do this in many mediums; album covers, clothing, and print media. I strive to make a new world or environment in every composition. I was very intrigued by the challenge of representing a part of as many stories as I could. Through collage, I’m given the choice to create multiple stories in one piece, or stick with an overarching theme—this is the magic of the medium. I’m pleased with the results, and I hope the readers are, as well.
Michael: Was “Fight or Flight” inspired by anything Sakara sent you from the issue? Did you already have any of these images in mind beforehand?
Stylo: I’m a huge collector of images – I’ve organized them in their own sort of taxonomy and this makes it easier to begin my creative process. Sakara had sent me a few stories to look over to spark some inspiration—and I was taken by each one. The characters, locations, and even objects illustrated in many of the stories inspired much of the final composition. From ‘More Sea than Tar’ to ‘The Blackthorn Door’ the energies of many of the stories featured this issue live on in ‘Fight or Flight’.
Michael: How do you feel about the terms “afrofuturism” and “afropunk”? Would you apply them to your work, would you seek out other work to which that term gets applied if you were looking for inspiration or a sense of community? How does art contribute to making a movement–or a community–stronger?
Stylo: I’ve had my work referred to as Afrofuturist in the past, and I would agree with the assessment. We believe that in order to look forward, we must acknowledge what has come before us. “In this great future, you can’t forget your past,” as Bob Marley famously forewarned. My work relies heavily on Black historical print media from the turn of the century, the 50s and 60s, right through to the early 90s. I use these images and recreate narratives and compositions that speak to today’s visual literacy, and hint at where we may be heading.
I definitely look to other artists that work similarly to myself and that also identify as Afrofuturist. We all work and compose in so many different ways. It’s a very exciting time for the movement. It’s a wonderful blessing to see how other creatives filter the past and make sense of the future in their own fashion. It’s as much a reflection as it is motivation, and I’m very honoured to be a small part of it.
Michael: Johannes and I teamed up again this time with some questions for Jane Elliott about her Reckoning 2 story, “Rumplestiltskin”.
Johannes: Can you tell me of the power of naming things?
Jane: I think the obvious answer is that naming a thing reveals it. There’s a lot of folklore around naming and claiming that names have power. Revealing your true name gives another person power over you. In this case, our names represent our vulnerability. We have to be seen to be named.
The more difficult answer about where the story came from has to do with the idea that our world has grown exponentially. Globalization and field specialization have made human community and human knowledge larger than any individual can hold. When the world was a village of 100, I imagine it felt easier to know things. To know what we stood for. To know what was safe. We all specialized in the sphere that sustained us. We knew the names of the plants around us and which people at the watering hole could be trusted with our children.
Often, in our world of global competition, I feel lost at sea. I don’t know what to look at, so I don’t know how to begin to address my own fears. This mystery cloaks the important issues. It keeps me afraid.
My story is clearly over-simplified. However, I think there’s a comfort in isolating one thing and naming it. For a moment, at least, it can become either good or evil. I see this as the first stage of understanding. I don’t want to live in a black and white world, and I don’t believe in dichotomies, but I do want to explore my own values. I want to explore the issues and try names for them and get curious about whether, in my ideal world, they exist. In what form should they exist? Why do they exist now?
In exploration, I might create 100 names for the same thing. I’m not the same person I was when I wrote this story, and I wouldn’t write the same story now. The exploration, the naming, has changed me and my understanding of the world. The power, in this case, is profoundly personal. It’s not about power over something, but power within oneself to grasp and adapt and challenge and grow.
Johannes: Yours is a dark story, one that draws from a million visions of foodless, desertful futures. How come/why did you want to write such a future?
Jane: I don’t know if I did want to. People tell me that hopelessness isn’t useful. It’s what people who benefit from the current system want smart, aware individuals to feel. Such a paralyzing emotion makes us ineffective. All the same, I can’t fault anyone for feeling despair in the process of examining our present. Nor do I think it’s useful to deny any of our feelings. These are our instincts. They show up to tell us something.
It’s true that we can’t live in despair. Despair admits defeat, but we have to look into our worst fears or suffer through consequences of a life unexamined. I think a 3 page story is the perfect vehicle for examining this kind of darkness. Any longer, and we couldn’t hold it, but at 3 pages, we can bear to look. The hope is that we can take an honest look at the worst, so that we can come back to the world and work with a sense of urgency and purpose.
Michael: This story takes a folktale and moves it back away from the sanitized bedtime story realm of Disney, back even past Grimm and into a territory I might call primal. How do you think the role of folktale and myth in humanity’s definition of itself is changing as we move forward? Where do you see your own writing falling in that process?
Jane: Mythology shifts to reflect the stresses and obsessions of a culture. When we examine the stored wisdom of our ancestors, their tales have a repeated warning against human pride. They divide the earth into distinct realms, and humans who reach beyond their realm toward godhood always suffer for it.
In Western culture’s modern era, our tales have shifted away from maintaining any complex or subtle balance. Our current folktales seem to engage almost exclusively in the narrative of good vs. evil, as though such a dichotomy really exists. Our children grow up believing their greatest purpose is to become super heroes. But super heroes are humans at their worst. They’re prideful and violent and model reaction rather than thoughtful action. In other words, as a species, we have come to believe so thoroughly in our own supremacy that we have replaced the gods of our ancestors’ lore.
I think the role of folklore and myth has always been to reflect our understanding of ourselves. We use stories to demystify, to problem solve, to reinforce cultural values, to sooth. They are an outgrowth of our collective consciousness, so perhaps the question isn’t, what role does folklore play, but, how can we actively read folklore in order to reveal ourselves and meaningfully reflect on our values. At their best, I think that’s what these re-tellings do. They name and question the values that made them.
Johannes: What’s your favourite fairy tale, and why?
Jane: If I named one here, it would be a lie. I love the repeating narratives and the ways that folktales reflect the cultures that created them. I love the way they change to reflect changing value systems and depending on who is telling the story. I can’t isolate a particular story from that tradition.
Michael: These are great answers! As honest and unflinching as your story. Thank you very much.
Johannes: What’s your own favourite national park, and why?
Joanne: I like this question, it’s unexpectedly tricky! It depends if you mean strictly National Parks only, or all public lands. My favorite National Park is Joshua Tree National Park in California. For one thing, I have an impossible fondness for deserts, probably due to reading The Blue Sword multiple times at an impressionable age, and Joshua Tree is quintessential desert. But also, it’s so close to LA, a major metropolitan area known for poor air quality—but there was a time when I was there, alone in the desert at night, and it was so quiet, and I looked at the sky and it felt like the very first time I’d ever seen stars.
If we’re talking all public lands, though, I’ve got to say my favorite is Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, in particular the southern, Snoqualmie end of it. It covers a lot of area, including some impressive mountains, but a lot of it looks like this. Which is to say, heartrendingly beautiful. I grew up on unceded Snoqualmie Indian Tribe land and most of my memories of childhood are set in the shadow of those mountains. In my family we’re all settlers/colonists, which makes it complicated for me to claim these forests as my home. I have no right to it, but I think it has a right to me.
Johannes: Your story feels so searingly, hauntingly personal, and when I read it I am reminded of how the personal stories play a role in the very big stories of humanity vis-a-vis the earth. Is that what you set out to say, when you started writing this?
Joanne: Well I hope it doesn’t spoil the story to admit that that wasn’t what I was thinking about at all. I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about how humans relate to the natural world, because I reject natural-unnatural dualism. Which, ha, sounds incredibly pretentious. All I mean is that I believe that all things are equally natural—smartphones made by humans are as natural as bird nests or termite towers. The human belief that we are separate from or superior to nature is an illusion that comes from certain religious beliefs that I don’t share. We ARE the earth. Which, okay, was partly what I was writing about.
My main artistic goal, though, when I started writing, was to interrogate the idea of recovery from injury. I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about how Western medicine encourages people to see the uninjured body as the pristine, default state we should always be striving to return to. In my experience that’s neither possible nor desirable—because it’s impossible, it just means living in denial and sometimes incurring further illness or injury. In some ways the sea star near the beginning of the story is the central image I was thinking of—the sea star has been almost bisected, and is regenerating into a much different creature than it was before. It isn’t recovering—it’s becoming something entirely new.
So if I have a message about environmentalism or whatever (and maybe I don’t?) it’s only that, yes, there is damage, and yes, we go forward. One way or another.
Johannes: Your protagonist-narrator feels so strikingly human, strong and weak at the same time, and I wonder: how do you decide what to tell explicitly and what to imply, of backstory and character and everything?
Joanne: Oh, I don’t know. To be perfectly honest, most of the time I guess at what will feel more dramatic, and then look back at what I’ve written and see if I like it? I’m not a very methodical writer, have no formal training, and go through many revisions of everything I write.
I will say, one thing I do is I try to find the one perfect detail that can be explained in a way that will evoke the feeling of the whole. In this story in particular details were very important tools, because the narrator has forgotten the larger whole. Only the feeling of it remains. The reader doesn’t know what’s true because the narrator herself largely doesn’t know.
This is a good technique when writing trauma, in particular, because it allows you to show, e.g., medical abuse right there on screen without actually traumatizing your reader. You just focus on the color of the nurse’s shoes, and that allows the reader to know—to feel—but also to not know. And this makes it bearable.
Michael: What happens when a story takes a deeply innate human process and magnifies it, the way you’ve done here with forgetting and pain? How does it work on the reader, how do you want it to work?
Joanne: I don’t know if I can say whether it works or doesn’t. I think each reader probably has a different experience? But I can tell you that what I was trying to do here was—maybe I would say, focus rather than magnification.
Pain is an interesting thing to write about because of the way our minds falter when processing it. A healthy human brain can never quite remember pain. You can remember the color of the blood, the feeling of overwhelming panic, but not the sensation of pain. Even if your brain is damaged by the long-term presence of unrelenting chronic pain, you don’t really remember pain the way you remember other things. You remember, say, how angry and humiliated you were when you couldn’t get up off the floor, but you can’t remember the body-feeling of the pain that pinned you on the ground. The closest I’ve come is trying to remember and instead inducing the pain in my body in the present moment—giving myself a headache trying to remember a headache.
I’ve been fascinated by this quirk of memory for a long time, perhaps morbidly fascinated. There’s this thing that happens when you have chronic pain, and pain is in every memory, but you can’t remember pain—your memory gets weird. I wanted to take that forgetting and reverse it, or duplicate it, or see the underside of it, both because I want to understand it better myself and because I want other people to also make an attempt at understanding.
Part of it is the technical challenge, you know: can I make people remember something it isn’t possible to remember? But also, many of my stories are about pain or memory or both, because I’m a very selfish writer. I like to write about myself, I like to force my readers to think like a person with chronic pain for a few minutes as they read. Ideally it might draw a person toward self-reflection or a small dab of enlightenment, but to be perfectly honest I’m also happy if my readers get a headache trying to remember a headache. I just don’t want to be alone in it.
I don’t know if this answers your question. Also, I should include the caveat (because my mother has the link to this story!) that that makes it sound like Complaint is autobiographical, but it definitely isn’t. It draws on my personal experiences with pain, but only in a general way. Except I have actually camped at Padre Island National Seashore, that part is true!
Michael: Joanne and Johannes, thank you both very much, this has been great.
Michael: I try to encourage cross-pollination between Reckoning contributors whenever I can, but this interview between Justin Howe and Innocent Ilo, I am very happy to say, came about with barely any intervention from me; all I’ve really had to do is sit back and share in the fruit.
Innocent: My name is Innocent Chizaram Ilo and I write to make sense of the world around me.
Justin: All the characters in “To the Place of Skulls”, except the narrator, find dead bodies bearing their names. Is this then a ghost story? Other aspects resemble folk tales where the hero journeys to the land of the dead. How do use genre in your stories?
Innocent: Genre, like language, is a thing I play with. With “To The Place Of Skulls”, I was clearly exploring boundaries. I wanted to represent the harsh realities of the Niger Delta region and at the same time achieve a gonzo texture. The character Saro-Wiwa is named after a well-known poet and environmental activist who was hung by a military government who saw his environmental activism as a threat. And in the story, Saro-Wiwa is still represented as a poet. What I wanted to achieve was to give these dead heroes a new life.
Justin: Everywhere in the story we see how the oil industry stamped its shape onto Oloibiri only then to discard it. Yet the characters manage to resist despair. Is this due to their youth, their friendship, or something more?
Innocent: One thing being young affords you is the discarding of fear. Fear means nothing. Risk becomes an adventure. The characters are bonded by their youth, friendship and also in their ability to dream and believe in dreams.
Justin: The characters walk through history. The narrator speaks of the stories his mother tells. What’s the power memory holds and how can it help us confront and potentially overcome disaster?
Innocent: As a writer of speculative fiction, memory has always fascinated me. While working on “To The Place of Skulls” I wanted to achieve a kind of resonance, something close to rewriting history or predicting an imminent future. Fiction, among other things, is a way of reclaiming pasts and forecasting futures. I believe the dystopia-ish disaster in Oloibiri (which draws closer every passing day) can be averted with this.
Justin: How does Olobiri’s fate inform your own perspective on technology, the environment, and the future?
Innocent: Oloibiri’s fate is a clarion call to all; the government, oil companies, the world, that we need to do better. That we need to reconsider what are the tradeoffs for technology. That we need to effectively match our development in the future with sustainability.
Justin: Who are creators (contemporary, historical, at home, or abroad) you look to for inspiration?
Innocent: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Lesley Nneka Arimah, Innocent Acan, TJ Benson, Noviolet Bulawayo, Helon Habila, Yiyun Li, Curtis Sittenfeld, John Steinbeck. I can’t even exhaust the list.
Justin: What’s the world like outside your window right now?
Innocent: The world outside my window is one of normalized fear where people have learnt to live in the face of social injustice, highbrow discrimination and marginalization. Aba, the city where I live, is not anything like the oil town, Oloibiri, but it’s still a place where the government wakes up one morning and decides to throw people out of the public service because they are women and “non indigenes”; people who are not originally from the state.
The world outside my window is a world where the freedom of speech is threatened. Any form of resistance or criticism against the government will soon be branded “hate speech” and be punishable by death.
The world outside my window is one where only the defiant survive.
Michael: I asked Christopher Brown to interview Pepe Rojo about his photo/essay DISINTIGREETINGS because they’re both products and students of the vast, complex interleaving and interblending of natural and unnatural, culture and language that is the U.S./Mexico borderland.
They did not disappoint.
Chris: Are you disintegrating?
Pepe: All of the time! And I just can’t stop it. And maybe I don’t even want to. I decided to title this piece disintegreetings because whenever something appears to be disintegrating it’s just really becoming something else, something that should be greeted, and that changes the way that particular thing, or person, connects to the world and the environment. We are so used at being unique and impermeable that we usually fear these transformations and see them as menacing, because, yes, they will end us; but then there’s always something else. At the same time, these moments in-between can be truly scary, disorienting and generally weird, especially when they either happen too fast or they take too long.
All disintegrations are greetings.
Chris: How do you think experimental writing can help us explore issues of environmental justice?
Pepe: Our language and traditional genres are ill-equipped to translate experiences in which identity is blurred, plural, or non-human. We don’t even have adequate pronouns to talk about nature, or about the agency of the nonhuman. Our linguistic apparatuses are too clumsy for that, especially the ones that rely on a very rigid form of the “I”, and its possessive needs.
In order to imagine other ways of being we have to undo the invisible grammar that holds our reality together. Experiments can at least induce us to understand that there are other ways to be, and to understand not just the world, but our relationship to it. Language —particularly official and scientific language— hardwires us so that we see nature as something different from us. Tweaking it might help us find new ways of relating to the environment.
Chris: What does the borderzone teach us about the ecologies of the future?
Pepe: Life doesn’t care for political borders. And neither does non-living nature. That’s why borders create their own particular ecology. If borders are violent so will be the ecologies they engender.
Being so, borders are always creative spaces, where different relations between the forces they try to separate are negotiated and spring up constant and relentlessly. Borders need not be destructive, or hierarchical, or violently enforced, but pact-respectful places of meeting and mutual growth, of becomings. And they are everywhere.
Chris: As someone who travels several days each week between the two Californias, how do they differ as environments?
Pepe: Well, as Norma Iglesia said it, Tijuana is a border city, Sand Diego is not. And the contrast is brutal, in terms of wealth, in terms of infrastructure. You can be in hi-tech very-wealthy La Jolla and totally forget that you are thirty minutes away from Tijuana slums. And even though a lot of San Diego residents act as if Mexico doesn’t even exist, the proximity between both places points to their mutual dependence and shows how global inequity works on this age. There’s not another place in the world where the so-called first and third world share such a busy land border. There are lots of guns everywhere, from the US military camps to the Mexican cartels. And while San Diego is postcard pretty, Tijuana is alive and teeming. There’s such a strong and vital pulse beating in Tijuana contrasting with the anodine and conservative San Diego vibe, it provides a really paradoxical counterweight to the economic difference.
Chris: Who were the Magonistas, and why should we care?
Pepe: The Magonistas were a ragtag army of IWW workers from around the world, Mexican revolutionaries and Native Americans (from both sides of the border) that occupied Tijuana and Mexicali in 1911, at the beginning of the Mexican revolution, aiming to install an anarcho-communist commune in California, the first one on this part of the globe. They were led by Ricardo Flores Magón, the most radical writer/fighter of the Mexican Revolution. Their short-lived experiment has been almost totally forgotten or condemned on this border, as they were accused of trying to annex Baja California to the US, bypassing the fact that they were against any kind of state. It was here, in northern Baja California, that the first “Tierra y Libertad” flag was raised.
Since 2016, the Comité Magonista Tierra y Libertad has been conducting our own iteration of the historical event with interventions that reintroduced the flag to Tijuana and the 21st century. We have produced more than a thousand flags with a community of more than 100 artists, activists and academics. This community has organized a series of public events around Tierra y Libertad. The Comité Magonista has paraded, staged an historical tour of revolutionary Tijuana, handed out blankets and food, seed-bombed land and burnt the phrase into the beach, that other border of Tijuana. The project has taken us to Mexico City where we displayed “La Constitución ha Muerto” (the constitution is dead) mantas at the Palace of Fine Arts as well as Mexicali and Imperial County, organizing festivals full of flags, art, film, music and poetry, usually on the anniversary of their defeat.
Michael: Thank you both so much, that was awesome.
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!
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.
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.
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: 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.