Fighting dystopia with essential voices: “Black literature against the climate emergency”

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Aya de Leon is a prolific author with books including A spy in the fight, the story of an FBI lawyer sent to infiltrate an African-American eco-racial justice organization; Urban Prophecy Queen, in which a young rapper tries to use her platform for climate justice; and Equality Girls and the purple Reflecto-Raya children’s book about girls using their superpowers to fight sexism.

De León, who directs UC Berkeley’s Poetry for the People program and teaches creative writing at the university, says she’s made climate central to everything she’s done for several years, ever since the urricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. In response to this event, de León wrote Side Chick Nation(which Naomi Klein called “gripping feminist heist fiction”) as part of her Justice Hustlers series that focuses on social justice issues with sex workers as protagonists.

Black people are often the hardest hit by climate chaos, de León says, but we don’t typically hear those voices in environmental discourse. So she organized the free virtual Black literature vs climate emergency conference, streaming on YouTube Live at 12 p.m., Tue/5.

De León has been writing climate fiction for about five years, but she says she still feels isolated, in part because she thinks much of the work is dystopian. She would like to change that.

“I became obsessed with what I’m beginning to think of as victory literature,” she says. “Where is the literature about us fighting and building a movement when we thought all hope was lost, but we did it? This is the story I want to write, and I want to see it in fiction and non-fiction. I want poems, plays and screenplays.

Scientists are clear, she says, that we have time to avoid the worst of climate disasters. And it is in everyone’s interest to change, even for the people who benefit from fossil fuels, so that their children and their children’s children have a habitable planet.

“No one will come out,” she said. “No matter how much space travel these billionaires invest in, there’s still nowhere to go. We can’t yet imagine what it will take to change that, but it is possible.

Bringing black writers together is essential for this, she believes. For the conference’s nonfiction panel, she reached out to the writer and City College of New York professor Emilie Raboteau after reading his article “Climate Signs” in the New York Book Review; Ugandan climate activist and author of A bigger picture, vanessa nakateand Valencia Gunderwho lives in Miami and is the National Black Hive Organizing Lead at the Movement for Black Lives, will also join.

De León says she loves the work of these writers and is glad they talk to each other.

“They come from different parts of the world and different generations, so what a conversation,” she says. “And that’s the one you don’t see. In the climate, there are all these signs with white people, and on a good day, there is one of us.

Looking for other fiction writers to join her on a panel, de León came across Conservative Stephens, who runs Fix, Grist magazine’s solutions lab. To moderate, she asked Maya Lilya climate activist who has produced work on the BP Gulf oil spill and on Black Lives Matter and the prison economy, among others.

De León knew she wanted a bigger panel of poetry and this group will have Bernard Fergusonthe Bahamian author of Climate sirens, Coco Pellaa performer and recording artist who served as director of Hip Hop & Climate Justice at Youth vs. apocalypseand Kweku Abimbolaauthor of Birth elegies. De León also invited three poets who were part of a climate residency at Poetry for the People—Aniya Butlera 15-year-old from Oakland who also works with Youth Vs. Apocalypse; Kevin Aipapo, a community activist; and Ashia Ajanienvironmental justice educator.

Ajani grew up in Denver and they started organizing in high school against police brutality. Growing up in a city, they thought about climate differently, they say.

“Environmental issues have always been at the forefront of my mind, and a lot of them have to do with land use and gentrification,” says Adjani. “In Denver, you have this urban sprawl, and what populations are being thrown away and pushed further to the margins?”

Now Ajani works as an environmental justice educator with the Mycelium Youth Network. They got into slam poetry as teenagers, and their poetry book, Heritage, comes out next spring. Ajani is looking forward to the conference, which will be followed by a live Zoom party.

“I think one thing that fascinates me is the range of experiences around the black diaspora and our relationship to climate,” Ajani says. “Seeing the range of how people approach it is so beautiful and how to deal with gravity and what solutions are based on our perspectives.”

BLACK LITERATURE VS. THE CLIMATE EMERGENCY Tue/5, online, 12pm-6pm PST. More information here.


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