The Environment in Fiction

Commonwealth Writers Conversation – The Untold Story: ‘The Environment in Fiction’


29 May, 2014, 1pm, Hay Festival, Wales. Chaired by Daniel Hahn (far left), the panel (from left to right) brought together UK novelist Maggie Gee, Sri Lankan blogger and short story writer Michael Mendis, and Jamaican environmental activist and author Diana McCaulay, to explore what happens when the natural world and fiction meet. The conversation generated debate on Twitter under #cwconvo.

Twitter Commonwealth Writers Conversation Hay

Chair Daniel Hahn opened the conversation by asking what motivated each of the panellists to write. The writers agreed that their work reflected a deeply personal attempt to understand the world around them: “I want to figure things out for myself” (Michael); “an integral part of how I make my way through life” (Diana); “it’s a way of understanding the world” (Maggie). Diana suggested that her writing was firstly an “internal conversation” and the thought of a reader only came later on in the creative process.

Maggie said that she thought of herself as a storyteller, detailing the untold stories that “politicians and journalists aren’t telling”.  Michael also noted the exciting potential for his writing to change people, particularly through the increased immediacy the digital age provides. He suggested that blogging empowered him with the means to write about subjects external to the narrow scope of the conventional publishing world.

Although Diana’s work less obviously deals with environmental issues, she argued that the natural world was implicitly integral through the novel’s emphasis on Jamaica as a place. Drawing attention to the unfortunate distinction made between environment and society, she suggested that, although her work may not be about to “save a spotted owl”, it does chart the connections to place in a country where most people are “transplants” through immigration and colonialism. Maggie also agreed on the intertwining of place and environment, pointing out that environment means what is around us.

An engaged crowd at the Hay Festival’s Good Energy Stage were then given the opportunity to join the conversation. One question for the panellists asked whether fiction was the right tool to depict environmental issues, or whether fiction takes away from the facts? In response, Diana argued that although fiction may not necessarily lead to environmental activism, it does help to create a “certain responsiveness” in its readers. Maggie agreed, suggesting that the limitless boundaries in fiction enables people to “get into other people’s shoes”.  Following this line of thought, Michael drew attention to the way fiction forces the reader to inhabit other lives and continually ask themselves “what if it was me?” in a way that can lead to positive change.

Connect with us on Twitter @cwwriters, and use #cwconvo to continue the debate.



Maggie Gee OBEMaggie cropped leopard skin on beach

Maggie writes about global warming and environmental breakdown in many of her fourteen books, including Light Years (1985), Where are the Snows (1990), The Ice People (1998), and The Flood (2004) (all in new editions from Telegram). Her new novel, Virginia Woolf in Manhattan, comes out in June 2014. She is Vice-President of the Royal Society of Literature and Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University.





Diana McCaulay; Writer In Residence; Diana McCaulay

Diana is an award-winning writer and environmental activist, resident in Kingston. She has written two novels, Dog-Heart (2010) and Huracan ( 2012), published by Peepal Tree Press in the United Kingdom. Both novels met with critical acclaim and broke local publishing records.






Michael MendisMichael Mendis

Michael is a writer whose work bridges fiction and non-fiction. The winner of the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize (Asia Region), his story The Sarong-Man in the Old House, and an Incubus for a Rainy Night was published on Granta online in May 2013.






Daniel HahnDaniel Hahn

Daniel is a writer, editor and translator with some forty books to his name, which have won him the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Blue Peter Book Award. He is currently translating an Angolan novel and compiling the new Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature.