Writing and Activism

Posted on 23/04/2014
By Commonwealth Foundation

Mango Tree; Commonwealth Writers; Occupy
Recently I attended the launch of Esther Figueroa’s debut novel, Limbo, wearing my SAVE GOAT ISLANDS T-shirt. Esther is a well known independent filmmaker and a friend – Limbo is a novel about a woman who runs an environmental NGO in Jamaica. I am a woman who runs an environmental NGO in Jamaica and I have not written fiction about environmental activism. Waiting for the events to start, I wondered what this meant.
To be clear – Limbo is not about me personally. But it is a method of communicating – a novel – about a cause that has absorbed my time, my heart and my mind for the last 25 years, and it is a method of communication that I, a writer of fiction, have not yet used, at least not overtly. Yes, you can find the environment in my published novels, but it’s subtle, woven into the descriptions, revealed in small vignettes. My third book, The Dolphin Catchers, still looking for a home, has a stronger environmental theme than any of the others, but still, it’s not about environmental activism.
I thought about the methods of communication I have used to craft an environmental message – because activism is very much about communication, perhaps entirely about communication. Newspaper columns.  Letters to the editor. Petitions. Posters. Film. Articles. Advertisements. Press releases.  Presentations. Brochures. Signs. Speeches. Even the three words on my T-shirt. If you add grant proposals, I’ve written more words than I care to count about the environment. But not fiction. Why? Maybe it’s nothing more complex than needing to enter worlds other than the one I occupy every day.
At the end of the book launch, I walked to my car. A man stood nearby under a tree and I saw him read the words on my shirt and I braced myself. Mostly, there are only two reactions to my SAVE GOAT ISLANDS T-shirt – the issue being an initiative of the Government of Jamaica and a Chinese construction company to build a large port in a protected area on Jamaica’s south coast, near to the two Goat Islands. The first and most common response follows a slight invasion of my personal space and then a lowered voice, “You know it’s a done deal, right?” The second and much rarer response is: “What can I do to help?” I dread them both. I dread the first because it tells me I have been wasting my time, that there is no hope, that not one of Jamaica’s mountains, rivers, beaches, reefs or mangroves will survive the jobs-jobs-jobs model of development. I dread the second because I don’t know what to tell the “how can I help?” people, I don’t have a compelling call to action. I know my interrogators don’t want to hear my list – write to the Minister, to the newspapers, sign the petition, attend a public meeting, buy a T-shirt and wear it. They want something bigger, more visible, more effective. I dread the “how can I help?” people because inevitably I disappoint them.
The man under the tree walks towards me. “You know them done give it away already?” he says. I find myself angry with him because he saps my energy, because he criticizes from a position of defeat, because he embodies the loss of our democracy. We get into an argument, I make a speech, complete with waving arms and irate body language, and I lose the opportunity to build an ally. I know he will talk about our encounter to others and it will include the words “that woman”. What if he had been in Limbo’s audience? Would an environmental message cradled in a story have animated him differently?
Later that day I read an article on Peter Matthiessen in the New York Times – he had died at 86. Mr Matthiessen wrote about the natural world and he achieved success with fiction and nonfiction, often grounded in the same experience.  Although his nonfiction works far outnumbered the novels and short-story collections, he considered fiction his first and highest calling.
“Nonfiction at its best is like fashioning a cabinet,” he told The Paris Review in 1999. “It can never be sculpture. It can be elegant and very beautiful, but it can never be sculpture. Captive to facts — or predetermined forms — it cannot fly.”
Browsing, I found a story on a college course at the University of Oregon by Prof. Stephanie LeMenager on using the arts to prepare for the climate crisis.
The article included a list of novels about climate change – Solar by Ian McEwan, Finitude by Hamish MacDonald, Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver, to name just three.  Will stories induce us to act, I wondered?  I am not sure.  But I do know this – stories make us feel, in a way no scientific recitation of facts can accomplish. It remains to be seen whether Limbo will have a greater impact in Jamaica than the petitions and the T-shirts.
And for myself, it is time: I’ve started building my own metaphorical cabinet – creative nonfiction about my journey as an environmental activist.