‘Writers Rebel’

Caspar Henderson

On Friday 11 October more than thirty writers took part in ‘Writers Rebel’, an event in Trafalgar Square in support of Extinction Rebellion, or XR (eventbrite).  It was organised by writers themselves. I spoke beforehand to two of the convenors, and two others who took part, to get a sense of why they got involved [Note 1]. I also talked to a poet who was not attending.  Here is some of what they said.

But first, a little context.  Some painters, writers, musicians and other artists have been engaging with climate change and mass extinction for the best part of two decades, if not longer. Artistic responses take many forms, from the ice sculptures of Olafur Eliasson to Become Ocean, a musical composition by John Luther Adams.

The question of what role, if any, there is, or should be, for the ‘engineers of human souls’ (the phrase was coined by the writer Yury Olesha and appropriated by… Joseph Stalin) has been discussed in many places.  One focus of attention has been an essay by the novelist Amitav Ghosh who in, The Great Derangement (2016), argued that novelists were largely failing to face up to the challenge. (It was an accusation that the science fiction author James Bradley took issue with when I spoke to him about climate change fiction for Five Books in 2017. More recent comments from Ghosh can be found in, for example ‘Life stories: books about a planet in peril‘ and ‘We are living in a reality that is fundamentally uncanny.’ His most recent novel, Gun Island, attempts to tackle climate change.)

I asked the novelist Liz Jensen, a co-convener of Writers Rebel, what had motivated her. She told me that Ghosh’s essay has been a major factor. “I knew he was right,” she says. “Even though he’d cited one of my novels, The Rapture, as an exception, the issue just kept on gnawing at me.” 

Jensen wanted Ghosh to be wrong, she says; she wanted the biggest issue of our time to be something all writers in all genres — not just Science Fiction and Young Adult Fiction — were tackling:

Writers Rebel was born of the urge to remedy [this] glaring failure. But as soon as we started contacting writers to take part…I became aware of a huge, new enthusiasm that hadn’t been there before. Most writers jumped at the chance to speak out and act, and many contacted us with offers to help. There’s been a sea-change. Suddenly, there’s a rising sense of civic and moral duty: a feeling that if governments are failing us, we must do something big and urgent- and do it now. 

Another convenor, the novelist James Miller, told me more: 

A few months ago novelist and XR Writers founder Monique Roffey tweeted that she thought writers should get together and organise some sort of response to the climate crisis. This resonated with me — I wrote a cli-fi novel Sunshine State that Little Brown published back in 2010 but was largely ignored at the time, dismissed as unrealistic — but it seems to me that the events depicted in my novel are gradually coming true…So a few of us got together. Our initial discussions didn’t get much beyond thinking around the usual slightly dull academic ideas – holding a conference or such like. But Liz Jensen had connections with XR and this idea gradually emerged from that connection.

When I asked what he hoped writers could bring to XR, Miller replied:

Voice and vision. Fiction and poetry can often give us a clearer articulation of the truth than fact. Words can inspire and galvanise. The ability to tell stories – narrative gives us the ability to understand our experience – and this is a story (challenging and complex as it is) that must be told. Words are a form of action…that can reverberate and live on long after on the street actions have been dispersed. It’s also a means of reaching out and winning over people who might be alienated by some of XR’s more disruptive actions. 

And when I asked how, beyond XR, writers can help bring about positive change, he answered:

Sometimes I fear that writers are irrelevant. However, writers can be among the most articulate and forward-thinking with the ability to imagine solutions and other ways of being in the world. It’s about creating changes in perception, tipping points whereby what once seemed impossible or preposterous suddenly becomes the mainstream view. Writers are vanguards and outliers. We have a duty to imagine worlds both better and worse than the one we are in. Reality is a construct, too, often a construct of unjust power, vested interests and violence. We need to reconstruct a reality based on sustainability, regeneration and compassion.

The novelist Gregory Norminton, who is among the speakers on Friday, is a long time writer and campaigner on environmental issues. “I have struggled for years,” he told me; “the situation is like being in a car heading towards a wall faster and faster, and we’re disagreeing about whether there will be injuries, and if so their extent. We should never underestimate the gradations our ability to kid ourselves that climate change isn’t really happening. The truth is, the are no grown ups, no one to save us, except ourselves.” He welcomes Greta Thunberg’s ability to break through where many wordsmiths have failed.

Norminton finds hope in the sheer appetite for life and the deep sense of care that most people have, evident in the enthusiasm in many quarters for re-wilding on even very small pieces of land. “The very first activism I did was against the rise of 4×4 SUVs in cities,” he says. “I realised that parents buying bigger and bigger cars were acting on the laudable impulse to protect their children. But the instinct to protect a child ends up endangering all children. With the exception of the Donald Trumps of this world, most of us having caring urge, but commerce has warped that in us. I hope we can change that.”  

But Norminton is modest about the role of writers in facilitating that change. “Any suggestion that the presence of writers at XR is important is absurd and arrogant. It speaks much less powerfully than the presence of teachers, doctors, police and those from other professions.   But for those of us who are writers that is what we do and that is why we’re here… Story tellers are catching up, though there’s nothing comparable for climate change, yet, to 1984 or Animal Farm.”  Note [2]

I also talked briefly to the non-fiction writer Joanna Pocock and asked her why she will be there on Friday. She told me she feels it’s very important that everyone — not just so-called ‘crusties’ — is seen to be part of XR. “Writers, artists, poets, doctors, scientists — everyone needs to fight, everyone. I hope that message is coming through.”

In Surrender, Pocock writes about activists who take risks by planting seeds on public land — something which is illegal in the US —  and end up in jail. “I see writing as planting seeds in people’s psyches, and that can be really good. I also see it has limits. But this is about recognising the limits of one’s actions and not giving up.”

Finally, I talked to Nick Drake.  Drake has been writing poetry relating climate change for a number of years, drawing in part on his experiences with Cape Farewell, the climate change and arts project that has taken artists to the Arctic over several years to witness at first hand what is happening there. This spring, at around the time of the first XR protests, the group Culture Declares Emergency posted a reading by Fleabag star Andrew Scott of Drake’s poem ‘Dear Mortals’ (from The Farewell Glacier) in its ‘Letters to the Earth’ series. See here.

Drake will not be at Writers Rebel on Friday, but he is enthusiastic about XR.  “What they have have done is really important,” he says, “there’s something brilliant in the conjunction of the two words in the name, ‘extinction’ and rebellion’.  “They are developing a new language of protest.” 

Drake cites the familiar phrase from W.H. Auden’s In Memory of W. B. Yeats: ‘poetry makes nothing happen.’  “But that’s not good enough,” he says. “Poetry can make things happen. It can be carried around in the memory. It has the ability to spread. It has a lightness. It is available to everybody… Our times are so confusing, intellectually, and emotionally. My poems try to take account of living in this moment — both our sense of power and our powerlessness.”

Caspar Henderson is an Associate at Perspectiva, and author of works of two non-fiction.

Note [1] In the time I found to write this post I did not talk to any BAME writers. Sorry. The writer Chika Unigwe is one of many writing about the work of activists in the developing world (It’s not just Greta Thunberg).

Note [2] Perhaps John Lanchester’s The Wall? See the reviews in The Guardian (here) and The New York Times (here).

See also ‘Serious Noticing

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