There is No Certain Written Future: A Conversation with the Editors of The World As We Knew It
This is an expanded version of an interview featured in the Fall 2022 issue of Books & People.
I was pleased to spend a little time this past summer chatting with Amy Brady and Tajja Isen, the co-editors of the remarkable anthology The World As We Knew It: Dispatches From a Changing Climate. In it, nineteen leading literary writers from around the globe offer timely, haunting first-person reflections on how climate change has altered their lives—including essays by Lydia Millet, Alexandra Kleeman, Kim Stanley Robinson, Omar El Akkad, Lidia Yuknavitch, Melissa Febos, and more. Dr. Brady is known to Library audiences for organizing and moderating our 2018 conversation series “The Art and Activism of the Anthropocene." (Search for anthropocene in our Past Events list to view recordings of those conversations.) Ms. Isen also published a new book of essays, Some of My Best Friends: Essays on Lip Service, in the spring of 2022.
Sara Elliott Holliday: So how did The World As We Knew It get started?
Amy Brady: I've been interested in and occasionally a contributor to the climate storytelling space for some time. And what I had noticed is that there were few personal accounts of how climate change was affecting a person at the level of a single life. Most climate writing is about larger-scale events like hurricanes and wildfires, and for good reason, but it’s affecting us at this other scale as well. So I thought, how interesting it would be if some of my favorite writers came together to writing about this topic. I noticed that other anthologies I admired had two editors; it takes an enormous amount of work to compile an anthology. And so I immediately reached out to Tajja, who I knew to be an incredible editor with brilliant instincts, to see if she would be interested.
Tajja Isen: I was honored to be asked, and I appreciated that Amy’s idea really welcomed writers who worked beyond the climate storytelling space to reflect on this idea. It did that for me as editor as well. Usually the majority of the work that I edit is first-person writing, first-person essays. It was interesting to both experience and kind of shepherd other writers into experiencing what it is to reflect on the personal repercussions of the climate crisis, as people who don't normally write in that space. One of the things I'm most excited about in the book is the way that it expands the terms of the conversation and encourages other people to reflect on the personal level in their own creative work.
SEH: The two of you are from quite different places in the world, Kansas and Canada. When and how did you first collaborate?
AB: It started with something in the same vein as this anthology. I had just gone hiking in Acadia Park in Maine and found it to be a very complex experience, seeing just how much that area of the world has changed because of so many environmental issues. I wanted to write a personal essay about it myself. I reached out to Tajja, who was an editor at the publisher Catapult, and we worked together on that essay. We became good friends, despite our different locales; even before COVID, we had the connective tools to be able to communicate effectively about the project.
TI: And shortly after we worked on that essay together, Amy happened to be passing through Toronto for a conference, and we got coffee and just really connected.
AB: That's one of the pitfalls of knowing me: almost always our first conversation is going to have to do with climate change!
SEH: What is it like to be publishing these two cutting-edge books at this time of great shifts in the book world, and of the pandemic?
TI: With the anthology, the more time that passes, the more mournful the title becomes - the more power I feel its contents have. It accumulates nostalgia and reflectiveness. The intent was to look toward the past to see how it would inform our actions in the future. Whereas with Some of My Best Friends, it was very much about trying to capture an ongoing moment; the approach was very different. It was exciting to me as a writer to have a very present orientation and say, okay, my job is to really map this moment and try and make sense of something that I know my reader is living through as well.
AB: To put it mildly, the last two years have been chaotic, as so many of the various crises of the world have converged in ways that feel more obvious than ever. They've always been related, but now almost nobody can deny it. Realistically, it's very clear just how much the general pathologies of society exacerbate each other. This started out as a climate change anthology, but it necessarily also became about COVID, and systemic racism, and the fact that there is very little protection and help for mothers, or child care. All of these things became a part of the essays that we published. We wanted to be good stewards of those stories and make sure that they were being treated with the respect that they deserve, while still ensuring that it's a coherent whole.
There’s also the fact that, as editors, whatever we were going through these last two years, we were working with nineteen writers who were living through these things as well. We had to figure out how we could navigate the work of this project while keeping in mind the demands on the contributors’ time and their mental well-being, because it's been a hard two years for all of us.
SEH: The contributors to the anthology are a combination of people who’ve written on related subject matter before and those who aren’t known for that. How did you recruit them?
TI: Curating a mix that felt like that was important to us. Bringing together people who have published in this area and those who come at it in a way that is slightly more slant - this was exciting to me. The process of recruiting writers was also ongoing through the editing process of the book. We were adding new people up until pretty far in. Creating a tapestry of voices that felt global was really important to us, people who thought at different scales and about different ways that lives are affected by climate.
AB: One of the things I keep in mind is how many writers responded, “Nobody's asked me to write about this before. But boy do I have a story to tell!” That was exciting but, in retrospect, unsurprising, because the environmental writing space is historically been pretty homogenous. Up until pretty recently, it's been mostly white people, mostly white males, mostly Western white male voices. And that certainly has been changing. But that history is undeniable. When we asked people who haven't traditionally contributed to this genre, it opened my eyes to just how many stories there are to be told about this subject that aren't getting told because nobody's inviting them. And that is one of the things that I am most proud about with this anthology, the way it is breaking open the genre.
SEH: This relates to one of the things we're acutely aware of in the library world – the resurgence of book bans and attempted repression of writing and publishing. It relates to the question of whose voice gets heard and whose story gets told. We might think of the earth or nonhuman creatures among those whose voices may get heard or may get silenced.
TI: I agree; especially at a moment when so many book bans depend on reading a work through a very specific, often inaccurate, lens. It's an especially powerful time to be doing the work of expanding the definitions of what writers feel they can write about.
AB: And book bans tend to happen to books whose subject matter intersects with certain political flashpoints. It's hard not to see book bans as political acts or political tools for folks who just don't want certain subjects to be discussed, for political reasons, in a country where the absurd fact of the matter is that climate change is politicized.
SEH: As you say in the introduction, we are among the first and perhaps one of the last human populations to have memories of what life was like before. What is it like to be thinking, writing, and editing in that position? Elegiac? Poignant?
TI: Difficult in all kinds of ways.
AB: Yes, and also it's empowering. I'm in my early forties. We think of climate change as being very slow, but it's actually really fast, because the changes that we've seen to the planet have happened in my lifetime. Thirty-five years ago, the world was still a relatively climate-stable place. Bonkers to think about that, but it's true. I still remember winter being a certain way back home in my home state of Kansas, summer is being a certain way. It's not like that anymore, and that's just one point on the Earth. There are lots of places where the contrast is much more extreme. And so to be in this moment for me is to embrace the power and responsibility of paying witness to that change and making sure that it's a part of the official written record, at least the literary record - to mark that this change happened and to memorialize the past because it's gone. We're not going to get those Kansas winters back again. But to remember also that a transition isn't a single moment in time. It's an ongoing thing. There is no certain written future. There are multiple possible futures, and our actions now will shape just how bad things get in the future. So paying witness to this moment feels very important.
SEH: What I’m hearing is that it’s empowering not to be in denial. Facing the subject matter, with all of its implications, is itself a powerful thing to do.
TI: For me, that part of the introduction – that we’re the generation who remembers what it was like before – includes a recognition of the past and what it means for the present and the future. Working on this book cultivated in me that kind of attention to my own surroundings, my own relationship to the natural world. That definitely changed over the course of this book, in part because we were just cooped up inside for so much of the editorial process due to the pandemic. So in its way that was empowering, to think about just how I feel when I go outside, how I interact with the environment around me on a micro level, retroactively thinking about what it meant for me as a child. As a younger person, I didn't have this vocabulary to articulate what experiencing a changing climate felt like. So that was really powerful for me as well.
SEH: Tajja, congratulations also on Some of My Best Friends. One of the things you speak of there is this sense that some books are good for you, whether or not they’re actually good. You write, “When mainstream culture addressed books by Black writers, people stopped talking about what it meant to be alive, or about beauty and pleasure. They talked about the books like they were high in fiber.” Unfortunately, I think that could be said of both Some of My Best Friends and The World As We Knew It – that people will feel like they should read one or both, rather than wanting to read them. But then, we do want people to read them, for whatever reason! Where do you feel public perception of your work is on that right now?
TI: There's a tendency, when the work is by a writer from a group that has been in some way marginalized or minoritized, to read the work predominantly through the lens of that identity, even if it's not invoked at all or is invoked in a passing way. Disproportionately the responses say the book is about what it means to inhabit a certain subject position, or what it means to experience racism, and that’s not how I would characterize it at all. I always like to describe Some of My Best Friends as a book about the world, a book about the present moment. I hope people come to our books for all sorts of reasons, and I like what Amy said about the book being a first step moving people toward reflecting on their own circumstances and towards further action. In my more optimistic moments, that is what I know the anthology has the capacity to do, and do very powerfully. That's what I hope Some of My Best Friends does as well. I hope both books put words to a feeling that readers have but might not have seen articulated in quite that way before - and that it sparks this little aha! moment that they will then carry into the rest of their lives.
AB: To add something else that’s related between the anthology and Some of My Best Friends: when people think of the subject of the climate crisis or they think of racism - just one of many topics in your book - there's this tendency to think that you can only talk about those things in a certain mode. You have to be deadly serious. And that's such an oversimplification. I mean, yes, these are serious subjects, but there are so many different ways in, and different tones. I mean, Tajja's book is hilarious. I wouldn't say that the anthology is hilarious, but there are definitely moments of humor, and at the end of the day, it's very hopeful and optimistic and it just goes into spaces you wouldn't expect, as Tajja's book does. So all of those words used to describe books like these – it’s not just that they’re inaccurate, it’s that they're simplistic, and it doesn't do the works justice. But if we expand the borders of what the essay can do, what personal writing can do, what climate storytelling looks like, we are able to address many of these oversimplifications. The two books have that kind of boundary-breaking in common, and it's good for literature in general for more books to do that.
SEH: Obviously there’s no way to predict this, but do you feel that the people more likely to pick up your books are those wanting to change their minds, or those seeking guidance on what to do next, or those who want to find more words for their own feelings?
AB: First and foremost I hope it's people who like good writing! This is a very literary anthology. It's not a bunch of scientific papers. So it's operating in a very specific way. Because climate change is so politicized, if you're not already open to hearing about it and reading about it, you're probably not going to pick up the anthology. But empirical studies show that after somebody reads a novel that addresses climate change in some way, they are likely to be moved at least lightly to think more seriously about it or to take some sort of small action. That would be wonderful. But again, I come back to this idea of paying witness. An ode to the past is just something we owe ourselves and the world - to pay tribute to what we’ve lost even as we're thinking about what we want the future to look like.
TI: To add to that: an ode to the past that is broadly inclusive, and that everybody has an experience of and a say in. I agree that it's unlikely that we are going to change the minds of a staunch climate denialist, but I do think that reflecting on the fact that the world has changed and that how we experience it on an individual level has changed is an easy on-ramp to talking about these questions in a way that other books don’t. I also hope that for that reason it reaches a broad audience of readers who are excited to see the names of these writers on the cover, who do appreciate the essay as a form, who do like smart first-person writing.
SEH: I think I’m like a lot of other readers in having a sense that the climate crisis is not a nice thing to talk about, that it’s an awareness separate from everyday life. Especially in a library – we’re here to talk about literature. But this is literature. So, as you say, it may also serve as an on-ramp for those like me who just feel like it’s not our subject matter.
AB: I get it. Nobody wants to talk about angry, scary, sad things, but you're already experiencing it, and these essays show that. They're not scary. They're fascinating, they're rich, and there's a lot of exploration of the interiority, as well as looking out at the land, and a lot of literary references. There are actually many ways to think and feel about this problem.
TI: It was also a very deliberate part of our curation of the essays that the book not feel scary, doom-saying, or hopeless. I'm very proud of the way we created a tonal range, that it's not just grief after grief after grief. There's a lot of hope in this book.
SEH: Amy, you’re also involved in the 40th anniversary issue of Orion magazine - forty origin stories for the Anthropocene. Can you talk a little bit about how the material in this does or does not intersect with the material in The World As We Knew It?
AI: It just happens that Orion’s 40th annivesary coincides with the public release of the first set of data from the Climate Working Group – for a decade, a group of geologists have been examining the geological core, looking at various layers around the world, to try to answer an impossible question: Where does the Anthropocene begin? Is it where we see the first evidence of, say, plutonium and nuclear fallout? Is it where we see the first evidence of transatlantic colonialization? Is it when we first start seeing plastic? There's all these different ways of looking at it. Time is on our mind anyway because of the anniversary, so we asked forty different writers how they would define the Anthropocene and what it's like to live on the Earth right now. What we got back was a range very similar to what's happening in The World As We Knew It, discussing the climate crisis in ways I would never have expected. Both have this cacophony of voices showing just how complex and large and multifaceted the climate crisis really is, that it does the phenomenon injustice to try to narrow it down to just one or two very simple ideas or tones or approaches.
SEH: There’s a lot to think about here. So say someone reads – hopefully – both The World As We Knew It and Some of My Best Friends, and wants more on related themes in any direction at all. What would you recommend? And what have you read recently that you’d like to recommend, on any topic?
TI: I just finished Margo Jefferson's Constructing a Nervous System, her new memoir, and it blew my mind! It’s good for fans of both Some of My Best Friends and The World As We Knew It in terms of expanding the borders of what first-person writing looks like and how to blend cultural criticism with memoir. It's a masterclass in writing the self and blending the personal and the critical. On that subject of personal writing, Melissa Febos’s Girlhood. I think she's one of our best personal nonfiction writers right now.
AB: For folks who really like The World As We Knew It, there have been some other essay collections on a similar subject that have come out in the last couple of years. One is All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson, which is just a brilliant anthology. All the contributors are women or female-identifying, and they are incredible. And it's a very solutions-oriented anthology. So folks who feel a need to take concrete action right after reading something would enjoy that book. I'm a big fan of Alexandra Kleeman's novels. She is such a talent. She also contributed to the anthology. Her most recent novel was Something New Under the Sun, which ties together themes of the climate crisis with the tech boom and other large-scale things, but manages to make it all into a really smart, engaging, coherent narrative.
For those who enjoy history, I can recommend Alexis Coe’s You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington. It explodes so much of what we think is true about Washington, and it looks at it from the perspective of a woman whose experiences aren't captured in more conventional histories surrounding this figure. It's also hilarious. Again, history is pretty scary and sad, kind of like writing about the future, frankly, or the contemporary moment, but she manages to make it really funny. I know fear can be a motivating tool, but I think humor is often underrated in what it can do to get people to better understand something serious.
TI: Amen to that!
SEH: Anything else you’ve got in the works that you’d like to mention?
AB: I'm working on a book tentatively titled Ice: An American Obsession. It's a look at how ice has been used in our everyday lives in the United States since the dawn of the ice trade about 200 years ago. It's been a real joy to write and research and put together this arc of how ice has utterly transformed almost every aspect of our lives.
TI: I joined Catapult about a year ago as a staff editor for the magazine, and before that, I was a freelance contributing editor. And then about eight months ago, my former supervisor, Nicole Chung - she used to be editor-in-chief of the magazine - she was hired by The Atlantic as a contributing writer, and I succeeded her in the editor-in-chief role. So now I run the magazine.
SEH: Congratulations! And that must be an enormous job.
TI: Yes, they were big shoes to fill. Nicole is a genius, and I miss her so much. But the team is incredible. It is small but mighty, and I felt really just well supported there. So I have the freedom to try new things with the magazine. We launched a new series today. It's very exciting.
SEH: Excellent. Many exciting things in the works. It’s been a delight and an honor to speak to you.