‘Against the background of collapse’: A Conversation with Jessica Gaitán Johannesson and Daisy Hildyard
In this conversation between Wasafiri Writer-in-Residence Jessica Gaitán Johannesson and novelist Daisy Hildyard, both writers reflect on their upcoming books The Nerves and Their Endings and Emergency, and on the way that the climate emergency has affected and shaped their work. Considering the complexities and connections of capitalism, craft, and individual responsibilities, Gaitán Johannesson and Hildyard sketch out a portrait of the experience of writing and living under crisis.
Jessica Gaitán Johannesson: There’s so much in Emergency that I’d love to talk to you about. It’s also wonderful to recognise some of the ideas you laid out in your essay The Second Body, and see Emergency really get into the flesh of it. I find myself wanting to hold this conversation as if we were indeed speaking to each other, seeing where that takes us, rather than as a set of questions. I also tentatively think that has something to do with Emergency itself. Rather than seeking safety in structure, it’s a novel that actively sniffs out connections, following them as far as possible.
Maybe we could start there. Is there a juxtaposition for you between control and intention? How have those different drives played out in writing Emergency? I’m thinking particularly about the use of a present-tense narrative in the book’s lockdown setting.
Daisy Hildyard: I’d been working towards a novel for six or seven years, and then during lockdown, I could see how to go about writing it in a plain and obvious way. It wasn’t because I had more time available (that wasn’t the case for me), but something about a heightened awareness of the outside world, as experienced from inside, and of connections and encounters as I felt them from isolation. What you describe makes me think of other feedback loops between narratives and their conditions — economic, environmental, material, personal. I like specific examples of how things cross the border between reality and fiction, moving in both directions. Personally, I need to be discovering the novel as I work. If I know exactly where something is going, I can’t be bothered to write it. This is also the case with an essay, but it’s different, and, for me, not so intense. Traditionally with an essay, you’re taking a more controlled approach to the world; it’s the thinking and researching which is a process of discovery in its own way.
You’re between the two right now: your novel came out a year ago and you have a collection of essays about to be released. How do your fiction and nonfiction books influence one another — or maybe they don’t?
I found myself smiling at that; how for you, the process of discovery in essay-writing is less intense than in fiction. I think it may be the opposite for me, although this is perhaps to do with the weight of ‘saying something’ in essays, and that being about such urgent realities as climate collapse, and how knowledge around it is held by grades of privilege. It was that immediacy and intensity that demanded a nonfiction form for me; fictionalisation would have felt like a filter, rather than a way to bring things closer. And you mention specific examples — the fear around bearing children in a collapsing environment was there in the novel, but I made a specific choice not to make political comments on birth and how it’s framed in climate debates, and saved that for the essays.
Your experience of looking at the outside world from the inside really resonates with me too. I’d love to ask you about your explorations of responsibility. One of my most vivid memories from reading The Second Body is the conversation with the butchers. Around the time I read it, my sister was starting a physiotherapy degree, and the day she was shown a piece of a human brain was the day she stopped eating meat. A chain of events fell into place, for her, and she couldn’t unsee it. In Emergency, the narrator talks about her experience of living in Texas and being impressed by how people there ‘took responsibility for their own destructive behaviour’. Later on, she remembers how her relationship to death was always informed by growing up around meat farms. It would be easy to see this kind of honesty as cold, an increased distance, but how is it also tied up with vulnerability — especially against the background of collapse?
You might say that the butcher and the meat farmer have shared an insight with your sister, but that the consequences go in different directions. Where she makes the choice, as a human, to avoid all other meats, the butcher or meat farmer chooses to live right up against this reality; to take up a place in a machine of death, killing, and suffering, all of which are part of real-world ecology. I think that both choices have something noble about them. What’s very interesting to me is the experience that lies between them and lacks their dignity. It’s perhaps the most bewildered or contorted response, and it’s also the behaviour of the majority: to consume or otherwise facilitate things that are produced by concealed or distant suffering, and to appoint other people to confront and carry out violence on your behalf. That’s something that happens within and beyond the meat industry.
A while ago I heard a talk from somebody at a think tank which had conducted qualitative research into public engagement with climate emergency. The researcher interviewed people to find out what might make them more likely to make changes in their own lives in response to the emergency. The findings surprised me: people seem to respond more readily and more actively to a narrative that emphasised the difficulty of what they would have to do. The researcher thought that the crucial thing was community: an idea of coming together to do something that none of us will enjoy. This isn’t necessarily what I’d have expected — I’ve read a lot of ecological writing, recently, that’s concerned with joy and pleasure; slowing down, or letting go. But it raises a big question and I want to ask it: what do you think could come next, to make people feel a responsibility that renders action desirable? And how do you draw out these questions of responsibility when some human cultures are so much more culpable than others? Lastly – apologies for the stream of questions, but they’re inseparable – if we’re addressing responsibility and thinking about awareness, how do we avoid implying that the emergency is a product of individual psychological tendencies, and overlooking the powerful political and financial interests that have, for decades if not centuries, been keeping things this way?
That’s it, though, isn’t it? Once you follow the thread of connections, there is no end to the questions. I do wonder if this is one of the great difficulties in engaging meaningfully with the climate crisis in writing; that you’re forced to turn the connections themselves into protagonists of a narrative. On the risk of over-emphasising individual responsibility, I love the way that the individual is always both singular and part of a collective in your novel, unpredictable in the way humans are, yet limited by so much beyond our control. I think the reason that it’s easy to fall into the trap of individualism is because capitalism brings us back there relentlessly. Individual choices very easily translate as consumer choices. It’s important, as well, to be specific about what kind of ‘individual’ you’re referring to. Blaming individual psychology is lazy and inaccurate, but there’s another excuse too, and that’s to see systems as completely void of actors. We need to be able to hold specific companies and powerful individuals accountable, because there are people who personally benefit from climate violence.
Coming back to the other side of your question, about where we go next, I honestly think so much lies in learning to see our survival as inextricably linked to the survival of others whose life experiences are very different. That demands a constant rejection of the myth of autonomy (in a culture that’s completely obsessed with egos and heroes) and really understanding how culture has shaped you. Structural and internalised racism is a big one there. It also demands specific links being made (like those you make in Emergency): an illumination of how you depend on others. Community is a word that gets thrown around, which I find genuinely puzzling because it’s so broad and applies to so much. I wonder how much you were thinking about community as linked to identity when writing the novel?
I had this idea of it as an anti-Bildungsroman. Rather than describing the emergence of an individual, the protagonist and her narrative would be more interested in all the other lives that pass through her existence. Often, where the story mentions something about the narrator and her own family, that bit is in parentheses: their story is an aside, it’s not the central subject. I had in mind a conception of ‘emergence’ that comes from philosophy and is used in ecology, where many complex interactions bring something (a world) into being that is more than the sum of its parts. When you view things with that mindset, gradually you begin to see life as something that’s shaped by these interactions, conditions, and influences. For example, you mention structural racism, and the book watches its community constructing and conducting its racism, without locating that racism in a particular individual. I did that because I wanted to tell a story about widespread, underhand racism, and I didn’t want any of the characters to be exempted from it. A biography might come out like a shadow, or in relief against the many other stories that are tangled together with it, for better and worse.
Writing like this was, as I said, partly a formal and political concern of mine. Right now, there are many other people who share this need to decentre individualism, or to dislodge assumptions that particular characters and identities occupy a place at the centre of any story. But what was important to me was that this approach was simply more interesting — I find it more engaging in writing, and in real life, to look outside myself.
This makes me want to ask you, in a novel that is all about connections, how did you know when to stop pulling on a thread? Where to draw the boundary of the narrative?
It was quite a simple idea: to have a long chain of stories that would run continuously, one connected to the other, with only one break. Each story starts in this small rural area of North Yorkshire, a place I know well, and then moves outwards, following encounters or connections through different times and places, animals, people, and machines. It felt like that — following storylines outward, rather than making a prior decision about where circumscription would be. I wanted to find a form for fiction that moves beyond the individual story, and explores a wider world of beings beyond that traditional protagonist. But I didn’t want to give myself license to invent stories about worlds or lives that I really didn’t know anything about. That was why I had to root the story where I’d grown up, in a place where I had a particular kind of authority: I’d passed years of my life learning about it, without any agenda. I began there, and worked slowly and incrementally outward. My knowledge of the world is limited, so it was easy to find places where the narrator’s ability to listen in to those stories cuts out.
What do you look for when you’re writing?
I look for moments of clarity, I think, both of feeling and thought; for sharpness out of a sense of confusion. I’ve often thought of writing as a fiddly, often messy peeling of layers. I find it difficult to locate where that happens in the juxtaposition of me and another, because a lot of it has to do with the position of self and other, or of me as other.
This reminds me of the idea of emergence, again, so maybe that’s my last question to you. What emerged for you, out of this book, unrelated to writing?
I love what you say about clarity, and it also makes sense in relation to your experience of fiction and nonfiction. A sense of clarification or honed perception.
From Emergency, I gained a feeling that you can look closely at anything, and it will have a story in it, with more and more busy, queer, psychedelic detail opening out as you watch. I also – in the name of research – got quite into a television series in which the man from MasterChef visits factories to see how products like yogurt or toilet paper or Doritos come into being.
Daisy Hildyard is a writer based in the north of England. Her first novel Hunters in the Snow (2014) won a Somerset Maugham Award at the Society of Authors (UK), and a ‘5 Under 35’ honorarium at the National Book Awards (USA). The Second Body (2017) is an essay on how the porous boundaries of the Anthropocene are shaping human experiences. A new novel, Emergency (2022), tells stories of the global connections, and the human-nonhuman relationships, within a small rural area.
Jessica Gaitán Johannesson is a Swedish/Colombian writer and climate justice activist based in Edinburgh. Her debut novel How We Are Translated (2021) was longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize. She is Wasafiri Magazine’s Writer-in-Residence for 2021-22 and works as Digital Campaigns Manager for Lighthouse Books, Edinburgh’s radical bookshop. Her collection The Nerves and Their Endings: Essays on Crisis and Response is forthcoming with Scribe in August 2022.