Exorcizing Harveys: Writing for Women of the Arctic

Harveys suck, let’s start with that. They utterly and despicably suck. Harveys, as we brutally found out last summer, are abusive and dangerous. They have power, a ridiculous amount of power, and nothing will stop them. The first one, Harvey the hurricane, pounded the Gulf Coast of the United States for several days in August 2017, dumping Biblical amounts of rain on Texas, and leaving thousands of people stranded. The second one, Harvey the Hollywood producer, assaulted and silenced women for decades with, if not the blessing, at least the obliging blind eye of an army of people around him for whom it was convenient to keep their mouths shut.

Since then, I can’t help it: I see Harveys everywhere.

Harveys are fed and fattened by money and power, and prey on vulnerable people. Particularly women. (If you haven’t seen this gut-wrenching article in the New York Times about one man’s desperate fight to save his wife as Houston was flooding, I highly recommend it.) Harveys wouldn’t exist without capitalism. They wouldn’t exist without colonialism. And they wouldn’t exist without patriarchy. And, of course, Harveys thrive with the changing climate. For example: the melting Arctic is opening up new territory for extractive industries, these industries bring in a bunch of outside workers – mostly men – near isolated indigenous settlements, and that quickly becomes a breeding ground for Harveys who turn young women into victims of sexual assault and/or trafficking. #MeToo.

To exorcise the Harveys haunting me, I wrote a play titled Whale Song. It’s a short play, about 15-minute long. I wrote it for a day-long event titled Women of the Arctic: Bridging Policy, Research, and Lived Experience, organized by Tahnee Prior, Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Scholar and PhD Candidate in Global Governance at the University of Waterloo and Gosia Smieszek, researcher at the Arctic Centre, University of Lapland. Women of the Arctic was held at the UArctic Congress in Helsinki in September 2018.

The goal of the event was to carve out a non-academic space for women and girls who work on or live in the Arctic to explore the roles and contributions of women to northern policy-making, research, exploration, art, activism, and daily life. It consisted of three related 90-minute panels: “Northern Women at the Table: From Community to Business Leaders;” “Women in Arctic Science & Exploration,” and; “Grappling with ‘Uncomfortable’ Conversations: From Past Traumas to Future Generations.”

Interestingly, because of the context, I couldn’t rely on any of theatre’s usual artifices. The performance was presented in a large café as part of a reception. There was no fancy lighting or set design, no beautiful projections, and certainly no big cast (there was a small stage, however). Because we had to fly from the US to Helsinki, I could only travel with two people – director Jennifer Vellenga and actor Julie Jesneck. Therefore, the words had to carry all the weight. But most exciting was the fact that we would be performing for a crowd who doesn’t typically attend the theatre. And, just to make things a little more challenging, a great majority of these people would be non-native English speakers.

Director Jennifer Vellenga, playwright Chantal Bilodeau, actor Julie Jesneck and the Women of the Arctic organizing team: Tahnee Prior, Gosia Smieszek, and Olivia Matthews. Photo by Nancy Forde.

At the heart of Whale Song is the concept of migration. A woman has run away, or, as she puts it, “migrated,” from her abusive husband named Harvey. Following a somewhat cryptic advice from her father – “When in doubt, go North” – she picked Alaska as her destination. Alaska is where her friends Teri and Allison live: strong Indigenous women who have dealt with their own Harveys and, wisely, chosen to migrate. But the woman’s husband seems to have caught up with her when she got to Alaska because she’s now in Helsinki, addressing the conference attendees.

Julie Jesneck in Whale Song. Photo by Veikko Somerpuro.

Migration, as she describes it, is a survival skill: Both humans and animals migrate, and we’ve been doing it since the beginning of time. Whales in particular are very good at it:

Whales used to be land animals. Fifty million years ago, they had four legs and huge teeth. Then the ice sheets melted, the oceans rose, and when it became clear there wasn’t gonna be enough land for everyone, the big mamas were like: “We’re outta here.” And they migrated to the ocean. How’s that for a winning strategy? “Shrink those legs and grow some fins, ladies! We’re diving in!”

But her admiration for the whales’ pluck in taking their destinies in their own hands hides a painful question. After listening to a whale song, she asks:

I wish I spoke Whale… Or is it Whalish, like Finnish? Or Cetaceanese? … I’d ask them: “How did you know?” Because, think about the people in Texas who didn’t leave until the water was up to their second floor. Think about the women in Hollywood who didn’t walk out of that hotel room until he had gotten his way. Think about me and Teri and Allison and all the beautiful wonderful women out there who have found themselves in the same situation. Why didn’t we know? Why didn’t we get out before it was too late? Is there something wrong with us?

Is there? Is it human nature to refuse to see the inevitable?

Julie Jesneck in Whale Song. Photo by Nancy Forde.

We spent a week rehearsing at Think Corner – the University of Helsinki café in the heart of the city – fighting jet lag while students chatted and sipped coffee all around us. Three hundred people had reserved for the performance/reception. We had no idea what to expect. Would we have to compete with food, wine and conversation to get the attendees’ attention? Were they going to politely watch the play and go right back to what they were doing? Or would our artistic “interlude” in this heavily programmed conference have an impact?

On the night of the performance, the atmosphere was mellow. A DJ played music, people mingled over wine, then helped themselves to the buffet and sat down to eat. At the appointed time, Julie got up on stage and performed Whale Song Ted-talk style. All of the women and most of the men gave her their full attention. But a handful of men, no doubt Harveys, proceeded to talk louder than her, annoyed that she was interrupting their Very Important Conversation. Would they have done the same if it had been a male actor? One of them was sitting next to the stage with his back turned to Julie. He didn’t move or even attempt to be discreet. Afterwards, we received many positive comments. One Sami woman confided with a smile that she had kicked all of the Harveys out of her community. Several men, on the other hand, avoided making eye contact with Julie.

For me, the experience was exhilarating. New city (Helsinki is beautiful), new context, new audience, and a chance to add my voice to the voices of women fighting to carve a place for themselves in a world that still sees us as “less than.” It was theatre at its best – naked, raw, and unapologetically engaged.

Women of the Arctic panel “Grappling With ‘Uncomfortable’ Conversations: From Past Traumas to Future Generations” with (l to r) Katarzyna Pastuszak, Louise Fontain, Sigþrúður Guðmundsdóttir, Liisa Holmberg, and Michelle Demmert. Moderated by Tahnee Prior. Photo by Chantal Bilodeau.

The next day, I attended the Women of the Arctic panels and saw some of the themes addressed in the play reflected in these women’s lives. These were highly accomplished women who, in some cases, had overcome great obstacles to get to where they are today. But despite their accomplishments, they are routinely overlooked in conferences where most presenters tend to be male. A photo of a session of the UArctic Congress, showing rows of men in suits, speaks volumes about the ongoing problem of gender inequality.

UArctic Congress 2018. Photo: Juha Sarkkinen.

The Harveys are still out there. (In a strange déjà vu, as I was writing this CBS executive Les Moonves resigned after allegations of sexual misconduct and hurricane Florence started flooding the Carolinas.) For as long as we continue with business as usual, they will keep wreaking havoc on our environment and our lives. I don’t know if we can ever completely exorcise them – they have left an indelible mark on our collective consciousness. But we can take steps so they are less likely to occur in the future.

At the end of the play, the actress delivers a final plea to the audience before she has to leave. I’m making the same plea to you today:

No more Harveys, OK? For me. For Teri and Allison and the whale. For all of us. No more Harveys.

(Top image: Julie Jesneck in Whale Song. Photo by Veikko Somerpuro.)

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Chantal Bilodeau is a playwright and translator whose work focuses on the intersection of science, policy, art, and climate change. She is the Artistic Director of The Arctic Cycle – an organization created to support the writing, development and production of eight plays that look at the social and environmental changes taking place in the eight countries of the Arctic – and the founder of the blog and international network Artists & Climate Change. She is a co-organizer of Climate Change Theatre Action, a worldwide series of readings and performances of short climate change plays presented in support of the United Nations COP meetings.

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