Happy winter to those of you in the Northern hemisphere, and happy summer to those of you in the South. As 2021 nears, I can’t help but wonder how 2020 will be remembered by historians. The pandemic will surely be at the forefront of any book written about the year, but how will humanity’s response to climate change be remembered? Specifically, the climate actions of wealthy countries like the USA? The Trump administration’s horrific handling of the climate crisis will not be forgotten, certainly. I also hope that the history books will record the incredible work of activists, writers, and artists who continued to bring greater awareness to the problem, who found new and thoughtful ways to work through the grief and anger of climate change – as well as ways to generate hope and courage.
Speaking of incredible writers and artists, this month I have for you an interview with two editors of a new Canadian anthology on climate change. Meet Madhur Anand and Kathryn Mockler, who bring us Watch Your Head, an anthology of fiction, poetry, essay, and art about climate, out now on Coach House Books. Both editors have worked at the intersection of art and climate for some time. Madhur is the award-winning author of A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes and This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart both published by Penguin Random House Canada. She is a full professor of ecology and sustainability at The University of Guelph where she was appointed the inaugural director of the Guelph Institute for Environmental Research. Kathryn Mockler is the publisher of Watch Your Head, a literary and arts site devoted to publishing works about climate justice and the climate crisis. Her debut collection of stories is forthcoming from Book*hug in 2022. She is an Assistant Professor of Screenwriting in the Department of Writing at the University of Victoria.
In our interview below, we discuss what inspired the new anthology, what they hope readers take away from it, and why the word “Anthropocene” can hardly be found in the anthology’s pages.
Let’s start at the beginning. What was the genesis of this project? How did it come into being?
Kathryn: I organized a climate crisis reading as part of a larger art and performance protest that took place in Simcoe Park during the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2019. The readers included Margaret Christakos, Adam Giles Catherine Graham, Hege Jakobsen Lepri, Khashayar Mohammadi, Terese Mason Pierre, Rasqira Revulva, and Todd Westcott.
Even though the crowd that had gathered was small, it was a moving event. We captured the reading on video, and I wanted a place to publish this work. I had published an online literary and arts journal for several years, so I had the tools to put it together. That’s how Watch Your Head was born. Very quickly writers and artists in the community became interested in the project and volunteered to be a part of it, which is why we have such a large editorial collective (27 writers and artists).
It was intended to be an online-only project where we would publish new work each month, but Alana Wilcox, the Editorial Director of Coach House Books, asked if we would like to do a print anthology and donate the proceeds to climate justice organization. Of course, we jumped at the opportunity. Fifteen editors from the WYH collective headed up the print anthology, and it was released in October 2020. We had a virtual event which you can watch here.
Watch Your Head is such an evocative title. Where does it come from?
Kathryn: The initial climate protest reading took place on September 7, 2019 and the website was up by September 13, 2019. To be honest, I didn’t give a lot of thought to the title. I just needed something to get this up and running as fast as possible because I didn’t want to lose the momentum.
The phrase “watch your head” came from an eco-fiction piece I wrote and I had purchased the domain earlier in the year for another project related to that. However, when the idea for this website came about, I realized Watch Your Head was perfect for a journal about the climate crisis since the phrase is often found on caution signs which warn of known and preventable dangers.
This entire project has unfolded in this way – acting without a plan and moving forward to see what will happen. However, we are grounded by our focus on climate justice and our goals of speaking out, raising awareness, encouraging people to act, and taking concrete action ourselves by supporting justice-focused organizations like RAVEN and Climate Justice Toronto.
In the introduction, you write that “Anthropocene” is not a term that appears frequently in the anthology. Why is this?
Kathryn: We describe in our introduction that a climate justice approach does not separate issues like “colonization, racism, anti-Blackness, and other forms of forcibly maintained social inequalities” from concerns related to the climate crisis and the erosion of the planet’s natural environment.
The term “Anthropocene” implies a universal “we” impacted the Earth’s atmosphere, water, and ecosystems. However, the people and countries who have contributed the least to climate change are going to bear the brunt of it. And to talk about it like we are all responsible in the same way is not only an affront to these communities but a form of continued violence. In addition, the universal “we” absolves those with the power to do something about it of their responsibility to take action and implement policies.
Given this frame, it’s not surprising few of the works focus on the term Anthropocene.
Madhur: My best guess is that it is just overused as a term and it doesn’t tell us about the specificities of being in this epoch. In my opinion, it has already failed as a linguistic term to incite change. In a paper published just this month (December 2020) in Nature, researchers found that human-made mass exceeds all living biomass on Earth (whereas humans themselves only make up 0.01% of global biomass). We need new language to articulate this devastation and our anthology does that.
Many climate anthologies focus on a single genre: nonfiction, fiction, poetry. Yours contains all of those as well as visual art. Why include all of these genres together in this book?
Kathryn: The different art forms provide us with more voices to contribute to this vital conversation.
The visual art in particular really draws people in. On the website, we are able to publish all media including time-based works such as performance art, video, animation, film, and in the print anthology, we published painting drawing, comics, and photography.
We are grateful to our visual art editors June Pak and Jennifer Dorner for their work in bringing visual art to this project.
Madhur: I work across several literary genres and don’t see the divisions all that clearly and would guess that Kathryn would feel similarly as she too works across several genres. Our anthology aimed at representing the vast diversity of artistic approaches to contemplating the climate emergency. Genre (or stylistic) diversity was inevitable when you have such a diversity of voices.
Climate change is often thought of and discussed in scientific terms. What can artistic responses – like those found in this book – offer that perhaps scientific responses do not? Or, looked at another way, how can science and art work together to show us something powerful about the crisis?
Madhur: I think it is fair to say that (traditional/Western) scientific approaches to studying climate change are limited in ultimately bringing about the changes necessary for humanity to respond to the climate crisis. It’s also then fair to say that art can change the way we think and the way we behave quite radically, but without a scientific framework it can only go so far in solving environmental problems. It’s perhaps because of the longstanding (artificial, unhelpful) divide between art and science in society that we must turn to one another for a mutual response, perhaps for a collective one, during times of crisis. But there are similarities: In science, an index is a statistical device used to study complex systems, like ecosystems (diversity index), economies (Dow Jones), the human heart (bpm) and yes, climate change (mean global annual temperature). In poetry, the devices are different but many of the systems are the same. Writing poems can represent a “critical slowing down”, measured by new indexes (such as the “early warning signal”) used to discover or predict sudden transitions, like revelations. This kind of “revelation” has not come with the scientific discovery of anthropogenic climate change so we must keep working on it. I haven’t seen very many powerful combinations of art and science to address climate change and often, when it’s done, it only reaches one group (and often it’s the artists). We definitely need more of these kinds of conversations.
Many of the pieces in this anthology also address capitalism. Taken together, what might they show us about capitalism and climate change?
Madhur: I mention in the Introduction that the science of climate change has been known for centuries. The IPCC special report of 2018 emphasized that “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” are needed. That obviously can’t be done with science alone. The dominant mode of human behavior and societal progress is based on consumer capitalism, which so often divorces economy from the environment. These economic systems are inherently unsustainable and the work of this anthology reflects the myriad of ways this is witnessed.
Finally, what’s next for you both?
Kathryn: For Watch Your Head, it feels like we’re still at the beginning. The print anthology was just released in October, and we hope to have many future events. My goal is to have every one of the 84 contributors participate in at least one Watch Your Head event, and, of course, the website is an ongoing project.
In the new year, I’m hosting a panel with Watch Your Head contributors at Word on the Street Toronto on Thursday, January 21 at 7:00 pm EST. The panel will be streaming on YouTube.
We’re organizing other events, one of which is a virtual climate writing workshop where participants will read from the anthology and write poems and stories and nonfiction in response as a way to get people to write and talk about these issues and buy the book! That will occur in the spring and the details will be on our website when they are available.
Madhur: In 2020, between the first and second COVID-19 waves, my debut prose book came out. I use the lenses of ecology, physics, history and many other disciplines, to retell the oral histories of my parents’ lives beginning with the effects of the Partition of British India. I also reflect on contemporary issues from my own life experience as scientist and artist, from topics as far-ranging as personal identity to restoration ecology. I aim to understand problems holistically. I’m working on a manuscript that will form my second book of poems as well as putting together ideas for my first novel. I’m also looking forward to tons of interdisciplinary work through my role as the inaugural director of the Guelph Institute for Environmental Research.
Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times, Pacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com at and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.