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Q&A with Jessica Gaitán JohannessonToby Litt

Jessica Gaitán Johannesson
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Although it looks quite slim, The Nerves and Their Endings: essays on crisis and response is a really big, ambitious, global book that speaks very clearly to lots of aspects of the present moment. It insists on an intimate relation between the individual body and the whole environment. It’s very moving and full of insights. How did it come about? How did it end up taking the form it takes?

Those are really wonderful words, thank you. It’s striking that you use the word ‘global’ about it, because it’s also such a problematic word in the context of climate and environmental collapse. Exploring the conflict between a so-called ‘global crisis’ (which it is, in as much as the earth has one atmosphere, and carbon dioxide is everywhere) and the sickening inequality with which that crisis is felt, was essential when writing the essays. They are rooted in my own experiences and reflections, which makes them anything but global – I’m not travelling around the world, interviewing people about how they’re impacted by the effects of climate and environmental injustice. At the same time, there is this vastness that needs to be reckoned with in every moment. With every essay, I think I was trying to interrogate my own place in this web of feeling, to try and place my vulnerabilities and privileges in relation to an oppressive system that has been murdering millions of people for centuries, and understand how my responses – of fear, anger and action – are shaped by this. How can I respond differently, more meaningfully? This is how the structure of the nerves arose. Thinking of a nervous system helped in asking questions about whose pain and fear we feel and why, but the theme of neurology running through the book is also more concrete; it’s anchored in stories of mental and neurological illness. It’s, I hope, a reaching outward.


What do you think might be the role of writers in the Anthropocene?

I’ve come across quite a few people lately who are questioning the usefulness of the Anthropocene as a term, at least in the context of assigning responsibility for environmental collapse, and this feels very right to me. ‘Humanity’ didn’t cause it – exploitation and extraction did, organised under principles of colonialism, patriarchy and white supremacy. When those suffering the worst effects of that exploitation are always the least responsible, I don’t think it makes sense to place humanity on one side of a temporal divide and the non-human world on the other. This era may be defined by ‘human’ activity – but there are a thousand kinds of human activities, including caring, creative ones. There are societies that aren’t organised to serve exploitation. Unless the generalisations surrounding climate collapse are dealt with (in the book I talk about the lazy use of ‘we’, for example in relation to one ‘humanity’), it’s just not possible to target the real culprits of climate violence, to identify those who profit from it, and to see the harm that underlies it all.

I also mention this because I think generalisations are relevant to the question of a writer’s role. I think there are serious risks involved in idolising writing as a force for good. At the end of the day, writing happens largely within an industry with its own elitism, inequality and exploitation, with people needing to make money and profits being made; all those things are hidden if books are seen as change-making devices, and writing seen as activism, as is the question of who you’re speaking to, how restricted that group is. There’s also something troubling, to me, about the individualism that seeps into both writing and activism, especially in an era of social media – the celebration of egos. For all these reasons, I don’t see my writing as part of my activism. I write because I need to, in order to work things out, and because it helps me feel. It’s part of what’s worth saving and fighting for, but it’s not the fighting – that happens out there, with communities, forging connections and existing as one of many.


What is the most powerful piece of writing you have read about the climate and ecological emergency?

That’s quite a difficult question, actually. I think what’s powerful depends so much on where you are in your relation to history and to the current moment. It’s been a while since I read fiction or creative writing that focuses mostly on climate collapse. I became a little allergic to dystopias and post-apocalyptic narratives quite a few years ago, because I realised that my reaction was something like ‘at least it’s not that bad yet’. This is rational if the catastrophe portrayed doesn’t match your reality, and the story is set in the future, which makes for a very narrow lens. For so many people, the apocalypse is history. Stories like that are powerful in that they can wake some up from apathy, but what power comes out of that? What do they ask us to work toward? Another question is to do with what kinds of texts are described as being ‘about’ climate collapse. The work of writers from communities that have experienced environmental injustice for generations already isn’t often framed as being about ‘the climate crisis’ – that is not how they’re sold by the industry that defines them, because for that audience, until very recently, the climate crisis was a future threat. What does this mean for how those texts are read, and more importantly, for how narrowly the crisis is approached? It has so many implications; climate collapse being a product of white supremacy is a huge one among them. Recently, I read and loved Sarah M. Broom’s memoir The Yellow House about generations of her family in New Orleans, and the house that was ruined by hurricane Katrina. It doesn’t, I think ever, mention global warming or environmental collapse, but of course it’s about environmental injustice – how people’s lives, loves, heritages, survival, are shaped by our environment and how that environment is cared for, or destroyed, depending on who we are. For me, nowadays, the most powerful writing is that which challenges my preconceptions about ‘environment’ in the first place – making my own boundaries expand. Poets like Natalie Diaz, for example, but also journalists like Mary Annaise Heglar who address environmental injustice up-front, with anger and resolve as well as humour, and brilliant thinkers like Julietta Singh, whose book The Breaks questions parenting as merely ‘reproduction’ of the same. These are books that help my sense of self and community expand.


In The Nerves and Their Endings, you write that, ‘My attempts at making sense of the climate crisis have changed and adjusted repeatedly. They continue to shift and to quake.’ I think that will resonate with a lot of people. Where are you at the moment?

That’s such a useful question, thank you. My answer on the anthropocene, above, is a case in point – everything keeps changing, because this is all about letting go of very deeply-rooted stories. That isn’t done in one go, but in layers – of oppressive thinking, of internalised racism, of binaries and the unhelpful sense of control. Sometimes it feels like I know too little to even be putting it on paper, or that I shouldn’t, because I know I’ll change my mind. I also think, though, that if you want to learn from others, and get closer to the reality of others, you have to be prepared to be wrong. I honestly could have rewritten those essays so many times – the few post-scripts I added probably hint at this. So at the moment, I try to stay open to very different stories. I look to people, especially other queer people and women of colour, who have been fighting for justice their entire lives, and what I see is hope as a discipline (in the words of Mariame Kaba), not as a relying on being ultimately ok. It’s always necessary to work for justice, always has been. This is not to say that I’m not terrified for myself or my own loved ones, but focusing more on solidarity and connection, on current suffering, means starting from a point of justice – why should my future suffering mean more than the current pain of others? If it does, what kind of world am I actually fighting for?


Do you have a vision for a regenerative future? Does literature have a part to play in creating this future?

There’s that quote by Arundhati Roy, about another world being so close that ‘on a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” A friend made a collage for me about ten years ago with that quote. Only recently, I was reading about different things people are doing – even social media can be a space where it hits you, ironically – tying prison and border abolition to health justice to decolonisation, queer ecology, all kinds of steady, robust care. There was this moment, when I genuinely thought: it’s happening. When you feel how many people are putting their lives into the cause of liberation, it feels like a million seeds growing. So it’s more like the sum of all those visions, doing their own thing to create an ecosystem of change. There are also physical moments, seeing decisions being made collectively at a climate camp, difficult conversations survived, ties of solidarity between communities a world apart, and you try to imagine what that would look like on a larger scale – then you work in that direction.

As to literature, I find it so important to question its power, and am really grateful for the opportunity. To me, the question is perhaps not whether literature has a part to play or not – I get the feeling that there’s a kind of defensiveness in that framing, a desperate need for those of us who write to feel ok about writing. Writing is human expression, so it will be part of whatever future comes out of this, just like language or music. A more useful question, to me, is ‘what am I able to do to shift things?’ taking into account what is really needed – not just what I’m comfortable doing. Writing does teach and move, but there’s also a wide gap between reading a book and taking a step to help create material change. This was so clear after the wave of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, when a huge number of reading lists were shared, book groups started, often sparked by guilt. What material changes were actually instigated by all those people reading the books? Through Lighthouse (Edinburgh’s radical bookshop which I work for part-time) I’ve tried to facilitate a few conversations about this: what happens once the book is finished, how does it become part of a network of resources and real-life conversations? You asked me about a vision for the future and I answered with a quote – that says something about putting feeling into words, but what do you then do with that feeling? How do you make visions reality? Books are a tremendous part of my life, but this is also why I want to be honest about their role, and mine in having written some, giving myself the freedom to be more than a writer.


Call to Action:

Climate Camp Scotland organises against the oil industry in Scotland (including the North Sea oil industry) in solidarity with the communities most affected by extraction of fossil fuels. I’m a big admirer of the work of The Global Women’s Strike, campaigning for women’s unwaged work to be recognized. If you’re in London, I’d recommend supporting the campaign against the Silvertown Tunnel, a current example of local environmental injustice within a global context of climate collapse.