Poetry, Prose, and the Climate Crisis: John Freeman and Tahmima Anam on Public Space and Global Inequality
In Conversation with V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell on Fiction/Non/Fiction
In this episode, poet and editor John Freeman talks to Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast co-hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell about his second collection of poetry, The Park. Freeman discusses who finds public space a source of connection, relaxation, and recreation, and who is excluded. Then Ganeshananthan, Terrell, and Freeman are joined by acclaimed Bangladeshi writer Tahmima Anam, who has written extensively about climate change and whose fable appears in Freeman’s new anthology,
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This podcast is produced by Andrea Tudhope.
Selected readings for the episode:
Freeman’s · The Park · Maps · Tales of Two Planets: Stories of Climate Change and Inequality in a Divided World: Selections: “Unfinished,” “The Sacrifice,” “Open All Night” · Tales of Two Cities: The Best and Worst of Times in Today’s New York · Tales of Two Americas: Stories in of Inequality in a Divided Nation
“The Unfortunate Place” in Tales of Two Planets · Tahmima Anam on how Bangladesh is succumbing to global warming (The Guardian) · A Burst of Energy in Bangladesh (New York Times) · A Golden Age · The Good Muslim · The Bones of Grace
The Recovering by Leslie Jamison · “The Funniest Shit You Ever Heard” by Lina Mounzer in Tales of Two Planets · Jennifer 8. Lee’s post on Instagram showing “circular human parking spots at Domino Park in Williamsburg, Brooklyn” · Bill McKibben · Gold Fame Citrus: A Novel by Claire Vaye Watkins · Fiction/Non/Fiction interview with Emily Raboteau and Omar El Akkad · Fiction/Non/Fiction interview with Juliana Spahr and Nathaniel Rich
With John Freeman
V.V. Ganeshananthan: Your book thinks about public space in terms of the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. Why did you choose that public space?
John Freeman: For me, the public space is the sidewalk, the street or parks, where I spend a lot of my time, and for part of the year I live and teach in Paris. In 2016, after this election started really ramping up, I feel like the discourse about what public space is and who’s allowed to be there took a very violent notch upward in terms of who can be left out and why. A park to me became a kind of refuge from that kind of conversation. And so I would go into Luxembourg Gardens in January when I was staying there and in June and July and August, and I would see people agreeing to get along, to not bother each other. I would see people of all sorts of ages and races sitting near one another, doing the things you do sometimes in private, like kissing, and eating a meal, or reading a book. But I also saw people hiding in the park, I saw people kicked out of the park, and so, just as quickly as I tried to make the park a utopia, it reasserted that all the things that I wanted to correct in our public life or wished were different were inside the park, too. So, it became a kind of fascinating study for me of the ways that our civilizations work. They have this tension between inclusion and exclusion between mendacity and generosity.
Whitney Terrell: One of the things that has turned out to be interesting about the pandemic is that open public space is incredibly important, because that’s one of the safest places you can be other than alone inside your house. Kansas City doesn’t have enough parks in my view, and our parks are crowded, and you suddenly think, ‘Oh my God, we need more space.’ I wrote a post the other day criticizing the private golf courses — it’s so much dead space, it could be helping people, and that’s the difference between public space and private space.
JF: We’re creatures of sense, and, in the last two months or so, we’ve been asked to live without the sense of touch. Obviously at home you can be part of that. But, when you go into public space, that sense is activated. That doesn’t mean you’re running around, patting people on the back, and hugging strangers. The city touches you — wind blows across your face, you run underneath a tree and there’s a sense of shade and your skin gets cooler. And, all those feelings activate a creatureliness within us, which I feel makes us a tiny bit kinder to each other. And I feel like we need that sense of touch in order to exist in a larger theoretical space, such as a city or a state or a nation, if we’re ever going to be addressed as members of those theoretical states.
VVG: In Minneapolis, we have a ton of green space and parks, and the city actually shut down a major parkway alongside a lake, because they thought there wasn’t enough public space and that people were inadequately distancing. So, they just made it so people can’t even drive there, so that there’s more space for pedestrians, which is great. Then this morning, I was looking at Instagram, and my friend, Jennifer 8. Lee, who used to be a reporter for The New York Times, posted a park where there were little circles that were kind of parking spaces for people within a park, so that they would socially distance. This made a lot of sense to me. If I saw Whitney — I haven’t seen Whitney in months — the muscle memory is like, ‘Oh, it’s my friend, I’m gonna hug him!’ I just don’t have the practice. So it’s interesting to see government coming into these public spaces and making marks for us to stand on, almost like we’re about to be in a play, like a grand play in public space.
JF: I’ve seen those things. They have markers throughout Central Park, which usually say, ‘This is six feet,’ and it looks a lot bigger when you see it. You think, ‘God, I don’t think a lot of people are observing this.’ And actually I’ve found that Central Park, of the parks I can go to in Manhattan, is the worst. All those bicyclists with $9,000 carbon fiber bikes, who are training as if they’re in the peloton for Tour de France go zipping by six inches from you and you think, you have a whole double-sized roadway. I think one of the metaphorical civic actions that takes place in parks is that you have to engage in a give-and-take and, especially now, a sense of protection against yourself towards another person. I’ve had the virus, and I am theoretically immune, but I also know that people don’t know I’ve had the virus, so running close to them is going to make them upset. It seems like so much of the ethical algebra we have to do in our heads to live in this moment means thinking about someone else who might be in front of us, but may not be — they might be a theoretical person. Before COVID, the biggest crisis was, in some ways, the climate crisis. And what was being done in Minneapolis, say driving a car, using resources, had an outsized effect on what was happening in Burundi or in Bangladesh. And if we cannot do that sort of mental theoretical mathematics of sharing resources in space, we’re really kind of doomed. And so COVID, to me, feels like this nearer form challenge in that regard, where you can see the people who you might possibly give the virus to and how do you accommodate for the differences in your fates or the fact that you might be contagious or you might be immune and they might not know you? And so those things to me are really activated by being in public space now.
VVG: In another place you write that “a park’s purpose is to temper the machine in us,” which is a really interesting idea. I wondered how that idea might be in tension with the other common denizen of the park, which is transient folks, the homeless. Is it good for public spaces like parks to “temper the machine in us,” if part of that tempering means that there are parts of humanity it’s easier for us to ignore or unsee?
JF: I think those are really troubling dynamics. I believe that parks can be a very good influence on our lives but not only if they become decoration or Instagrammable moments of nature as a form of lifestyle meditation. One of the things a park resists I think, fundamentally, is the notion that everything is usable or fungible. You can apply to a park the idea that a park is useful because it is somehow relaxing. But, in reality, we live in a world in which time is commodified. Our labor has been commodified to a level that it’s almost abstract, so a person without a home, a person without a job, is triply expelled from the notions of society. Whereas many of the people who don’t feel uncomfortable in a park, or who feel entitled to be there, have busy jobs, which have taken up most of their time and are carrying, probably in their pocket, a sort of leash to their daily work as a reminder that they should be continuing to be a functionary of whatever business world that they’re in. A park can be an enlarging wedge in that moment, in that it can bring together people who are working hard with people who have no work, to make us realize that we do share one fundamental thing, which is that no one should be entirely defined by their ability to be a functional aspect of a labor-driven society, which is then pushing that value of labor up into the hands of a few. The gainfully employed share that in common with people who are not employed. There are few places in a city where that can be as obvious as a park.
With Tahmima Anam and John Freeman
Whitney Terrell: You’ve been writing about climate change for more than a decade now and really spotlighting Bangladesh’s unique position. How has your thinking and writing changed over time? You know that story, The Unfortunate Place, is in some ways about how your thinking and writing about this issue has changed over time and what was the moment that you conceived of that piece itself?
Tahmima Anam: The first time I ever wrote anything about climate change was a very small piece in The New York Times, and it was more than 10 years ago, and the conversation has changed significantly since then. It used to be something that only environmentalists and activists really talked about — as something that was definitely going to happen. In Bangladesh, there’s a massive amount of migration from the coastal areas to the city every year. Millions of people migrate because their land is literally disappearing. So, it hasn’t felt for a long time that it’s a possible future, it has felt like it’s a real present. It’s just kind of bringing those two narratives together: one of a place where it has already happened, and another where people have slowly come around to the idea that this is an inevitability. And, it’s not something that’s going to happen in several generations, it’s something that’s going to happen in our lifetimes.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: When I heard that story, I was, of course, thinking of my own “unfortunate place” and the ways in which so much of what you describe feels also somewhat Sri Lankan. And, like Bangladesh, these places are not considered part of the global north. In your story, you challenge the idea that the global north is adequately prepared to tackle the climate crisis when compared to other countries. How did you come to think of Bangladesh as a place of resilience? How did you get to see the resourcefulness that’s there? Because I also see this in Sri Lankan communities where, as you say, this isn’t a surprise. How did you get around your own viewpoint there?
TA: If the climate crisis unfolds in the way that all the scientists are telling us it’s going to unfold, no amount of resilience is going to help the people in places like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh — that’s just a hard scientific reality. Having said that, I think Bangladesh has been, for many years, a kind of laboratory for certain kinds of innovation. If you think about microcredit, or if you think about the first treatment for cholera, it happened in Bangladesh, and it’s because it happened in the most kind of extreme way there, that other countries couldn’t help but learn from it. Innovations came out of desperation. I was trying to pull back, from the story of the unfortunate, a story of resilience. I feel a little bit conflicted about it, because I think ultimately we have to accept that there are certain realities that cannot be ignored. And that is not to say, ‘Oh, don’t worry, the people of Bangladesh, you know, they’re used to really shitty things happening to them. So, they’ll be fine. Let’s not worry about them.’ On the other hand, I think it’s not just a simple story of victims and non-victims.
VVG: John, I’m curious, your thoughts about this because countries in the global South have already seen the scars of the climate crisis. When you were curating the anthology, the writers and the anthology are presented within the frame of the countries that they’re from. How did you think about how you wanted to frame the anthology and which authors and nations really needed to be included there?
John Freeman: I didn’t want any kind of nationality to be a baseline unit for ‘selfhood,’ because I think that is one of the problems that is continuously gumming up the works of having any kind of enlarging discussion about how to live in a world where people are going to migrate, for reasons of economic need, for political safety, for physical safety, to escape gender persecution, all kinds of things. And as Tahmima mentioned, 50,000 to 200,000 people a year are leaving Bangladesh as well and going elsewhere. What kind of world is that, where we think people cannot be accepted if they’re fleeing, actually just for life and limb? And so I wanted there to be pieces that basically spoke from the perspective of living in a place but not necessarily agreeing with or underwriting the positions of those places’ governments.
I think one of the peculiar and probably frustrating things right now for people who have grown up outside the United States is to watch many people in the United States discover for the first time what it feels like to have their government be a hostile force to them. And that has been the case for a long period of time for many people within the United States. But I think there is also this explosion of frustration that people feel no connection to the policies and statements of the Trump administration. That has been the case for many people all over the world and many other governments — governments that the U.S. has been involved in, governments that the U.S. has propped up, governments that the U.S. has enabled to not do things to fight against what has been known for a long time is coming when it comes to the climate. And that’s all over the globe. And so I think this anthology needed to be something where people could take on and put off their national identities.
WT: So Tahmima, in your piece you talk about shifting language from climate change to climate crisis and then climate catastrophe. The Guardian has changed their style guide from climate change to climate crisis, because change sounds too passive. What other kind of changes in language are taking place in literary or journalistic writing about climate change? And in what ways is our vocabulary still limited?
TA: I think we’re just moving from the imagined to the present. It used to be that you just couldn’t imagine this thing that was going to happen somewhere else at some distant point in the future. And in a way, you can’t blame people because it was like a phantom. It was like, ‘Oh, in 200 years, it’s gonna be two degrees warmer.’ So, we’re like, ‘Well, two degrees warmer. What does that really mean?’ And I think it’s the news. It’s just documentary. It’s not like fortune-telling anymore. Even though the scientists were always saying it was documentary, and they were saying that the evidence was there, and we see the panicked cries of climate scientists probably from the ’80s, and there were so many moments in time when we could have stopped the train. But now, it’s just bushfires, and it’s no longer something that may happen at some point in the future. And we always imagined the future is much more technologically advanced than it actually is. If you look at all the movies that imagined this time, it was like flying cars and going to Mars. We just thought that in 100 years, we’ll figure out a way to freeze the ice caps again, so it’ll all be fine. Let’s trust our descendants to figure out some way out of this. And now, I think it’s completely shifted, because it is manifest in our lives today. It has accelerated so much faster than anyone had imagined or predicted. It’s the language of the present rather than the language of the future.
JF: I notice in a lot of fiction that so many things that are aspects of our daily life, whether you live in a city or rural area, are edited out because they’re inconvenient to fiction. In the previous segment, we were talking about homelessness and why, in so many novels set in urban areas, does no one ever encounter or step over someone who’s sleeping on a street? Because then suddenly, the fiction – the fantasy of the world – crumbles. And it’s the same with technology, it’s the same with work. Very few people work in novels. And it’s certainly been the case with the climate crisis.
I really admire Tahmima’s work and the trilogy that she completed. And she’s often talked about this publicly as something that was owed to her country. And that it’s something that writers like her, writers that identify as brown writers, feel like they owe their trade, their country, their city, sometimes even. One of the flip sides to that notion of being accepted is the notion that writers who don’t come from a small country or a “developing country” do not owe anything, that they have carte blanche. As a result, there needs to be a trilogy of the unraveling of American public contract of the idea of a collective that could start in the Nixon years, it could progress to the Bush years and end in the Trump years, and the environment is absolutely a part of that. We have a paucity of writing about climate within a country that has an outsized footprint on what can be done possibly about policy in the climate crisis. And so all the effort ends up falling on people that are often carrying all the weight in so many other discussions: people from Native communities, women of color, and as a result, we find ourselves in 2020, when the climate crisis is out of control, with not very much writing in front of us dealing with the scale of the crisis, and especially in realistic fiction.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Andrea Tudhope and V.V. Ganeshananthan. Photograph of Danez Smith by David Hong.