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Mary Annaïse Heglar's writing on climate change is a "punch in the gut" — and that's by design

There's room for both emotion and fact as humanity deals with the uncertainty of a warming planet

This week is Climate Week, coinciding with the UN Climate Change Summit. On September 25th, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its newest report. Every day this week Massive has published articles and interviews with scientists, policy experts, and activists about climate change, all aspects of the new report, and the future of the planet.

Bombarding people with scientific facts isn't the only way, and sometimes isn't the best way, to change how they feel about climate change. Literature and the arts have powerful roles to play. Mary Annaïse Heglar is a climate justice essayist and the Director of Publications for the Natural Resources Defense Council. She spoke with Britt Wray about the inherent vulnerability in writing about climate change, her literary inspirations, and how we need literature in addition to science to save humanity.

Britt Wray: Let's talk about the power of words and how you wield them because outside of your work at the NRDC [Natural Resources Defense Council], you're a climate justice essayist and you write movingly about what the climate crisis really feels like. I know that whenever I read your work, I kind of sense your arms brushing the clutter of typical debates out of the way to make room for your readers to step into this warm space of personal nuance. And when I first came across your work, it felt like some of the first writing on the climate crisis that I had encountered that really brought a full swath of humanity to the writing...emotions, identity, history, vulnerability. That felt important and as though it was missing. So I'm curious from your perspective, what is it that you want your prose to do when people encounter it?

sign that says "end climate injustice"

Communities of color and impoverished communities bear the brunt of climate change and other environmental issues

 Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Mary Annaïse Heglar: My ultimate goal is to bring people to their feet, but I feel that the way to do that is to first bring them to their knees. So I do want a very human emotional reaction to my words, I want you to kind of think that you can read it standing up but realize two paragraphs in that oh, I have to sit down. And I want to take my reader to a really vulnerable place because I think that we're past the point where we're changing what people think. I think we're changing what people believe is possible and what they believe in. And the way to do that is through the heart, it's not through the mind. So I can fact you to death and that would give you knowledge, but it won't change what you believe, it won't touch your heart. And I think that the way to the heart is through the stomach and so I try to write in such a way that punches you in the gut.

BW: Were there any writers for you in this space that ever inspired you in your own writing because they were showing you how that kind of belief change is possible through prose?

MAH: Well, James Baldwin is my biggest inspiration. He was able to articulate the unarticulated and to name the unnamed. Once you can describe something, then I think you can figure out how to change it. And I felt like that was missing in the climate space, and that was what I was trying to bring to it. Arundhati Roy is another big inspiration for me. She writes about climate quite frequently and she does it with skill and talent and humanity.

BW: What does it mean to be a narrative change agent on the climate crisis today?

MAH: At least you're hard at work trying to change the narrative. I think the climate movement has a lot of really problematic ones, a lot that are just straight up lies. And it's tried really hard to cater itself to bad faith arguments and become really confused.

BW: Can we get into that just for a minute? What are some of the narratives that you think are rooted in bad faith or misleading people?

MAH: Well, I think that there are a lot of extreme narratives. There's the one I wrote about this past week [that] goes, "We're completely doomed, there's no point." That one is super problematic. But on the other hand, the [narrative that] we must be hopeful, "we can absolutely solve this" is really problematic, because how does that sound to The Bahamas or to Puerto Rico right now? Neither one of them are realistic and they both try to spoil the movie that they haven't watched. You don't know how this is going to end. And it's okay to not know. It's okay to feel things other than completely giving up or complete assurance that everything's going to be okay.

 Another really problematic narrative for me is that this is our parents and our grandparents fault. I think about what my parents and grandparents were doing at the time that the climate crisis was really being etched into stone, and they were surviving apartheid. I can't lay the blame for this at their feet.

BW: What do you consider your writing to be doing when it's out there? Is it a form of activism? Is it a form of art? Is it an intersection between the two?

MAH: I definitely think there's an intersection between the two. I think I would go into art over activism because in the black aesthetic there is really no such thing as art just for art's sake, at least as I understand it. Perhaps there are different schools of thought about it, but I was taught you're always creating art for the sake of making the world a better place. And there's a quote that I love by Toni Morrison where she says that as writers, what we do is remember this world, and to remember the world is to create it. It's the job of every writer to try to make their time better. By writing you are reflecting the world back to itself, and holding up that mirror sort of forces accountability. And that's what I'm trying to do. So I do think it's closer to art, but I don't think art is ever really far from activism.

Heglar considers her writing to be both art and activism

 Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

BW: When you think about storytelling, what are the things that matter the most for you?

MAH: Well, I think there's a lot of different types of storytelling. I think super fact-based storytelling is important. It's not the type of storytelling I want to do. And I think that the climate conversation is just way too much of that, maybe 90% [very fact-based] and 10% anything else, and that equilibrium needs to shift. But I don't think that there is a wrong way to do storytelling. What I try to do and what I think the climate movement needs is more humanity, more emotion, more centering of human beings in the story. And to center human beings in the story, you need to center humanity and beauty and poetry. We've tried to pull on the purse strings for years, but [it] just seems like it never occurred to us to pull at the heartstrings.

BW: Do you think that the climate movement needs to embrace more of a literary and artistic frame overall?

MAH: I think that's a great way to do it. But I think we can do both things. I think that we can have storytelling that's literary and beautiful and emotional and vulnerable, and we can have our solutions that are fact-based. So [in] my day job at NRDC, I'm a publications director and I work on a lot of really wonky technical policy reports. I don't bring an emotional argument to those reports because it would be inappropriate. That's not the framework for that. I agree with David Wallace Love when he says that it [climate change] is too big of a story to tell any one way. I think that's really true. I think we need to open the lane for more literary, poetic ways to tell this story.

BW: It's interesting that you talked about these poles between defeatism and doom, and on the other side, hope and unstoppable optimism, because that space in between [is] shades of uncertainty. And we are just uncomfortable with uncertainty. Is storytelling a vehicle to making uncertainty comfortable, inviting, relatable? I'm just thinking about why it is that people even stick to one side of these things. Is it because of how deeply uncomfortable it is to simply be uncertain about something so huge as our entire existence?

MAH: I think there's a lot of self delusion. Because if you accept the space in the middle of you've really got to... I think there's just something therapists talk about a lot, right? A lot of black and white thinking, and not being able to see the nuances and the room in between. People are complicated and the world that we've created is really complicated. And so I think it's emotional immaturity. As a culture we need to get some emotional intelligence. These people who are just like, "Everything's going to be great", "We've got this under control"...that has to do with an overabundance of privilege to me. This world where everything's perfect and we've got it under control, I've never seen that world. And I think that if I were to see that world now, I would be very confused by it, I would be really alarmed by it. Because if I'm seeing this world, that means what's happening for someone else, I'd be really worried.

And then on the other end of it, "We're doomed"... I think about one of my favorite books that I read when I was a kid, called Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes. It's a novel about this black town [in] the 30s, people don't have a lot of money, they're living under Jim Crow/apartheid. But he detailed these scenes where people were still happy and still loved each other, and as hard as life was, it was not without laughter. And so even if we are doomed, this whole idea of "just give up" doesn't make sense to me either. Even if you lose, the idea of just not even trying, that doesn't make sense. There's a peom by Claude McKay called "If We Must Die." And the whole basis of it is [to be] pinned to the wall dying but fighting back. I think about that every time somebody's like, "Just give up."

BW: Dignity to the very last moment.

MAH: Yeah.

BW: Your writing has become very visible over the last year and-

MAH: Oh my God, don't say that. That sounds so scary.

BW: I think I saw a tweet that you put out there saying that you had something like 30 followers and now you've got many thousands and it's been a rapid ascension for you. I'm just wondering what you think it is about your writing that's resonating so much with people right now.

MAH: To be honest, I am straight up in denial of that ascension that you just mentioned. So I have not really adjusted or embraced it and I feel like I'll wake up tomorrow and it will all be over, but that hasn't happened yet. I think what people are attracted to about my writing is I've been very deliberate about lowering the threshold anxiety. The way that climate has been written about for such a long time has been this strong, strong emphasis on science. And I get it, but not everybody understands science. Not everybody likes science. I deliberately chose my college so that I could avoid math and science! But everyone has feelings. Everyone understands emotions, or at least can try to. That is universal. And I frame climate as a justice issue, people understand justice from the time that we're two years old. You understand that your sibling got more candy than you get and that that's not fair. But you don't understand climate science and you don't have to, to understand the injustice of this, to want to fight this. I abide by the laws of gravity, but I don't know anything about physics. I don't even know gravity is physics. So do I really need to understand all the particulars of climate science to get involved in the climate movement? 

If that's the price of admission, we're keeping so many people out and we need all of those people.