Part XVIII Authors Who Tackle Climate Change in Fiction–Jaimee Wriston Colbert
Jaimee Wriston Colbert is the author of six books of fiction: Vanishing Acts, her new novel; Wild Things, linked stories, winner of the CNY 2017 Book Award in Fiction, finalist for the AmericanBookFest Best Books of 2017, and longlisted for the Chautauqua Prize; the novel Shark Girls, finalist for the USABookNews Best Books of 2010 and ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year; Dream Lives of Butterflies, winner of the IPPY Gold Medal Award for story collections; Climbing the God Tree, winner of the Willa Cather Fiction Prize, and Sex, Salvation, and the Automobile, winner of the Zephyr Prize. Her work has appeared in numerous journals, including The Gettysburg Review, New Letters, and Prairie Schooner, and broadcast on“Selected Shorts.” She was the 2012 recipient of the Ian MacMillan Fiction Prize for “Things Blow Up,” a story in Wild Things. Other stories won the Jane’s Stories Award and the Isotope Editor’s Fiction Prize. She is Professor of Creative Writing at SUNY, Binghamton University.
I interviewed Jaimee in 2016 when her book Wild Things was published. In our interview, we discussed the nature of Wild Things–a literary exploration of extinction and remnants of the wild things left on our planet. Reviewer Pam Houston had said of the novel (a collection of related tales):
Jaimee Wriston Colbert has written a book of deeply affecting elegies to the scattered remnants of wilderness, the some few wild things we still live among: blackbird, brown trout, reef shark, teenage girl.
Jaimee and I discussed how to live within this eulogy–and how writers chronicle our times. Her new book, Vanishing Acts, is newly out (March 1, Fomite Press). Vanishing Acts is the story of three generations of a troubled family, in the shadow of the Vietnam War to the 21st century perils of climate change, set in a Hawaii that is both fantastical and gritty in its portrayal of life down under the tropical dream. There was a time when sixteen year old Buddy’s life felt normal. Then an affair derails his parents’ marriage and his mother, with Buddy in tow, uproots their life in Maine to return to her childhood home in Volcano, Hawaii, and care for her aging mother. Madge, a former go-go dancer, is losing her grip on reality, as is Gwen, Buddy’s mother, who indulges in a steady cocktail of wine, Xanax, and Jesus. Meanwhile Buddy has become obsessed with one of his classmates, Marnie, whose fervent dream is to escape her broken family (and a damaging secret) to pursue a modeling career. She convinces Buddy to run away with her to Honolulu and live with her drug-dealer uncle. To find her son, Gwen grapples with the ghosts of her past and present, including her father, whose love of surfing and obsession with Houdini allowed him to become the ultimate escape artist.
The author “had me” at Hawai’i, an area where I have hiked through old botany-rich volcanoes and snorkeled and swam and bathed in the warm waves for hours on end beneath golden skies. I talked with Jaimee, who spoke of this beauty of the land, in terms of its mountains and deeply hued, sparkling seas, and a temperate climate that attracts visitors year round. Jaimee lived in Hawai’i years ago and has noticed the changing climate when she visits. It is getting hotter each year, with some areas now experiencing a persistent drought, and there are also warmer seas and dying coral. I recall snorkeling at Hanauma Bay, a nature preserve on Oahu. Before hitting the beach, everyone had to watch a short documentary about preserving coral. We were surprised to discover that much of the coral had already bleached and some was dead. According to Jaimee:
Hawai’i is known as “the extinction capitol of the world,” because it is home to a vast diversity of flora and fauna that appear nowhere else on our planet, and more native species of plants and animals disappear there daily than any other place. Much of this is due to the ongoing threats of invasive species, but the higher temperatures and sea-level rise have subjected many native species to huge amounts of stress.
She describes this fragile world as home to her novel, and one that parallels the delicate world of her characters. The physical environment is a palpable part of their world, not just a backdrop, and as Jamiee says, “It is as essential to their stories as the air they breathe.” Not only does water dry up but so do, sometimes, the spirits of her generational characters. This is a story of ordinary people going through loss and change, much like the planet does, and within this evolution are fractures and vanishment, illusion, freedom, and transformation. The evocation of hummingbirds and butterflies is not lost. The nod to earwigs, cockroaches, lice, empidids, even, is something to consider.
As humans our own stories are inevitably part of the immediate world we are living in, and so too as a writer setting is never just a backdrop to my character’s lives—it is as essential to their stories as the air they breathe. Thus, in the excerpt [at our Dragonfly Library], drought has left the lush Volcanic rainforest, “normally pungent and dripping with moisture, beads of it like sweat in the fronds of ferns… shrinking, turning in on itself in the strange Hawaiian winter heat.” The excerpt further reveals that Madge, one of the characters battling both dementia and a strong desire to be free, has escaped into the night and turned on the spigot to the water tank that serves their home (this area of Hawai’i island is on rainwater catchment), leaving it dry. Gwen, Madge’s daughter, had earlier described the affair that ended her marriage, marooning her and Buddy, her reluctant son, back in Hawaii, inviting comparisons to the dried-up land.
The author tells me:
Freedom and transformation in parallel to the environment is shown in the on-going metaphor of the Monarch butterfly’s metamorphosis. We see this motif in the first chapter and it continues through Madge’s chapters, her memories of her husband’s quest to find a way to transform a life of regrets into something greater, and how he looked to the metamorphosis of the Monarch as “perfection.” Madge, who as a child collected Monarch caterpillars to watch them cocoon and transform into a butterfly, is haunted by how she brought her jar to her mom one day to show her this magic, and found her mom dead from a possible poisoning, from the milk of the crown flower bushes that Monarchs in Hawaii feed off of. Ultimately, the Monarch butterfly itself is imperiled, its habitat disappearing, pesticides killing the milkweed it needs to complete its life cycle. Buddy, who besides his longing to have sex with his girlfriend, immerses himself in entomology, and points this out to his mom in several crucial scenes in the novel.
A land where the long-erupting volcano contributes wonder and wildness, a culturally-rich mythology and unpredictability, along with the poisonous sulphuric vog that blows across the island, killing parts of the native kipuka forests, the setting of Vanishing Acts is a reminder of both the power and beauty of our world, and its deeply imperiled plight under the stresses of climate change.
Vanishing Acts is a very good example of a modern literary novel that arouses the reader’s mindfulness to global warming, extinction, and the loss of biodiversity, meanwhile mirroring the planet’s demise in our personal relationships and downfalls. In both planet and person are beautiful and complicated systems, strength, failure, and intricate but fragile relationships. The novel is a brilliant journey in an exotic land, with flavorful characters and prose as lush and verdant as the volcanic rainforest’s.
The novel’s use of metaphor draws highly from the natural world, and it’s refreshing to see the infusion of literary eco-fiction in modern storytelling, where a tale does not forget our connection to, or parallels with, the landscape and ecosystems and climate crises surrounding us. In fact, the natural world doesn’t just shadow the characters, it looms around the story, alive and imaginative.
There’s something else going on in this story, too, beyond the scope of the beautiful Hawai’i-scape and page-turning drama of the characters. The underlying concept of illusion haunts the prose. Not everything we see is what we get. And what we get doesn’t always last. I love the idea of a surfer disappearing into a curling wave and though the surfer may still be there, traveling the tube, the surfer may not be present to our eye. These kinds of illusions shadow the story and provide literary commentary about our world–whether about the way it’s vanishing before our eyes to the awkward ideations underlying deception. And it’s a story about love too, which guides relationships and transforms us.