Migrations, by Charlotte McConaghy

Literary Threads S02, E01


You subscribed to this newsletter about books, once. I wrote a few editions and then the whole pandemic thing happened and writing this newsletter was not one of the 3 things I was capable of doing. Reading, however, was one of the 3 things, and I’ve read a lot in the past year. If you’re still interested in books, I’m still interested in writing about them.

In January I wrote thousands of words for work. Words about webpage performance and product roadmaps and programmatic advertising. The words were helpful for my coworkers but they are boring as fuck as far as words go, and I need to give myself the opportunity to write words about hope and justice and liberation, and my belief that these concepts are still possible. This newsletter is a good place for some of those words.

Here’s the new plan for this. Forget lofty themes where I assemble a curated book list on a topic, with summaries or recommendations. Rather, I am going to choose a book I love, and then sit down in front of my bookshelves and—using the first book as a jumping off point—follow a thread around my bookshelf to see what conversations I find. I’ll link the books as they enter the conversation. I hope you enjoy.

I do not recall what led me to request Migrations from the library. The Chattanooga library texts me when my holds are available, and I drive over to pick them up (curbside delivery because Pandemic!) and then go home and read them, even when I don’t remember asking for them.

Migrations, is a book about grief. A book about climate change, set in a nearish future where the climate crisis has continued on its brutal path. A book about how hard it is keep going when everything around you is a crisis, when it has always been a crisis, when you feel like a crisis. It is—wonderfully—a book about hope, and about how the long, slow process of wrestling with grief may never be resolved but perhaps it can be survived and beauty can yet exist in a grief-filled world.

Is it possible to discuss hope amongst despair without turning to Rebecca Solnit? Her book Hope in the Dark is a necessary, illuminating analysis of what hope means. In the first chapter she sets forth her thesis:

Hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action, action is impossible without hope.

Hope, the activist Mariame Kaba reminds us, is a discipline. Kaba has a book coming out this month that I think would sit well in this conversation, I can’t wait to read it.

The griefs explored in Migrations range from personal to global and the book is unflinching in its exploration of how poor the western world’s tools are for dealing with these sorts of emotional traumas. In the absence of cultural tools that help us collectively address grief, that might allow us to collectively mourn and seek better paths, we instead are navigating broken systems, often feeling quite isolated, struggling to seek out our comrades. Rather than enjoying community structures that might help us make sense of the varying crises we find ourselves in, we experience overwhelming emotions that quite reasonably lead to despair.

But there are people organizing, people who want us to join in the fight.  Comrades exist. I was reminded of this reading Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger by Julie Sze, a short book that surveys the Environmental Justice fight and how it manifests across the US.  She looks to the Standing Rock blockade, the organizing in Flint, and the aftermaths of Hurricanes Katrina and Maria to find examples of organizing, of hope, of movements dedicated not just to a narrow goal of dismantling fossil fuel infrastructure, but to a vision of a world that does not reify the injustices and horrors that this crisis have been built on. Sometimes our fight for that “possible other world” seems irrational, feels impossible, is damn near guaranteed to fail. And yet, we have a lot of evidence that “damn near guaranteed” is not the same as “guaranteed.” Sze’s book finds plenty of places where comrades are organizing and fighting to avoid the future that Migrations envisions.

The examples and analysis in the book are helpful for mapping environmental justice and seeing the possibilities organizers are trying to manifest as they carve out space for different arrangements, but I’m quite wary of recommending Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger because of what it does not contain: any mention of disability. There is an entire fucking chapter looking at the injustices of Flint’s water crisis and the author is explicit in her analysis of how the state behavior manifests white supremacy and settler-colonialism, but there is—unless I somehow missed what I was intentionally seeking out—not one use of the word disability. Not one mention of the ways that Flint’s citizens are being disabled through poisoned water and institutional discrimination. Not one insight into how—if one uses an intersectional framework for understanding marginalization and identity—America is almost singularly horrific in the ways being disabled compounds the injustices that people must navigate to survive, due to our privatized healthcare and bureaucratic welfare system. This omission, in a book attempting to summarize a movement dealing with systemic injustices, was egregious and unforgivable.

Thankfully, as I skim my shelves I see Mikki Kendall’s briliant Hood Feminism and I’m reminded that there are books that make the case for justice without omitting some categories of oppression. Kendall’s book, because of racial/publishing categorization, might not make it onto a lot of Environmental Justice reading lists, but it should. Hood Feminism is an excellent analysis of the ways systemic racial injustice due to white supremacy, patriarchy, ableism, eugenics, classism, urban planning, neoliberal politics (and more) has impacted Black women, and Kendall presents clear arguments for what needs to change in feminist movements to account for these injustices. Unlike Sze’s book, which seems to work really hard to avoid disability, Kendall consistently recognizes that disability is a contributing factor that increases or affects the impacts of the systems she is analyzing. If Sze’s book is helpful for understanding the political analysis of the Environmental Justice movement, then Kendall’s book is (among other things) a much better analysis of the injustices that the climate movement must grapple with and center, as it gains steam.

There is one other book I’ve read recently which the conversation above did not segue into well, but I need to put in dialogue with Migrations. In January, Andreas Malm, a climate writer and activist, published a new book with the delightful title How to Blow Up a Pipeline. It—deceptively—does not actually contain instructions for such an act. Instead it asks us to examine and question the current climate movement’s principles of non-violence. 

In Migrations the main character Franny has a quasi-troubled relationship with the law throughout the book, in ways I won’t spoil. The book suggests in its quiet way (it is a rip-roaring sea adventure that is tonally rather quiet and subdued) that human institutions like the law must not be conflated with justice or liberation. What is good and right is not always what is legal, and this distinction matters.

Malm is more direct in his analysis. His short, clear book methodically examines the questions and objections typically put forth about “violent protests;” asking the reader to examine the strange logic that claims destroying property (without harming humans) is “violent” despite the fact that when the property in question is fossil fuel infrastructure, its very existence and usage is a form of not-very-metaphorical murder. Looking at potential historical corollary movements around the world such as abolition, apartheid, and the civil rights movement, he makes a strong case that “non-violent” movements are often narrativized in this way because they were successful, and we edited out the methods and events that were less pleasing to fit our ideas of what brings success. I found his analysis and case compelling.

Migrations follows a character as she attempts to go to the literal ends of the earth in order to process her grief. What she finds is that grief and the loss of nearly everything is not the same as grief and the actual loss of everything. This distinction—this discovery that everything is not yet lost—is cause for hope in the book and cause for hope in us, who are not characters in a novel but inhabitants of a planet in deep crisis.

Everywhere we look there is so much crisis. We are so fucked, but we are not yet completely fucked. We can still fight to intervene in the systems that are carrying us towards various forms of destruction, and our interventions can create space for liberation. For justice. For saving what has not yet been lost, and for sowing the seeds of worlds that are possible but not yet achievable. These books are all a welcome reminder of everything we can fight for.

Happy reading!


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