Danny Bloom
I seek the truth wherever it lies.

‘Beach reads’ to finish before the ocean rises: intro to ‘Cli-Fi’ in the 2020s

We are starting a new monthly ”cli-fi trends” literary column with this post, and we intend to keep posting for 12 months and then see where we are. There’s so much to talk about and this current decade is right in the middle of it all. Are you listening Donald Trump? Are you listening Greta Thunberg?

See you in 30 days when the next column appears. It will focus on Kim Stanley Robinson’s new cli-fi novel set for an October release.

Omar El Akkad’s popular novel, published in 2017 and titled “American War,” was the first foray into cli-fi for many readers, and in many ways it exemplified the genre. Beginning with a map of the United States in which coastal states are mostly submerged, the story imagines the future if climate change continues unchecked. Set in the year 2074,some 50 years from now, it tells the story of an American climate refugee and her role in the second civil war, this one fought over scarce resources.

Yes, reckoning with climate change in fiction is on the literary agenda in a big way now in 2020.

Omar El Akkad, a Canadian journalist and novelist, recently discussed cli-fi and his 2017 novel which centered on an imagined future in which the U.S. had been ravaged by climate change, plague and civil war. In a recent online discussion, Mr El Akkad talked with a reporter in America about what matters to him most these days.

Cli-fi is literature, short stories, prose and poetry that take a serious look at climate change.

Frequent themes in works of cli-fi include family issues, literary education, academic issues and whether it’s right or wrong to have children in this day and age.

According to Mr. El Akkad, a work of fiction doesn’t have to perfectly predict what will happen — as long as it is written in good faith and with science as a consideration, it can have value.

After El Akkad re-read a passage from his debut novel, he said:

“I think this is true with a lot of cli-fi type books or books that fall in that genre — it’s read differently as the moment changes. I read my 2017 novel very differently now when literally outside my window right now, I can’t see to the end of my backyard — that’s how thick the smoke is in Oregon right now where I live.”

El Akkad said it is the first time he’s re-read a passage of his book during the current moment of pandemic and wildfires.

The Oregon-based author said he began writing the novel in 2014 with the intention of working against the ease with which Americans can ignore the suffering of others. He published it three years later. Now in 2020, he is taking stock again.

“I took the hallmarks of the defining conflicts of my lifetime — so the last 40 years,” El Akkad said. “And these are conflicts in which the U.S. involvement has either been indirect or from a great distance, and I recast them in the heart of the empire. The whole point is to say, ‘Look, look at this.'”

In his book, set decades in the future, the United States is torn apart by a fossil fuel-related civil war. Parts of El Akkad’s novel were about Guantanamo Bay and Afghanistan, places he covered as a journalist when he worked as a foreign correspondent for a Canadian newspaper chain.

According to literary critics and academics who study the rising new genre, cli-fi can resonate with readers, with research at Yale and Tufts indicating that cli-fi (a term coined by a Tufts alum in 2011) encourages readers to have empathy for climate refugees and to discuss climate change with families and friends.

For El Akkad, who is a new father for the second time, a work of cli-fi by British novelist Megan Hunter in which a mother escapes a flooded London resonated with him as a father.

“It has resonated more than almost anything else, fiction or non-fiction, I have read about the current climate moment,” he said. “Because what I’m thinking about is not the physical disaster what I’m thinking about is the emotional component of (having) a 10-day-old child.”

His second child was born just days before wildfires started near where he lives in Oregon, he said.

“All I can think about is the kind of world this child is going to have to grow up in and my utter impotence in protecting him,” El Akkad shared. “There’s literally nothing I can do to make any sort of dent in these wildfires that are going on right now. I am utterly stripped of agency in front of the biggest calamity staring me down.”

Added to the literal disasters is the weight of the knowledge today’s children will have to bear, learning that people knew about the potential dangers of climate change and did not do enough to stop it, he said.

“Those two things —  the amount of suffering that a new generation is going to have to deal with and knowing that it could have been prevented is a kind of overwhelming grief and that novel by Hunter (”The End We Start From”) tackles that in a way that renders the specific of the crisis, the specifics of the physical disaster almost irrelevant,” he said. “That is the power of cli-fi when it is done well. It completely supersedes whether it is a storm or a wildfire or whatever disaster is at the heart of it.”

About the Author
Danny Bloom is editor of The Cli-Fi Report at www.cli-fi.net. Danny graduated from Tufts University in Boston in 1971 with a major in Yiddish Literature. A newspaper editor and reporter since his days in Alaska, Japan and Taiwan, he has lived and worked in 14 countries and speaks French, Japanese and Chinese. He hopes to live until 2032, when his tombstone will read "I came, I saw, I ate cho-dofu."
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