Storytelling the Flood: Elizabeth Rush on Empathy and Climate Change

In her new book, Elizabeth Rush gives voice to poor communities and communities of color who are the first victims of the rising sea.

Bradley Babendir | Longreads | June 2018 | 16 minutes (4,357 words)

In Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore (Milkweed Editions), Elizabeth Rush visits people and communities made immediately vulnerable by the rising sea levels that are brought on by climate change. She interviews people who have lost their homes, their loved ones, and the world they once knew to flooding and other disasters. Some just want to be able to afford to leave, while others are willing to withstand everything to stay.

Rush pushes through the rhetoric around climate change to look closely at the consequences. Not the ones that will happen at some point down the road, but the ones that are happening now. She travels from Louisiana to Florida to California and elsewhere to see and try her best to understand what it is like to lose the ground beneath your feet.

We talked by phone about what led her to this book, what carried her through this book, and what comes next for her and her subjects.

Bradley Babendir: Before we get to Rising, I’d like to hear about your background. You’re not a writer who has specifically focused on the environment or climate change.

Elizabeth Rush: I studied poetry as an undergrad at Reed College. Reed is this really hyper intellectual school and if you want to write a creative thesis you have to petition to do so. I remember having to put together a 10-page application to spend a year writing poetry. And I got it.

I studied under this really amazing poet named Katie Ford. I think I’ve always loved and written lyric poems, and started out often writing lyric poems about, in particular, women and their relationship to the environment and how they use their body to navigate space. But graduating from Reed in Oregon in 2006, I realized me and every other citizen of Oregon wants to write poems about the environment. So I left, and moved to Vietnam.

I lived in Vietnam for two and a half years and then in New York City. I still wrote about Southeast Asia primarily during that time. My first job out of college was as the arts writer for an art foundation in North Vietnam that supported controversial North Vietnamese Artists. So I got to meet all these artists and write publicity material and profiles and stuff.

Staten Island was really severely hit by [Hurricane Sandy]. Our campus closed for a while. When we reopened a lot of my students were just gone…. There is a way in which the early impacts of sea level rise and stronger storms are manifesting that are really different than they are in Bangladesh. But it’s also leading to displacement.

And how did your first book, Still Lifes from a Vanishing City come about?

I was living in Southeast Asia and a publisher approached me and said, “I know that you really like Myanmar.” I often went there on my breaks from work. He was like, “I really like your writing. Do You want to write a book about Myanmar.” And I did.

The publisher did a lot of travel writing and I didn’t really want to write a standard travel narrative. What was really fascinating to me was that I had just read this article that said that the military Junta was auctioning off all of their state owned assets. That meant that a lot of the buildings that I loved in downtown Yangon were going to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Yangon is a city that has been relatively untouched by the Western development that has descended on various parts of Asia over the past couple of decades. Because the country was socialist, you had all different sorts of classes of people living downtown. The city itself felt like a fairly egalitarian space, as far as cities go. I figured all of that was going to disappear.

I got a list of every single building that was on the auction block and spent two years on and off, going door to door and interviewing everyone who is being evicted by the Junta through the auction process. And I talked to them about what their home meant to them and what it meant to them to be leaving their homes and how they were making peace with that and what parts of their community they were going to try to continue somehow. I took photos in every single home interview.

And so the first book is like this interesting, strange, super esoteric mash-up of photographs from inside these homes that are about to be auctioned and demolished. And then lyric essays meditate from the perspective of the homeowner on what it means to lose their home. It might seem really different from Rising on the surface but I think a lot of the questions that I was interested in then are not that dissimilar from the one’s I’m asking in Rising.

How did you come to the project that turned into Rising? In the introduction you mention that a reporting trip in Bangladesh got you thinking about sea level rise.

I was in New York part time when I was finishing Still Life from a Vanishing City. Because all of my professional connections were in Southeast Asia I often traveled back for work. I got hired to do a story on the completion of the world’s longest border fence between India and Bangladesh.

What was really fascinating to me was that in Bangladesh, you could bribe your way through, you could pass through the fence in the middle of the night. The fence was a technicality, and water was the real problem. It turned out that India had been diverting a lot of the Ganges River’s flow to aid in upstream irrigation and the growth of crops in areas that might not necessarily be super suited to agriculture. That was having this really profound negative impact on farmers in Bangladesh because the disappearance of fresh water in the aquifer meant that saltwater was able to seep in even further inland and more quickly.

In Bangladesh, I remember walking for hours behinds this really young boy who was telling me they used to be able to farm close to their village and now they can’t because the saline has already arrived in the water. So now they have to walk two hours to get to this area and it’s already showing signs of a saline inundation in the aquifer. They’re probably going to have to leave their family’s land. I realized then that of course sea level rise is with us now in the present. But it’s also very much exacerbated by human interventions in the environment. Diversions in the Ganges River’s flow is accelerating sea level rise in Bangladesh in its early impact.

What made you want to write about cities in the United States as opposed to city’s in other countries?

I also realized when I got back to the U.S. that if I write another story about how Bangladesh is drowning, it’s very easy for people here to tune out. It was a couple of months after that research trip that Hurricane Sandy inundated 400,000 people in New York City. And while I wasn’t one of them, I was teaching at the College of Staten Island at the time and Staten Island was really severely hit by the storm. Our campus closed for a while.

When we reopened a lot of my students were just gone. A lot of them were students who were working through college. They would be living in temporary housing in Jersey and have to commute to work. Commuting to work and to school became too much and school took a back seat to keeping an income coming in. There is a way in which the early impacts of sea level rise and stronger storms are manifesting that are really different than they are in Bangladesh. But it’s also leading to displacement. Some of my students never would return to Staten Island. Some would participate in this huge buyout that took place across Staten Island’s eastern shore where entire neighborhoods were bulldozed. I think that’s the moment when the book as a possibility opened up for me.

What was the biggest change between your original idea of how the book would be structured and how it turned out?

The most fundamental way its changed is up until about a year ago there were testimonies from scientists as well as citizens. So the book oscillates between first person lyric reportage in different coastal communities coming to terms with sea level rise and firsthand accounts written entirely in the voice of residents of the communities about the moment that woke them up to the reality of sea level rise and its aftermath, and what they’ve decided to do with that knowledge. For a while I also had testimonies from scientists, talking in a personal way about the different ways in which the science of sea level rise was impacting those communities and their idea of what community was and what plants and animals could live there and my very wise editor at Milkweed said, listen if you want to keep the testimonies and we have to pare them down.

One of my primary concerns when writing this book was how to reach an audience that isn’t necessarily going to pick up a climate change book and it seemed to me like talking about carbon taxes and mitigation and offsets is language that we deploy in an insider’s game of baseball or something like that.

That was a choice I found really interesting. There’s not a lot of talk about energy or decarbonizing or other more jargony concepts.

I definitely believe in mitigation and I think it’s a really important part of the whole equation. I also think it’s very easy for us to tune that language out. I think it does sound a bit jargony. One of my primary concerns when writing this book was how to reach an audience that isn’t necessarily going to pick up a climate change book and it seemed to me like talking about carbon taxes and mitigation and offsets is language that we deploy in an insider’s game of baseball or something like that. I was trying to reach a new audience and I didn’t want to use language that I think is so easily and often politicized.

Instead, I decided to centralize the lived experience of people in these communities, the lived experience of people who aren’t going to be poster children for environmental movements but who have to make really difficult decisions about what you do when your community is under water multiple times every year.

I thought that the prose in the book was really interesting and it seems like very little writing on climate changes tries —

To be good writing first? [Laughs] I agree.

So I was wondering if that was just your writing style that you were going to bring to any kind of project that you were working on, or if you had a specific approach stylistically with this book?

I exist on the poles. I trained as a poet and when I was living in Southeast Asia I could make my living as a journalist. I definitely wrote some early, pretty straightforward pieces on sea level rise in a much more journalistic register. That allowed me to get comfortable with the terminology and to steep myself in the subject matter.

About a year and half into working that beat I started to feel like I was fatigued with the language. I also thought, maybe this project could help me return to both the poetic roots and the environmental writing roots that have always been a big part of who I read and why I read. I applied for a fellowship at Bates College that would have me teach only one class a semester and get full pay for it and I used that time to write Rising and to go back to my early research trips around sea level rise and also conduct some new interviews in different communities.

As the project itself took shape, I found out how to write with prose that is, on its own, deeply engaging. I didn’t want to write a book that leaned into the facts. I wanted to make the language itself part of what helped keep a person reading. And I think Milkweed was also a really great collaborator in that undertaking. My editor there was amazing. Small independent presses can also pay attention to your book through its various stages of development.


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Speaking of your research trips, I was wondering how you initially learned about the places you cover in the book and how you decided which ones to write about.

Primarily, I was looking for places that weren’t going to get funding for big infrastructure projects. For instance, if you go down to Miami Beach, they’re doing a lot to raise roads and to pump salt water out of the street. The areas that are most interesting to me are places like Shorecrest and Hialeah where you have majority Latinx communities that are flooded — just like, there’s flooding on the beach — but instead of it getting pumped out, residents are expected to take off their shoes and walk through the water. Their houses are losing value as a result of that.

Some of it is a little bit of chance and circumstance, like I was teaching at the College of Staten Island and there was this amazing grassroots buyout movement where residents were asking for their homes to be bulldozed after Sandy.

One of the things that I thought was great in the book was your focus on communities of color, and I’m interested in how you built the book’s political world. You express a political argument through examples, which is an interesting thing, and separates it from other climate writing that might have been more forceful or polemical. How did you strike that balance?

In some ways, it is similar to how I felt about whether or not to put mitigation and language around mitigation at the center of the book. I think that we have a moment where we’re waking up to an awareness of racism and environmental justice and climate change and how these concerns overlap in ways that are really important and can pave the way for, if we don’t do anything about them, increasingly unjust and inequitable futures. And yet, I think a lot of the writing about those subjects exists in exactly the register I just used. I felt like I had to find a way to write about them that could break through.

So I think I was just sort of using my same old writer’s awareness of ‘don’t say the same thing that’s been said before.’ If you’re going to say it, you have to say it in some way that’s fundamentally new or at least makes the reader pay attention. Grounding a lot of the discussions in deeply personal experiences told verbatim by people in these situations was one way that I worked to cut through the thickness of that language. That’s what moved me when I was in those communities, was to hear the very specific and personal and difficult set of decisions that people face and to hear the stories that surround them. Then I could back up and understand the larger structural reasons that people find themselves in their own shoes, making those difficult decisions.

For me, when I arrived, those stories are what cut through the noise. So I wanted to carry my readers into that experience.

I was in those communities… to hear the very specific and personal and difficult set of decisions that people face and to hear the stories that surround them… For me, those stories are what cut through the noise. So I wanted to carry my readers into that experience.

You obviously have a background in reporting on difficult topics and talking to people that are going through things that are really difficult. I was wondering what the emotional experience of writing this book was for you. It’s certainly something that I feel like I wouldn’t have the stomach for.

That’s a question I’ve thought a lot about, actually. People are also really curious about it. It is a really heavy subject and the thing that carried me through the research process intact were those same stories. Yes, hearing firsthand about what it’s like to live through multiple storms and, in one case, to lose a family member in those storms or to completely lose a home to those storms was hard. I was really just impressed by how fundamental storytelling can be to the recovery of an individual and also a community.

What struck me as really profound is that when faced with a set of really difficult decisions human beings have the ability to make a choice. And often, I think that our government has a responsibility to help, in particular disadvantaged communities, make those choices. They’re more difficult to make in certain situations than in others. But they’re also not always the same decisions available to plants and animals who live in our wetland communities. And so in this weird way, I was also repeatedly reminded of the choices that human beings have and the stories that we can tell ourselves, our families, our neighbors or fellow citizens that can serve as guiding examples and help us navigate through periods of tremendous grief and loss and mourning.

That feels like an adaptive ability that might be fairly unique to humans. I don’t think we’re the only species that can communicate but I sometimes wonder if we have the most robust storytelling capability. And so I guess that was the thing that kept me — horrible water pun — kept me afloat. That and lots of really regular exercise. Like, chemical endorphins pumping in my brain also help.

Rising also contains some information about your personal life, including a few details about a break-up and how you were subjected to sexual harassment, and I was wondering if you were always planning on including that in the book? Or did they work their way in?

In one case, I’m writing about being sexually harassed in the workplace and, in the other, I’m writing about leaving a fairly abusive relationship. In the most immediate sense, those things refused to not be in the book. I definitely tried to keep them out of the book for a long time. As happens with any essay that you work on, you work on it again and again and again and revise and expand and revise and expand. Especially with the two different parts that you’re referencing, as soon as I let that little sliver of my personal life into the essay, the logic behind the essay started to reveal itself to me in a way that then made the inclusion of that personal information feel integral to the way that essay functioned.

I was, at first, really reticent because I didn’t want to say, ‘oh, you know, leaving your island community is the same as leaving your fiancé.’ I don’t think they’re synonymous. I was very cautious because I didn’t want readers to feel that I was making exactly that parallel or comparison. But I also felt like, here’s how I was thinking about vulnerability and risk. In a lot of the communities, I found that, as a white person of privilege who gets to leave, a way for me to get to know the people that I was writing about was also to expose myself to them, to not just be a reporter who was mining the community for stories, but to be a human being in conversation with them and to talk about, you know, [how] they understand vulnerability this way or I understand risk this way.

That creation of a common ground was really important to the research process. There’s the logic in which that’s the closest I can come to understand what it’s like to be penniless and continuously under threat. My goal is also to help folks who don’t necessarily live under the stress of constant flooding understand what it might be like.

It has many reasons for being there but the most fundamental is that it refused to not be there.

There are a few quotes in the book from Leslie Jamison’s essay “The Empathy Exams” and you use them to write more broadly on empathy as an emotion and craft. How did the idea of empathy change for you over the course of writing the book? What does it mean to you now?

I don’t really have an answer. I don’t think I’ve reached the final point with what empathy means to me. It’s an ongoing journey. One thing that I became more keenly aware of through writing Rising — and this is definitely something that Leslie Jamison speaks to and of — was that I started to become suspicious of the emotional satisfaction. Like, I am going to and reporting on these underprivileged communities and I’m working to share their stories about not having the same options as residents of Lower Manhattan or wherever. And I’m also working on getting their voices — not my interpretation of their voice but their actual voice — in the conversation. In which case, I’m just sort of like a conduit. Over the course of writing the book, I became a little bit more skeptical and aware of how I can feel that doing this work is an end in and of itself. It can sort of be appeasing emotionally, in terms of thinking about how do you combat inequality and persistent racial and class structures that exist in the United States. The book, as a project, helped me feel like I was speaking directly to and into those conversations.

And yet, as soon as I stopped writing it, I was very aware that it was one form of activism and one form of empathy but that I wanted to feel like I was doing more to help the communities that I write about have better access to information and resources and funding. I have been teaming up with a group called Flood Forum USA. It’s the first nationwide coalition of flood survivors. It’s working really hard to inform public policy at the local, state and federal level around how we deal with disaster recovery and flooding in particular. Empathy is a practice and for I while I was practicing empathy through my writing. But by the end of Rising that no longer felt like enough.

What struck me as really profound is that when faced with a set of really difficult decisions human beings have the ability to make a choice… I was also repeatedly reminded of the choices that human beings have and the stories that we can tell… that can serve as guiding examples and help us navigate through periods of tremendous grief and loss and mourning.

One of the things that fascinated me was towards the end when you were writing about California and the person you were talking to who was working to preserve the wetlands didn’t know that there had been retreat from other places, like Staten Island which you mentioned earlier.

In a weird way that is also part of why I wanted to write this book. As I started five years ago just researching these communities and spending time in them, the thing I heard again and again was ‘we feel so alone with this, no one else is going through what we’re going through. There aren’t a lot of clear cut blueprints for how to deal with this set of issues.’ And I would always be like… but you aren’t alone. There are other communities. A lot of them. You’re all around the country. I think that needle is starting to shift. Like with the advent of this nationwide organization of flood survivors. They started like six months ago. I mean it’s really new to have folks in disadvantaged coastal communities aware of one another and come together and using their collective will or might. That was part of what fascinated me and made me feel like there was a deep need for this book.

Is there something local about how people see their wetlands that makes that type of thing more likely?

I’ve never really thought of it that way exactly, but when you put it that way, I think it could make sense. Wetlands are just not a very sexy topic. In our set of environmental sublime they don’t ever appear because they tend to be categorized as gross or muddy or yucky or sulfurous. And also unfit for human habitation. They have this bad or nonexistent reputation. That could certainly be part of why they don’t get a lot of attention in a way that would amplify the concerns of communities in these spaces. Does a story about a local wetland in the Providence Journal get picked up by the New York Times? No. The nature of these spaces themselves and where these communities are located could also contribute to the lack of communication that’s taking place amongst and between them for sure.

A vicious circle kind of wrapped up in this is the way that a lot of climate change writing is theoretical and jargony, like we talked about, and it’s about what is going to happen later.

Yes. “Your children are going to inherit an unlivable planet.”

Yes exactly. And the whole thrust of this book is that it’s not just a problem for tomorrow. It’s something that’s happening to people right now. It’s also going to get worse, but it’s something that people are dealing with right now. I don’t see that many articles or essays that take that track. Do you have any ideas about why people are attracted to writing about it like it’s not already happening and there aren’t already people being displaced?

That needle is starting to move a little bit as well. But certainly when I started writing Rising, almost all of the writing was future oriented. One of the reasons that was happening was because when you write about the future of climate change you can imagine yourself 200 years out and when you imagine yourself 200 years out the oceans are 10 feet higher or 15 feet higher. It opens up the possibility of speaking in really catastrophic terms. For a while people thought we just had to make the future sound horrible and apocalyptic and that’s what’s going to wake people up and spur them into action.

I think, often, that apocalyptic register led to feelings of despair and inability to take any kind of action. In some ways, the public conversation was often taking place in that register five years ago, four years ago, or three years ago. Maybe with the hurricane season of last year it started to shift more into the present. I also think as the general level of climate change awareness has gone up, people are starting to realize that the apocalyptic register might undermine the “so what do we do now?” question. If it’s the end of the world, let’s party on a sinking ship. So I think that in general climate change communicators are starting to walk back and away from that narrative as well. Which I think is a good thing.

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Bradley Babendir is a freelancer and fiction writer living in Boston. His work has been published by The Washington Post, The Nation, and elsewhere.

Editor: Dana Snitzky