This Month In Books: Botanize Your Past To Save the Future

Jaredd Craig / Unsplash

Dear Reader,

This month’s books newsletter is overflowing with regional fiction and travel writing. Kali Fajardo-Anstine and Bryan Washington have both written short story collections set in the cities they are from (in Washington’s Lot, each story is even named after a different street in Houston) and featuring characters that are representative of the communities the authors grew up in. Speaking about her collection Sabrina & Corina Fajardo-Anstine describes her struggle to stake out physical space in literature for herself and for the Chicano and Indigenous community she is a part of:

I’m always writing against this idea that Denver’s a white space … How does my community loom so large in my consciousness and in all the choices I make, but when I talk to people on the street they’re like, “What do you mean you’re from Colorado? What do you mean there are brown people here?”

In an essay from his new collection This One Will Hurt You, Paul Crenshaw also writes about his childhood home: in the hills of Arkansas, in a rented house on the grounds of an asylum where his mother was an employee. Crenshaw revisits his old home in search of ghosts, both figurative and literal.

Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift and Nathan Englander’s kaddish.com are novels set respectively in Zambia (the book takes its title from a region near Victoria Falls) and in the transitional space along the “commute from Jerusalem to Manhattan” that is commonly made by Orthodox Jewish New Yorkers (“for the people who are financially able to travel that way, Orthodox New York and Jerusalem almost touch,” says Englander).

Some other books in the newsletter this month that feel particularly grounded in space and place are Alex Kotlowitz’s An American Summer (Chicago); Delphine Minoui’s I’m Writing You From Tehran (Tehran, of course); Yuval Taylor’s Zora and Langston (the American South, on the road between Mobile and Tuskegee); and Will Hunt’s Underground, in which Hunt recounts an astonishing adventure: his three-day expedition to walk across Paris entirely underground. “Paris’s relationship to its subterranean landscape [is] a connection … more obsessive, and more intimate than that of perhaps any city in the world,” writes Hunt, interlacing the narrative of his expedition with a history of Paris’s subterranean side.


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Of course, all of these books, not just Hunt’s, use history to some extent — to situate a story in time, to play with the implications of the past on the present and the present on the future. Most books in general, you could say, do something to that effect. But somehow, in the newsletter this month, the overall implication of so many books located so precisely in space, at such fixed points in time, has, for me, a disconcerting — or dislocating? — effect.

The books themselves, as books are wont to do, deal with the dislocation just as much as the location created by their narratives; they address time’s messiness as much as its tidiness. Fajardo-Anstine, speaking about gentrification in Denver, says,

When I drive by one of the old houses that used to belong to my family, I’m triggered. It’s a deep, deep grief. I think there are a lot of people walking around mourning. You don’t recognize your space anymore. You don’t have access to your space.

Speaking about gun violence in Chicago, Alex Kotlowitz grapples with the unboundedness of the disaster — the lack of temporal markers, either beginnings or ends, for the victims and survivors:

On one level or another, [the survivors] were all suffering from post-traumatic stress. Though, ‘post’ may not be quite right. Because again, they’re still in the midst of it … In a war, there’s a sense that some day there might be resolution to the conflict. Somebody’s going to win or lose. And that’s not the case here. Nobody sees a way out.

Bryan Washington’s elegant short story “Navigation” touches on, I think, a similar notion, in the context of a conversation between two lovers, one of whom is teaching the other Spanish:

He wanted to know why every morning had to be bueno.

Some days are just bad, he said. Some people live their whole lives and not a single good thing happens to them.

I told him those were just the rules. He should follow them unless he had something new to say.

Speaking about his latest Trainspotting sequel, Dead Men’s Trousers, Irvine Welsh says that he, and his Trainspotting characters, have become more dislocated with time:

It’s not just me, it’s also a lot of people’s experience now. To kind of have any success at all, you have to chase money, you have to chase different markets, you have to chase different cultural experiences, you have to go into different territories and operate, and that takes a lot of time. It places a burden on your life as well … And that’s one of the costs of the modern era, so many people just don’t have enough work, and they can’t make enough money. And other people who can make enough money, they’re just working all the time, they don’t have a chance to enjoy it. Both the massive inequity of wealth is also a massive inequity of work, in the way it’s kind of shared around.

I know people now who are just on and off planes all the time. They’re people who are not on huge money and huge salaries, they’re just jumping on and off planes and doing things all over the place and living in Holiday Inns and all that and trying to eke out a living, basically. And so that’s really the kind of riddle of all of this, now, eh?

Welsh also says:

I think that so much of what we’re doing now, so much of the politics, the way people react and everything, is very much based on emotion, and it’s based on a fear that there is this existential threat to us, but we don’t quite know what it is.

But, of course, as we all know — as we almost all sort of know — and as Welsh goes on to say — the unknowable, unspeakable threat is global warming.

More accurately, though, as I think Jenny Odell, artist and author of How To Do Nothing, would explain it: the threat is our inability to deal with global warming. In Rebecca McCarthy’s profile of Odell for Longreads, Odell talks about her new interest in bioregionalism and ‘retro-botany’:

“I’ve been using this term ‘retro botany,’” Odell tells me, “like botanizing your past?” She only recently learned what kind of tree was in front of the house she grew up in (Modesto Ash) and why they don’t plant them anymore (they attract aphids). “People talk a lot about how climate change is not … well, now it’s very palpable, but something that people were saying is that it’s so gradual you can’t perceive it. But there are populations of birds that, within a year, can disappear. And if you care about them and you like seeing them, you care about that in a really different way — it feels like a personal loss to you, it’s not a statistic.”

Paying attention to where we live — attention to where we really very specifically are, in space and in time — might give us the empathetic capacity to save the planet, is basically the idea. I hope it’s true. I’d like to try. McCarthy also writes something that I think gets at what I’ve been trying to say about location and time, about the feeling you get when you drive by a house you’ve been priced out of, or when you realize that every morning will not good:

I went … in search of a word that would help me explain what Odell’s work communicates and initially settled on shadowtime: “a feeling of living in two distinctly different temporal scales simultaneously, or acute consciousness of the possibility that the near future will be drastically different than the present.”

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky

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