Burning Worlds is Amy Brady’s monthly column dedicated to examining trends in climate change fiction, or “cli-fi,” in partnership with Yale Climate Connections.
When I began this climate fiction column in early 2017, planet Earth had just closed out its hottest year on record. And 2017 was already shaping up to be another year dramatically impacted by global warming.
Sadly, it lived up to expectations.
As wild fires in the West consumed thousands of homes—of both people and animals—several hurricanes spun their deadly arms across the Atlantic, ultimately devastating Puerto Rico, many Caribbean islands, and multiple U.S. cities.
The American federal government turned a blind eye to climate change, but state governments and local municipalities are stepping up to make a difference. And writers from around the world continue to join them in the fight.
Case in point: This past October, writer C. Morgan Babst published her debut novel, The Floating World. Set in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the book introduces us to the Boisdorés, a family that can trace its ancestors back to the founding of New Orleans. When news of the approaching hurricane reaches them, Joe Boisdoré, an artist and descendant of a freed slave, leaves the city with his white upper-class wife, Tess. They leave behind their eldest daughter, Cora, who refuses to abandon her home. When the parents return, they find their daughter mute and trauma-stricken by what happened in their absence. Del, their youngest daughter, returns from New York to help figure out what happened to her sister, and discovers that to find answers, she must wrestle with the city’s racial and class tensions.
The Floating World is a beautiful novel that speaks profoundly to the current moment. Babst spoke with me about her inspiration for the book, the real-life effects of Hurricane Katrina on her beloved home town of New Orleans, and how climate change continues to impact the city’s most vulnerable populations.
You’re originally from New Orleans. Did the people and places you actually knew there influence this novel?
C. Morgan Babst
I wrote the novel in New York during what felt like a period of exile. I had wandered there while New Orleans was still under evacuation orders following Katrina—I’d left town with my family the day before landfall—and met my husband, gotten stuck. Terminally homesick, I began writing the novel as a way of transporting myself back, conjuring the city—its post-storm stench and greener fragrances, the sounds of its people and its music—with as much verisimilitude as I could manage.
However, with a couple of touchstone exceptions—Peristyle, The Blue Nile, a snippet of autobiography—the specific houses and characters of the novel were entirely imagined. Considering the magnitude of the losses that so many of my fellow New Orleanians had experienced, I wanted to be very sure my characters weren’t trespassing on anyone else’s property. Instead, I used the book to resurrect older ghosts. Though there are living Boisdorés in New Orleans, the family in my novel descends from an 18th-century man who, as far as I can tell, died without heirs, and I built the Boisdorés’ house on a parking lot on Esplanade where a house must once have stood.
The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season was one of the most active in recorded history. The news reports as hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Maria devastated several Caribbean Islands, Puerto Rico, and multiple major U.S. cities were harrowing and heartbreaking. The aftermath of those hurricanes, however, has been less reported—a fact that haunted me as I read your novel. Why did you decide to focus in the days and weeks after Katrina’s land fall instead of during the active storm?
C. Morgan Babst
Consider a car crash: Your tire blows, and you perceive a split second of panic, the shock of disbelief as your fender crumples into the telephone pole. Then you’re out of the car, your heart racing, and you think: I was just in a car crash. Am I hurt? How did that happen?
It’s only in the aftermath of emergency that we can begin to reckon with it; only after the shock wears off and the damage is surveyed do we really understand what happened. This was particularly true of Katrina, which unfolded as a series of belated revelations about what had just occurred. Those of us who had evacuated went to bed, dry and relieved, after watching news broadcasts about a few broken windows, and woke up to images of the city under water. Those who stayed saw the water rise in their houses after the storm had passed.
Loss follows the wrecking. Work follows, as do grief and drinking and PTSD. But what is really strange is that the past—the cause—of catastrophe reveals itself in the aftermath. Underbuilt levees, warming oceans. Inadequate evacuation plans, unmitigated poverty. Fragile infrastructure, incompetent government. So, though it is less exciting to linger in the wake of a disaster, I think we have to—that is, if you want to understand the consequences of doing nothing to prepare for the next one.
What this novel makes clear, more than just about any other I’ve read this year, is that climate change and natural disasters affect different populations unevenly—it’s usually the poorest people, and often people of color, who are impacted the hardest. Is this novel, in some way, a conscious attempt to make that fact more visible?
C. Morgan Babst
Sure—I wanted to tell the truth as well as I could. One of the most frightening and insidious consequences of climate change is that it will exacerbate the problems—food shortages, droughts, migration crises—of those already suffering.
After Katrina, I heard a lot of people say, “How can something like this happen in America?” That sentiment inflected news reports, in which New Orleanians were referred to as “refugees”—as if these unhappy people carrying their lives in plastic bags could not possibly be Americans. It was shocking, of course, to see the nation’s, and the city’s, long history of inequality and racism—our refusal to protect all of our citizens equally—explode with such force, but it would require real effort not to see that that’s what was going on.
Though the levee system failed in multiple places, and the flood cut a wide economic swath, society’s other failures were more focused. People without the means to evacuate were not evacuated. Outside the shelters of last resort, people waited for days for buses that did not come. On the Mississippi River Bridge, police shot at a group of people trying to leave on foot. And that was just the beginning. Returning home, for those without means, was made no easier, and rebuilding homes has been harder still.
In conceiving the novel, I tried to position my characters at the center of that conflict, so that my readers might see the tragedy from all angles.
You complicate the idea of “home”—what it is, where it is, and why we seek it—throughout The Floating World. What is your definition of home, and did the real-life effects of Katrina influence it?
C. Morgan Babst
For me, and for many New Orleanians, the pull of home is very strong. I think many of us can’t figure out how to feel comfortable anywhere else. The city’s complicated colonial history means that its identity was forged, then honed, in opposition—against France, then against Spain, then against America. Multilayered and intricate, it is a beautiful and unique thing, but it is also sharp. If you’re not “from” New Orleans, you’re not really allowed to claim the city as your own. If you are “from” here, you can’t really claim anyplace else.
Considering what a mess this place is—politically, economically, racially, environmentally—it can be a burden to belong to it, as was made abundantly clear when the city flooded in 2005. It would have been easier, probably, for all of us to leave, to make a life somewhere else, on higher ground, but then where would we listen to funk in the mud? Who would throw the crawfish boils? What would awaken us in the middle of the night, if not a tugboat moaning on the river or a streetcar’s thunking gears? The city’s sounds and smells are potent and strange; they house our memories, and they make us who we are. New Orleans is my mother. She’s also a femme fatale.
A moment that struck me hard in your novel was when Tess compared her out-of-town daughter, who had just arrived in post-Katrina New Orleans, to the “clean, blank, crystal clear” glass orb on top of her office bookshelf—an object left completely untouched by the flood. In this moment, Tess realizes why “she hadn’t, deep down, wanted [Del] to come home.” Can you discuss this scene? How you arrived at it and what you’re trying to convey? The psychology on display here is remarkably rich and yet perhaps a bit mysterious to those of us who haven’t experienced natural disaster firsthand.
C. Morgan Babst
In this scene, Tess has just gone to the airport to pick up her daughter Del, who was living in New York when the storm hit. In the confusion wrought by fallen cell towers, Del has taken a cab, which means that she’s seen the ruined city for the first time, alone. Tess, for as daft as she is sometimes, realizes how traumatic that first sight of the city is. Until that point, I think she’d hoped that Del might escape the psychological repercussions of the storm, but now, she understands that no one is unscathed. Even if you knew no one among the dead, you mourned. Even if your own house had not flooded, in seeing this verdant, vital city covered in dried mud, its jungle of plants dead or dying, its houses bloated and slumped, you lost your home
I couldn’t help but read this novel as someone deeply concerned about climate change. Are you interested in climate change-related issues beyond what you write about in your fiction?
C. Morgan Babst
My first political thought, at the age of seven or eight, was: Why isn’t anyone protecting the earth? It’s like a Greek tragedy of global proportions, the scientists become Cassandras: we know what’s going to happen, and we are doing virtually nothing to stop it.
I do feel, though, that as a fiction writer I can do a little something. One of the challenges with getting people to pay attention to climate-related issues—enough attention to call our governments to account or at the very least to prepare our homes and families better—is that the worst case scenarios we hear about seem distant, impossible, too terrifying to contemplate, or all three. I don’t think that the human brain is really equipped to grapple with catastrophe of such magnitude; even the concept makes us shut down, turn our faces away. In fiction, however, I can give you one family, one storm, one flood, and that can be a doorway to empathy, preparation, understanding—maybe even change.
It’s no secret that New Orleans remains one of the most vulnerable U.S. cities to rising sea levels. It’s also no secret that the people most at-risk have little access to resources that would help them make their homes more resilient. As someone who’s from that remarkable but imperiled city, please give us your take: How is the city holding up under the weight of that knowledge, mentally and emotionally?
C. Morgan Babst
In the decade since Katrina, the natural levee along the Mississippi River—the highest land in the city—has gentrified rapidly, making the city an even more precarious place for people in poverty to live. With the disintegration of Louisiana’s wetlands, however, the Gulf of Mexico is literally moving towards all of our doorsteps. This is not news, though, and it’s nothing new—the oldest houses in the city are raised several feet off the ground because the city has flooded periodically since its founding. We’ve burned a couple of times, borne epidemics of yellow fever, weathered a bunch of nasty storms. The city was built, though, by people who’d suffered the middle passage, and from them we learned to dance at funerals. So we’re still dancing.
The Floating World by C. Morgan Babst
Published October 17, 2017
C. Morgan Babst’s essays and short fiction have appeared in such journals as Garden and Gun, The Oxford American, Guernica, the Harvard Review, and the New Orleans Review. The Floating World is her first novel.
Amy Brady is the Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Review of Books and Deputy Publisher of Guernica Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Oprah, The Village Voice, Pacific Standard, The New Republic, McSweeney's, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.