Burning Worlds is Amy Brady’s monthly column dedicated to examining trends in climate fiction, or “cli-fi,” in partnership with Yale Climate Connections. Subscribe to her monthly newsletter to get “Burning Worlds” and other writing about art and climate change delivered straight to your inbox.
In her thrilling new novel Sealed, British author Naomi Booth imagines a horrific scenario wherein climate change has resulted in a skin-sealing epidemic. Once infected, victims of the disease watch helplessly as their skin grows over their mouths, eyes, and other orifices, becoming suffocated by their own bodies.
At the heart of this novel is Alice, who’s pregnant with her first child, and her partner Pete. Alice is haunted by visions of the disease, while Pete insists that all will be well –– after all, they live in a house high in the mountains away from other people and the virus. But as violence breaks out around them, their relationship grows increasingly fraught, and Alice is forced to make some terrible decisions to protect herself and her unborn baby.
Timely and hair-raising, Sealed is an electrifying fable about what happens when not only the earth –– but our own bodies –– turn against us. In this month’s column, I spoke with Booth about what inspired Sealed, the importance of representing motherhood in novels about climate change, and the inevitability of anxiety in the Anthropocene.
Many recent works of climate fiction focus on the more direct consequences of climate change–namely, extreme heat and sea-level rise. Your novel focuses instead on the spread of a rare virus. What inspired this story?
I hate to start this interview with a horrible cliché, but the idea of the novel initially emerged from an image in a dream. When I awoke, the dream began to fade away, but I was left with these images and feelings of unease. Bodies had started to shift around in my sleep, strange new skin forming in places it shouldn’t. At the time I was thinking and reading about climate change and environmental contamination a lot. I’d heard the brilliant Australian writer Rebecca Giggs tell an audience that the crucial thing to get across to people was that environmental pollution wasn’t out there, in the world: it was inside us, seeping into our bodies every day. Our skins are permeable, not a barrier; they are a tissue, a composite of inside and outside.
I’d also been reading Eula Bliss’s work about pregnancy, disease, and contamination, On Immunisation, and she describes the different contaminants present in a supposedly unsullied and “natural” substance: According to studies, breast milk now contains traces of DDT and triclosan, as well as “paint thinners, dry cleaning fluids, flame retardants, pesticides, and rocket fuel … We are all already polluted.” As I thought about skin more, I started to think that perhaps it wasn’t so strange to dream about bodies changing, about our skin reacting, becoming something dangerous as a result of the pollution that pervades the world. I started talking about the dream-idea, sketching out some possibilities for a story or a novel. My boyfriend told me “it’s disgusting; Whatever you do, don’t write about that.” And that’s when I knew for sure that I had a novel I wanted to write.
We rarely see depictions of pregnancy in dystopian novels. Where did the character Alice come from?
Yes, pregnancy is still relatively under-explored in fiction — though that’s changing, and everything feels different since Maggie Nelson’s brilliant non-fiction work on pregnancy in The Argonauts. I wrote the novel when I was thinking a lot about becoming pregnant, and I revised it shortly after the birth of my daughter in 2017. I’m very interested in pregnancy as an existential condition that, for many, intensifies perceptions of threat, risk, and contamination. If you become pregnant in the U.K., for example, you are routinely cautioned against eating certain foods, against drinking alcohol, against inhaling cigarette smoke and paint fumes and dry-cleaning chemicals, against getting your hair dyed with certain chemicals, against taking many common medications, even against gardening without protective equipment. I think that being pregnant can dramatically heighten your awareness of the environment’s relationship to your body — it might even fundamentally erase any illusion of a clearly-demarcated body as something plausible or safe.
Pregnancy is a condition of extreme vulnerability and every pregnant person is differently vulnerable. I’ve recently read that in the U.S. there are significant racial disparities in deaths linked to pregnancy: African-American, Native-American and Alaska Native women die of pregnancy-related causes at a rate three times higher than their white counterparts, and 60 percent of these deaths are estimated to be preventable. To say that pregnancy can be an anxious and ambivalent experience is an understatement for many women, especially those who do not want to be pregnant, or are unable to support a child, or who face grave physical risks in pregnancy, and who don’t have access to safe, legal terminations.
I’ve become interested in thinking about pregnancy as a kind of dark, deadly state. This isn’t in order to scare-monger: maternal deaths in the U.K. and the U.S. are rare. It’s because I think that experiences of pregnancy and birth are, at best, euphemized in mainstream culture; and because I think the pro-life movement right now seeks to misrepresent the experience of pregnancy, associating it falsely and simplistically with a range of tendentiously “life-affirming” values. Thinking about “deadly” and “dangerous” pregnancies might work against the tropes of generation and futurity that have been projected onto pregnant women in many different discourses. Pregnancy can be a condition in which one feels that birth ultimately brings more death.
The idea of deadly pregnancy is especially interesting to me in the context of environmental contamination and climate crisis. The pregnant person has begun to seem to me like an especially acute example of what the critic and philosopher Timothy Morton has called “dark ecology”: concentric forms of life, supporting, nourishing, cannibalising and potentially poisoning one another.
The ways in which Alice’s anxiety manifests feels so real –– her ongoing obsessions and hyper-focus, this constant sense of doom that seems to follow her everywhere. Is anxiety an inevitable consequence of thinking about climate change?
As a fiction writer I’m very aware of the need to affect a reader emotionally and viscerally: that’s a crucial part of whatever quality of thinking it is that fiction produces or makes possible. In terms of anxiety, I think we’re living through curious times. My experience with digital media means that I constantly see things about the end of the world: environmental, political and social collapse seem imminent. I engage with this intermittently, in great fits of anxiety; but I also block it out a lot of the time, so that it becomes a kind of ambient, anxious background to my existence.
I guess other people see a different version of news curated according to their beliefs: if you don’t believe in climate change, for instance, or if you think isolationist politics is a good thing, you probably see an entirely different set of news stories in your feeds and feel anxious about very different things. Perhaps we’re getting more atomized in our anxieties. Fear and anxiety can be very negative forces—they’ve partly fueled what I think are the disastrous politics of Brexit in the U.K. But perhaps writers and filmmakers can find ways to unsettle and frighten us to produce a kind of inverse index of value: we feel fear for what is under threat, and we might share that experience in moments of collective anxiety for vulnerable bodies, the environment, and the non-human animals all around us.
Do you think about ecological problems and climate change beyond what you write about in your fiction?
Yes, and I’m not very good at being hopeful about the situation we’re currently in. In terms of our politics, there’s so much misinformation, denial and entrenchment in the U.S. and the U.K. just now, which is accelerating different forms of marginalization and violence. I think some deeply-rooted psychic and political maneuvers are helping to sustain global injustices linked to ecological problems — and these are already having an enormous impact on some of the most vulnerable people in the world. But I think and hope that the generation that we’re seeing coming into adulthood now are keenly attuned to this and are getting ready to make changes. There are lots of people working with hope and energy and creativity in the face of the difficult circumstances we’re in.
Do you think that novels can affect how readers think about climate change?
I would love to believe that’s true. I think that novels can affect how we think and feel about things, and that that in turn might help to produce material change. I also think there are valuable things art can do to mark acts of violence and environmental destruction that otherwise go unmarked and un-grieved: it’s important to me for writers to engage with the non-human world. But I also worry about the possible futility of writing novels in relation to these problems: my book, for instance, has been produced through processes that might be environmentally destructive; it may well be distributed through a supply chain which involves labor conditions that I find abhorrent. My writing is almost certainly implicated in systems that I think are destructive, and I make all sorts of mistakes in how I write all of the time: it’s not a pure or straight-forward relationship between hoping to resist destructiveness and achieving that, or between political intent and aesthetic effect. But I’m trying to find a way to write about the environment without giving in to despair.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently working on a Brexit murder novel. It’s going to be very creepy, and it’s called Exit Management — look out for it with Dead Ink Books in the U.K. next year.
By Naomi Booth
Published July 2, 2019
Naomi Booth is a fiction writer and academic. Her first work of fiction, The Lost Art of Sinking, emerged from research into the literary history of swooning, and won the Saboteur Award for Best Novella 2016 as well as being selected for New Writing North’s Read Regional campaign 2017. Her novel, Sealed, is a gripping modern fable on motherhood. She is currently working on a new novel and collection of short stories, and an academic monograph on passing out. In 2018 Naomi was named in the Guardian’s ‘Fresh Voices: 50 Writers to Read Now’. She was also shortlisted for the ‘Not the Booker’ Prize and was long-listed for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. Naomi grew up in West Yorkshire and now lives in York.