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Inside the Minds of Polar Bears

Inside the Minds of Polar Bears

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 July 2017, I interviewed author Ashley Shelby for this column about her novel South Pole Station. It’s a glittering, moving, and occasionally very funny tale set at South Pole Station in the early 2000s. This year Shelby has published another work of cli-fi — a chapbook titled Muri that’s set in the future and published by Radix Media as part of a series called Futures.

The short book is based on Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno and takes place in the near future on an earth ravaged by cataclysmic climate change. A ship captain and his team have been tasked with a globe-crossing adventure: relocate the last of the Arctic’s polar bears to Antarctica where the animals may have a shot at survival. As the story unfolds, Shelby delves into the ethics of species relocation and the psychological strain of living in an age of climate change. In this interview I spoke with the author about what inspired Muri, the importance of exploring in writing the inner minds of non-human life, and what it’s like to be a writer in a time when reality feels increasingly like science fiction.

Amy Brady

Muri is a reimagining of Melville’s Benito Cereno. What inspired you to set an adaptation of this story in a climate-changed future?

Ashley Shelby

Most of my work right now is set in a climate-changed future — though the boundary between now and a climate-changed future seems to be disappearing, doesn’t it? I’m at work on a couple projects right now, one of which is a collection of short fiction that are reimaginings of classic American short fiction, set in climate-impacted settings.

Benito Cereno is a complex masterpiece based on a real slave revolt that took place aboard a Spanish slave ship. Melville tells the story from the perspective of a visiting captain who has come aboard to provide food and water to a foundering ship. What he doesn’t understand — because of his own racism — is that the slaves have taken over the ship. He cannot see through the charade of normalcy the captain and the slaves have created, which would be easily detected by someone who understood that the slaves were human beings, not chattel. Nor could most of Melville’s readers, until the end, when they were forced to confront their own racism and understand how it had distorted the way they consumed the story.

Melville’s story, like all of his work, remains intensely relevant, and Muri began as a very persistent what-if question that sprung from my reading of the novella. This also happened at a time when I was beginning to question whether realism — as an approach to ideas and realities that are harder and harder to understand, let alone communicate — is up to the task, or whether sci-fi/fantastic approaches let us off the hook somehow. So, I decided to play the literal against the figurative and see where the chips fell.

Amy Brady

Muri is part of a series called Futures published by Radix Media. Tell me about this project. Were you given any parameters in terms of what you should write about?

Ashley Shelby

Radix Media has done something incredible with Futures. First, know that this is only its second publishing project. It is a Brooklyn-based, worker-owned and operated union print shop and publisher, run by true artists and artisans. This particular project is a subscription-based chapbook series of seven long stories, published monthly between April and October of this year. They can also be purchased separately. In addition to each story, subscribers receive other goodies from Radix, including beautifully designed in-world posters for each story. The series features work from John Dermot Woods, Alexander Pyles, Vera Kurian, and Hal Y. Zhang, among others. Subjects range from cli-fi to dystopian politics to caregiving robots. It is an immense privilege to be a part of this, especially considering I never expected Muri to be published. Knowing that there are publishers willing to take risks on writers who are themselves taking risks should make everyone hopeful about the future of the written word.

Amy Brady

Since the last time we spoke for Burning Worlds, news about climate change has only become more urgent. Have your thoughts changed about the role that fiction plays at this moment in history?

Beyond trying to keep the invented from so quickly becoming the documentary? These are strange, strange times, aren’t they? All that we’ve been told by science if we didn’t get carbon emissions under control immediately has commenced, but so quickly. So quickly, in fact, that those deemed “alarmists” now seem like soothsayers. If the role of fiction in general is to help us understand existence — human and non-human — then its role in a climate-changed world is no different than it has been.

Only the circumstances of our existence have changed. But unlike most historical change, which is often cyclical in nature, there’s really nothing familiar on this path we must now walk; the last time the earth underwent such cataclysmic climate change, Homo sapiens did not exist.

So, fiction is about trying on experiences, stepping into other shoes, gaining perspectives we might not otherwise be exposed to. To this latter point, I think of Richard Powers’ genius in The Overstory and something a fellow writer friend of mine, Jason Albert, said after reading it: “When you’re done, you walk outside and things look different and you feel different, and you wonder, was that a novel that did that?” That’s always been the role of fiction, I think, but how much more important, and how much more necessary is it now for writers to do what Powers did.

Amy Brady

Without giving too much away, I’ll say that this story gives agency to polar bears in unique and surprising ways. How important is it that contemporary writers consider the lives — and to the extent possible, the inner livesof non-humans in their work?

Ashley Shelby

Two of my favorite books growing up — which I re-read countless times — were Watership Down and The Incredible Journey, both of which give the reader very intimate access to the thoughts and emotions of animals. And both of which, for me, anyway, were transformational in terms of understanding that there is little to nothing that separates our experience of our world from an animal’s experience of the world it shares with us.

That being said, I never thought I’d ever write anything like Muri, which, as you mention, gives agency, language, and voice to animals. For one reason, I didn’t feel skilled enough to pull this off (and I’ll leave any determination of my success in doing this up to the reader). For another, I realize now I’ve long underestimated the reader’s willingness to take the kind of leap I require of them in this book.

Since publishing Muri, I’ve been astounded by the generosity of spirit shown by sci-fi and fantasy readers in particular. So-called literary gatekeepers might’ve said, “look, the bar is too high, the ask is too great, the suspension of disbelief won’t happen.” But a sci-fi or fantasy fan might say, “Talking polar bears? Tell me more.” As I grapple with the changes, I find that I am more and more concerned with the blameless, especially animals. How are they making sense of the changes? How much do they understand? Would they ask us why?

My father, a journalist, once interviewed Jane Goodall for a television special, and asked her, “You’ve worked with chimpanzees for your entire career. What might a chimpanzee say to a human being if it could speak?” Without hesitation, Jane held out her hand to my father, as if beseeching, and said, “They would say, ‘I’m part of your world. Won’t you let us live in it?’”

Amy Brady

The adults in your story remember the world before cataclysmic climate change and are wrestling with the strangeness of living in the aftermathfeelings of fear and loss are wide-spread. What struck me is that such a world already feels achingly familiar. What is it like to be a writer in 2019 when we’re already starting to see the world growing strange, and people everywhere are starting to feel anger and loss more potently?

Ashley Shelby

The word you use here — achingly — is apt. And what you’ve described is what preoccupies me now, both as a writer and as a mother. It informs every single thing I write and it haunts my ideas about what my children will experience as adults. In terms of my writing, I think I’m trying to make sense of a world that grows less legible by the day.

Right now I’m exploring the concept of solastalgia, a term coined by environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht, which he defines as a kind of homesickness for the world as you once knew it. Think on this idea for a minute: Homesickness for a former world. If you’re capable of even looking one or two years down the road, then that’s what it feels like to be a writer in 2019. And anger is absolutely a part of that. Anger at the inaction and obstruction of our elected officials; guilt and shame for being part of the problem and yet feeling it’s impossible to fully extricate myself from the matrix without completing withdrawing from everyday life; fear and anxiety for my children and everyone else’s children; and profound sadness for the vulnerable, human and non-human alike.

Amy Brady

What’s next for you?

Ashley Shelby

Always a thorny question. I already mentioned my short story collection, but every time I try to explain my novel-in-progress to someone it’s like it spontaneously combusts in retaliation and I have to try to sweep up the shards and start over. So, I will discuss its weird mix of themes and leave it at that: climate-impacted cities, mental health, pharmaceuticals, birds, and carbon felons.

By Ashley Shelby
Radix Media
Published July 2019

Ashley Shelby is the author Red River Rising: The Anatomy of a Flood and the Survival of an American City, a narrative nonfiction account of a devastating flood in Grand Forks, North Dakota. She is also a prize-winning writer and journalist who covered the Exxon Valdez litigation for The Nation. She received her MFA from Columbia University. South Pole Station is her first novel.

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