Burning Worlds is Amy Brady’s monthly column dedicated to examining how contemporary literature interrogates issues of climate change, 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.
As mainstream media outlets become (slightly) better at covering climate change, their focus is often on its catastrophic effects such as the strengthening of wildfires and hurricanes. And that’s great—the more the media connects those disasters to our changing climate the more informed the public will be. But what is often missing from this coverage are the sites from where fossil fuels are extracted: what they look like, who operates them, and how the systems of extraction are closely linked to one another.
German author Anja Kampmann explores such sites in her recent novel, High as the Waters Rise, adeptly translated into English by Anne Posten. The novel, which recently made the National Book Foundation’s 2020 long list for its award for books in translation, follows an oil rig worker named Waclaw, who loses a friend while working offshore. The loss sends him on a journey around the world, during which he meets people whose lives have also been deeply affected by loss, grief, and a global economy dependent upon swiftly diminishing resources. I spoke with Kampmann about what inspired the novel, the complexity of grief, and how she sees climate change affecting her own life.
What inspired you to write about oil rig workers?
I was fascinated by this world on which we all depend, and yet is almost invisible to us. People hardly ever think about the origin of the petrol they put into their cars, or the oil in every plastic bag and in the asphalt which covers our streets. I started to read and research drilling technologies as well as the lives of rig workers—I spoke to many of them at length about their experiences; I wanted to understand their motivation to go out there. I discovered that it’s far easier to see the whole picture from a distance. When you are out there, you think about food and night shifts and hierarchies and, of course, money—but there’s not much space to think about drilling rights, the question of who is involved in the business and the larger implications. An oil field will eventually run out of oil but your job will remain safe because you’ll simply move on to the next one, leaving behind a giant empty hole beneath the surface of the sea. It is a fascinating world, and it reveals a lot about human nature and our society. We drill two thousand meters underneath the sea floor; we seem to be in control, but we lose ourselves along the way, we’re human.
This novel has so many beautiful layers: there’s Waclaw’s own grief over the death of his friend, the stories of the people that Waclaw meets on his journey, and also the changes experienced by the world at large that are the result of globalism, climate change, and natural resource depletion. All of this is to say: you have tied a very personal story to the larger stories of the planet. What do you hope readers take away from these connections?
I think this is what literature can really do: you find a perspective, and you become invested in the story of a person you normally would not encounter or care for. We all know some facts about oil, mining, and gas extraction, but we’ve also learned to forget—I can’t deal with the news if it’s presented in the abstract.
But from a sociological point of view, it is rather fascinating. Coal mining for example, the job that Waclaw’s father had when Waclaw was still a child and lived in the German coal mining district Ruhrgebiet: the miners had a very strong social structure, and they were proud of their work. Of course it was also a harsh world, but after their shifts they returned to their families, and the connection between the kumpels, the workers, was very strong.
For Waclaw, an oil rig worker of our time, it is the opposite: he is nowhere, the men he works with are constantly shifted out, he moves from country to country, and the places where he has worked are left behind, completely invisible. He cannot share his story; he’s been out on the rigs for twelve years and has lost contact over time with his small Polish village. His former relationship has ended. Yet, the entire world has opened up for him. While drilling feels meaningless, he finds meaning in it when he’s with Matyás, his bunkmate and closest companion. Waclaw has been a global worker for years, but a heart is never global. How can you find meaning out there, alone? What do you really care for? And what happens when you try to ignore these questions for too long? In that sense, Waclaw is all of us—he keeps searching for new jobs and new options—getting lost is the dark side of this so-called freedom.
Your novel also explores feelings of grief. We often talk about grief in terms of losing loved ones, but we can also speak of it in terms of climate change and how it’s destroying landscapes we love. Your book seems to suggest that grief is a many-faceted emotion. Would you say that’s true?
I’m not sure that Waclaw would acknowledge to himself that he’s grieving. He is, of course, but can he admit it? To discover that life out there on the rig continues, just as it did before, even after the most important person in his life goes missing, hurts him deeply. Still, he goes on shore leave believing at first that he will simply go back. Waclaw is from a society in which a weak man, someone who’s hurt, doesn’t count for much. It may sound strange—but grieving, having a place and a community for it, might also be a privilege.
From our point of view, at a distance, we might be able to see the whole picture—but can he? He’s surrounded by people who have learned to deal with difficult situations, and so he tries to deal with his grief. To get over it by not facing it. Then the question becomes—is this grief only for Matyás? Maybe his entire life, that notion of freedom, was a lie.
I think that grieving is complex. It poses the ultimate question: what is important in life? I don’t think that for Waclaw the destruction of landscapes by the oil industry plays a large role in his personal experience of grief. But of course it’s everywhere. If you grow up in a destroyed landscape—such as the Niger Delta, which is polluted by oil, or Alberta, which is ravaged by fracking—what choice do you have, really? You can see your children getting sick, but you don’t have the power to stop it; there are other interests involved, mightier than one human or small community. The very thing that poisons you also brings the only source of income. This is also the case for Waclaw. He is alone in his grief, and so he cannot really express it. He would never tell his own story. So the book must do that for him.
Your novel takes readers to many locales around the world. Why did you choose so many different settings?
I needed all of these locations to create a full portrait of Waclaw’s life. He’s familiar with many places, yet he’s still a total stranger to them. There is, for example, one memory of his that leads back to Cairo. He visited several times during his first years working on the oil rigs. But what did he do there? He watched kids who built pigeon coops on the roofs above the city. He bought corn for their birds and watched how they let them circle far above the town. That’s something Waclaw did as a child, too. So I needed Cairo to show something intimate about him: a grown man who is in a strange Egyptian city trying to connect with something dear to his past. You see that tall man out there and you realize he’s lost. And he’s got a good heart. Why is he out there?
The story demanded all these locations. I did not include them because they are exotic—quite the contrary—Waclaw doesn’t really care about their seemingly exotic features. He and Matyás had a room in Tangier, Morocco, just outside Europe, which they hardly left. As they worked for some time in the bay of Campeche, I also needed to show a little about his time in Mexico. And there’s Hungary, Bucharest, and the farm where Matyás grew up; there’s Malta, where he speaks with someone about drilling gas in the Mediterranean sea; there’s another important character who lives in Italy. And there’s Waclaw’s long journey north, through Italy and Germany to the Polish Coast. I needed all of these places to somehow bring us close to him.
To come back to climate change for a moment: Your novel suggests climate is something that deeply concerns you. Do you think about climate change beyond what you write about? Have you seen it manifest in your own life?
This summer I was in Southern France with friends who grew up there. They say they’ve never seen the county so parched. Their grandmother is not allowed to water her plants in her garden because of drought. I’ve seen rivers dried out in my lifetime. I think in Germany, especially in the north, it will take some years for people realize what’s happening. But scientists say that the groundwater is already affected in some areas. I think one of the most drastic examples is the Zayanderud in Iran. You’ve got that beautiful bridge in Isfahan, and a dried out riverbed beneath it. People are grieving; it’s sad. The farmers are out in the streets protesting. And it’s very dangerous for them.
Your novel also ties climate change to economics, exposing injustices inherent in our globalized, capitalistic economy. As your book makes clear, those who risk their lives at the margins of society profit very little from their own labor. What inspired this thread in your book?
It’s a topic which means a lot to me. Once you start looking at our society from a certain angle, you will always find people who want to be part of the capitalist dream, who want to change their life for good, or who simply need to earn a living for their family. You often hear this: I want my children to live in a better world. But without a proper education, people will exploit you. You might build roads and bridges, or clean hotel rooms or subway stations; you might drill for oil or gas or work in gold or copper mines; or you might be the watchman to secure these enterprises, or work in the kitchen of a cruise ship.
Work in general has become invisible in our society. And people don’t have the power to organize themselves in labor unions because they can only secure short term contracts. I would not dare to blame any of these workers for the injustices carried out by their employers; they need to make money. They are not supposed to ask questions. We are the one who should ask and insist.
What’s next for you?
We were planning a big US book tour this autumn, in the East and West Coast, several universities, and bookstores. But of course the live events have been cancelled due to the pandemic. Still, there will be some online events. And I’d encourage readers to wait a little longer: we hope to organize some readings in the US in spring or early summer next year. It’s a bit difficult to make plans at the moment, but it would be lovely to meet as many readers and bookshops as possible. In Germany, I just finished my second collection of poetry (the dog is always hungry, Hanser, 2021) and I am in the middle of my next novel, which deals with Hamburg’s past.
High as the Waters Rise
By Anja Kampmann
Published September 15, 2020
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.