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.
Unlike most books explored in this column, Felicia Luna Lemus’s Particulate Matter is not a novel. It’s a slim, exquisitely crafted memoir about living in California during 2020’s record-setting wildfire season and how the state’s atrocious air quality made her spouse very sick. But the book is also poetic, unusually structured (some pages consist of a single word or a short, lyrical vignette), and philosophical in its searching quality.
Particulate Matter drives home the personal consequences of climate change better than almost anything else I’ve read this year. It achieves this by being, in part, a love story for the earth as much as for her spouse. Despite being set largely in Los Angeles, the book effuses love for animals, insects, and other wildlife–non-human creatures that are rarely acknowledged in books set in a large city. It also explores how climate change is deeply entwined with other kinds of injustice, while addressing the racism and homophobia that affected their lives.
I spoke with Lemus about how she decided on such an unusual structure, why she focused on so many aspects of city life, including the non-human, and what she hopes Particulate Matter will inspire readers to think or feel about climate change.
Your book is a gorgeous example of how to make climate change feel personal. Would you discuss how you arrived at the book’s unusual structure?
Felicia Luna Lemus
Thank you so much! The book took form organically—I wrote it during the year my spouse became very ill due to air pollution and chemical exposure. Seemingly out of nowhere, she—a life-long athlete who’d always had excellent health—developed adult onset asthma, which became progressively worse and then reached a crisis point.
We learned that our Los Angeles neighborhood, the place we loved, that was such a perfect match for us in so many ways—culturally, socially, geographically—also had some of the worst air pollution in the nation. Although we had a beautiful canyon right outside our house and incredible views of the San Gabriel Mountains, the air we breathed day-in, day-out was toxic. This—combined with airborne chemicals and pollutants released by a major, three-year construction project next door to us and several high-rise projects going up simultaneously around my spouse’s office downtown—resulted in a tipping point. One day she came back from a work trip to Seattle (where she’d felt better; the air was much cleaner), and couldn’t breathe, literally. Her doctors told us she needed to move to clean air immediately. It was a life or death situation. We checked her into a hotel at the shore, and she never came back home.
At first we’d hoped her move would be temporary, that’d she’d eventually be able to return to the place we’d called home for nearly two decades, the place we’d planned would be our forever home—so I didn’t move with her initially. Every day I drove back and forth, up to 2 hours each way sometimes, between a little rental near the ocean in good air and our home northeast of downtown in bad air.
It was heartbreaking being apart. I missed sharing our home, our daily routines, everything we would have seen and experienced together in normal times. I started writing these things down, to note the world around me, to record how I felt, to share it with her. I wanted to honor the life we loved, the life we hoped we’d return to.
I found that, in my grief and exhaustion, my brain focused intensely on one or two of these details a day, turned them over and over in my thoughts like a worry stone smoothing and becoming polished. I puzzled over them, almost like mantras of a sort, to stay grounded. I whittled them down, edited them to their bones, trying to find their most essential and true representation. This was soothing, and it helped me be present, to not numb out from how overwhelming and terrifying our situation had become.
All those bits and pieces of the days and nights when we thought she was dying, when the doctors couldn’t figure out how to heal her, when we had to live apart, all the details of the shared life that was so fundamentally rattled, all those pieces were like particulate matter accumulating, taking form, shifting reality. But the particulate matter that became this book was unlike the kind that pollutes the air in that it was stardust and hope, prayers whispered with hope against hope that things would get better, that my words would not become funeral dirge. It was a love letter. It was love.
I’m fascinated by the many appearances of animals, insects, and spiders in your book—especially given that you live in a city, a landscape that doesn’t immediately bring to mind the animal world. Why focus on animals and insects in this book?
Felicia Luna Lemus
I notice nature no matter where I am. It’s just the way my brain works, how I go through the world. When I was writing what became this book, I included the creatures at home that my spouse and I had always loved—the Great Horned owls out front our house that bow and flirt hoot at each other late at night, the coyotes we’d see on walks with our dog, the hawks and hummingbirds, the preying mantis that appeared each summer. I’m as likely to smile and say hello to a bird, spider, lemon tree, or sunset as I am to another human. Maybe being Indigenous is part of that—I’ve always believed that I am intrinsically interconnected with the natural world, that as a human I’m part of the ecosystem, not the proper center of it. And, as much as cities have tried to push nature to the margins, to control or eliminate it entirely, it nearly always persists, in one form or other, in even the most urban spaces. So, I don’t know if I intentionally centered wildlife in this book any more than I did the sky, moon, ocean and mountains, but I do think it speaks to the larger network impacted and harmed by the environmental crisis—we are all in this together. What harms one, harms all.
As I read Particulate Matter I felt I was reading both poetry and memoir. That feeling of genres being blurred was in a way echoed back to me when you write: “‘I’m writing a book,’ I say. ‘Is it fiction or nonfiction?’ you ask. ‘Yes.'” Is there something about climate change—or perhaps the specific circumstances you and your spouse lived through—that inspires genre blurring?
Felicia Luna Lemus
I wrote what became Particulate Matter when the person I love more than anything else was gravely ill, when I thought I might lose her forever, when our entire world was turned upside down. There was no objective distance—a necessary trait of rigorous nonfiction works—available to me in that. And any fictional veil I might have tried to utilize would not have held. This was my everything, my heart and soul.
If the book reads as somehow poetic, I think that may be why. Particulate Matter is, as honestly and directly as I knew how, a portrait of the personal, devastating experience—the heart and soul and the everyday—of the impacts of the environmental crisis.
What do you hope readers take away from Particulate Matter?
Felicia Luna Lemus
If there’s anything in what I wrote that connects, that brings acknowledgement, maybe even light and comfort, to someone who has loved deeply, to someone who has known sudden uncertainty and who has leaned on the simple specificity of the everyday and the ethereal alike to pull them through when life tried to slip away, if this silver lining can come from that tumultuous upheaval, well, I’d be deeply humbled and grateful for that.
Likewise, if this personal portrait of the environmental crisis might, even just a smidge, help raise awareness and contribute to creating positive change, well that’d be really great, too.
Do you think that the California wildfires of 2020 will help people elsewhere—particularly Americans in more climate-stable regions of the country who haven’t experienced the crisis firsthand—to better understand that climate change is a real and present threat?
Felicia Luna Lemus
I sure hope so. If over four million acres burning up and down a state that runs almost 800 miles north to south doesn’t signal clearly that there is a real and present threat, I don’t know what does. Those apocalyptic images of San Francisco’s burnt orange sky back in September alone—I mean, that was horrifying. And the impact on people—their health, homes, livelihoods, the threat to their lives—the impact on animals, natural resources and ancient trees, I would hope even folks who haven’t lived through a wildfire firsthand would empathize and want to work toward preventing this from continuing and worsening.
Unfortunately, though, there has been so much disinformation propagated by the current federal government about climate change, including the false notion that the wildfires are simply a local issue of forest management, the whole “California just needs to sweep its forest floors” nonsense. Beyond the fact that federal agencies own and manage 57% of California’s forests, the California wildfires are, in every way, a national issue. The smoke from these wildfires drifted across the country, reaching parts of the East Coast, and even Europe. In addition to wildfires’ negative impacts on national air quality (and hence national public health), the fires are part of interconnected systemic issues that reach beyond all borders and threaten quality of life for every American: global warming, drought, increased dramatic wind patterns, rising sea levels—all of which originate in and are exacerbated by the impacts of the fossil fuel industry, toxic chemical production and pollution, industrial agriculture, unsustainable expansion and development, and the like.
The situation has reached a crisis point. We have to see the 2020 California wildfires for what they are—scientifically-proven consequences of human-made climate change. The need to acknowledge this fact and proactively change course in every way possible has never been more urgent.
What’s next for you?
Felicia Luna Lemus
Like so many of us, I’m mulling over a lot right now.
From the ways the federal government these past four years has done everything it could to weaken and dismantle crucial environmental protections and policies (often on behalf of large oil and chemical corporations seeking to maximize profit margins and power), to the rise in the visibility of white supremacists (those who used to wear hoods now proudly show their faces), to the racial reckoning that has finally captured national attention, to the pandemic and the race and class disparities in COVID-19 death rates, to the ways that those public health issues are connected to issues about who is denied the right to access and benefit from essential resources such as clean air, clean water, clean land, housing and food security…
It might take me a second to sit with it all and understand what my next book will be. But no matter what it ends up being exactly, I’m very grateful for every moment of getting there, and I look forward to sharing and connecting as I continue along the way.
By Felicia Luna Lemus
Published November 3, 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.