Climate and Black Storytelling Traditions: an Interview with Aya de Leon

We were beyond thrilled to sit down with Aya de Leon: climate novelist, slam poetry artist, activist, and teacher, whose work spans the last three decades. Her work is concerned with feminism, climate justice, and racial justice, highlighting BIPOC female characters who fight hard to define themselves in a world set on putting them into boxes. Aya is the author of the award-winning Justice Hustlers series, a group of novels that follows sex workers through romance, heists, and activism, as well as several standalone novels. Her book Side Chick Nation was the first novel published about Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. All of her climate novels deal with the crisis as seen through the eyes of those who, though not its instigators, are destined to be its opponents. She teaches creative writing at UC Berkeley.

This is an edited interview with Aya, in which we address climate storytelling, its relationship to Black storytelling traditions, and the unique experiences of African Americans, as well as how to use the empathy between author and reader to address the ticking time bomb of climate injustice.

When discussing your work, you use the phrase “fiction of empathy.” How do you apply that to climate storytelling?

I’ll start with the experience that made me decide to be a climate novelist. The novel that I wrote was Side Chick Nation, about Hurricane Maria and how it hit Puerto Rico. As someone with Puerto Rican heritage in diaspora, watching that particular climate crisis hit the islands and then watching the world quickly lose interest—it’s the thing that they say, how a tragedy happens to a million people and folks can’t take it in, but they can empathize more effectively with a story about a tragedy that happens to one person.

And so that was the plan, to create a story where people could empathize with this character whose life is deeply impacted. And that has become my model in climate fiction: telling these stories of ordinary people, some more ordinary than others, but people who are going about their business, not particularly thinking about the climate crisis, and somehow it comes home to them in one way or another, and they decide, “I don't have a choice but to take this on in some kind of way.”

It’s about readers empathizing with these characters, but I also think that it’s about me as an author empathizing with readers. I know that readers are going about their business, feeling overwhelmed by whatever’s going on in their lives. I empathize with the fact that they want to care about the climate crisis, but there are so many things that make it difficult to do that. And I want to offer a story about somebody who didn’t plan on being a climate activist, but then found the need to become one, because that’s my story.

How do you approach activism as a writer?

One thing that I think is really, really critical is taking some time to process our climate grief. We have to process that grief, otherwise the writing will carry [the grief] forward. There is a ticking clock for climate justice, so it’s really important to work through deep levels of anxiety and grief so that we can be writing from a deep place of hope. The scientists are clear that we can make a change, we can save our species—but we have to be writing from a place of believing that. So the key thing that I’ve been trained in by groups like Sustaining All Life is the perspective that you have to be able to hold that in an authentic way. Part of why it’s hard to pay attention to the climate crisis is that it triggers people to feel powerless and small. In particular, in a society where children are often so isolated and disempowered, the climate crisis triggers early childhood memories of being helpless, like we are unable to make a difference. You have to do the work of dealing with early childhood trauma that you carry around: feeling defeated, feeling insignificant, feeling like your voice doesn’t matter. 

I think you can see this [process] in how I keep getting bolder and bolder with each book! The first book, Side Chick Nation, was basically [my main character] saying, “Hey, this is climate change, this isn’t just a natural disaster, this is a combination of the climate crisis and colonization!” And then she’s going to become active. But then, in the second book, A Spy in the Struggle, there’s actually a movement of people of color who are fighting racism and fighting the climate crisis, and she ends up becoming part of that. And then in the third book, The Mystery Woman in Room Three, I just was like, “Okay, I want more,” so—spoiler alert—they pass the Green New Deal. Yay. It’s like, “We’re gonna get bolder, and we’re gonna get solution focused.” That was really important to me, that it gets bolder in terms of imagining that we get there. And then in the fourth book, That Dangerous Energy—again, spoiler alert—in the end, there are some climate reparations. I just keep getting bolder and bolder. Previously, I was telling the stories of unsuspecting people going along and getting swept up in the movement and in the future. Now I want to tell stories that are a little more intentional about the movement.

It’s really important to me to tell stories that have a really broad appeal. I’m working with these very popular genres for a reason. And the other thing I’m interested in doing right now is trying to develop a publishing imprint, where I would publish more than just my own work. I renamed myself earlier this year on social media, in my Twitter profile: “Minister of Climate Justice Fiction Propaganda.” I’m trying to really expand into that title. What does it mean to decide that my brand is stories about building movements for winning climate justice?

In terms of Black storytelling traditions, we are the “a way out of no way” people. We have faced these odds that seemed impossible, a set of conditions that would just crush other people. And we were just like, “Yeah, we’re not trying to be crushed by this. This is very, very difficult, but we are going to fight and we are going to hold a vision of winning, and in that fighting and vision of winning, we’re going to bring all of our spirituality and faith to the table.” I feel like that’s part of what I’m holding in climate fiction: the idea of trying to move from faith to hope. Right now, we’re holding it in faith, but I’m trying to write stories that help us imagine that we can do this.

As a working climate writer, what are your feelings about the current world of climate storytelling, and where do you hope it might go?

Tory Stephens from Fix, Grist’s Solutions Lab, talks about our addiction to dystopia. When I look around at all the climate fiction lists and roundups and invitations now, they’re all about these different sci-fi fantasy dystopias. And that tradition was started in many ways by Octavia Butler, especially within the Black community. Those stories are incredibly important, and began as a set of cautionary tales. Octavia Butler said, “I don’t predict the future . . . all I do is look around at the problems we’re neglecting now and give them about 30 years to grow into full-fledged disasters.” That’s how, in the nineties, she was able to write a story of the climate crisis having escalated, and of the “Make America Great Again” president—because she looked around at what was happening with the environment and racism and must have realized, “We’re not actually addressing this, and it’s all bad.” It’s incredible that she did what she did when she did it.

But the time for cautionary tales is over. And that isn’t to say that we don’t need any futuristic stuff, or that there’s nothing else to be said in science fiction and fantasy. But I do think that what’s important right now is this ticking clock: finding a way to tell a “right now” story, or to integrate a “right now” story into a sci-fi or fantasy story. If a story is set in the future, I want there to be some part that’s about how we won this fight: people got together and thought and solved this problem. I’m so excited about the idea that we could solve this and then humanity could turn our attention to a different set of problems, like making sure each and every person has a good life. Because it’s very possible to win this fight, and then have some other problems! Bring on the other problems!

But with these dystopias, they’re all predicated on the notion that we didn’t solve this problem. And so these are all stories about how we failed in this moment. And since people are reading these stories today, when they have the opportunity to not fail, it’s problematic, because it reinforces the failure concept. There are good parts to these works, challenging parts, but we need to interrupt that story of failure. Especially because right now, it’s kind of the only story in climate fiction.

Journalist Andrea Collier speaks about witnessing as part of the Black storytelling tradition: seeking witnesses to your own experience while also serving as a witness for others. How do you, as a writer, approach that “politicizing moment” in your characters’ psyches, specifically regarding climate activism and racial justice?

When it was time to write about Hurricane Maria, the biggest platform I had available to me was the series I was under contract to write for Kensington Books, a feminist heist series, Justice Hustlers. I was originally working on a different book to be the fourth novel in the series. My main character from that novel-in-progress couldn’t carry this book about Puerto Rico, because she was Trinidadian and didn’t speak Spanish; it just wouldn’t have worked. But I had this really, really minor character from the first book, Dulce, who’s Dominican and Cuban. And I was like, “Okay, she’s the one, now I’ve got to figure out a way to send her into this hurricane.”

Now, she could only be a witness because it wasn’t her island being affected. So I included [Puerto Rican characters] because I felt like it was important to have people who have blood and family buried in that soil, who are losing their homes. So I was definitely writing a lot of characters who witness—in this case, Dulce witnesses the hurricane. There’s also the theme of “witness” in my book, A Spy in the Struggle. And in Queen of Urban Prophecy, there’s an emcee touring the country, witnessing the way the climate crisis is affecting different communities and individuals. Overall, within the stories, there’s always something that people witness that then becomes this politicizing moment in their lives.

Black storytelling traditions have developed over hundreds of years and evolved along with and at the service of the community. How can this legacy help shape the relatively new, still-forming practice of climate storytelling?

Well, one of the critical perspectives that Black people bring to the climate crisis is the perspective that everything is not fine right now. Middle-class white people are experiencing a deep emotional, spiritual, and existential crisis as they come to terms with the global legacy of white supremacy and patriarchy and the extractive economies that came out of European colonization. For decades, the white narrative has been that everything is fine, we are prosperous, the best nation in the world. But now the white climate narrative has become, “Oh no! Bad things are going to happen.” Black people bring a certain sense that everything is not currently fine, and that the climate crisis isn’t a faraway thing that might threaten our children or grandchildren. We carry the sense that nothing has been fine for quite some time, and that the climate crisis is the latest expression of this deep, deep disease of white supremacy, of patriarchy, of class-based society. 

Not every Black writer sees it with all those intersections, but I think a lot of us do. That’s something so important that Black people bring to the table, along with our hope that we can make a way out of no way again.

The historical relationship that Black people have with the earth—the physical land of the American continent, particularly in the South—is unique, and has played a large part in the development of Black storytelling. How do you find that manifests in the overlap of stories that involve climate and Blackness?

The experience of enslavement meant that, nonconsensually, my people were made the stewards of big portions of this land. And while we did not choose that, and the conditions were brutal and inhuman, to be in a relationship with land is a deeply human thing. In the same way, Black women cared for white children, and it was nonconsensual, and it was to the detriment of our own children—but to care for a child is a deeply human thing. We were stewards of the land, and we fought very hard for it during and after slavery, when we continued to be coerced into relationships like sharecropping. From the time that Black people were able to farm in any way to our own benefit, that has been consistently targeted, undermined, attacked. And what’s come out of that, out of the Great Migration, is the story—the lie—that Black people, we are a city people, an urban people. That Black people are Brooklyn and Chicago and Oakland, and you know, we are of those places—but we also have had our own relationship with the land.

I am someone who is three generations out of the rural parts of my heritage, and so that’s not a strength in my own climate fiction, but I think those are the kinds of stories that need to be part of this more expanded climate fiction: not just utopia, and not just urban stories, but also stories that connect to the land and bring that into the mix. Urban gentrification is just the most recent wave of land dispossession that Black people face. So finding ways to rely on ourselves, both in our relationship to nature and soil and growing things, and also in terms of being able to steward land from a place of solidarity with Indigenous people.

For Hollywood writers, what advice might you give for incorporating climate without giving up or ignoring other stories that are important to them?

Just get in whatever you can, in the story or the background too. Maybe there’s a sit-in at the bank, people protesting the bank’s investment in the fossil fuel industry. I’ve made a commitment that in all of the books I publish from now on, there will be two things that appear in print: “defund the police” and “divest from fossil fuels.” It can happen any kind of way. Someone can be wearing a button that says it, someone can be walking past a rally and hear it—those things just need to appear, and now it’s my job. It’s like Where’s Waldo?, trying to figure out how that is going to appear, whether it’s the central thesis or a little detail.

The hero’s journey has been a source of hope for me because that story appears in all these different cultures. It’s a story about a person or a group of people who think that they have lost but in the eleventh hour, when it seems that all hope is gone, they find it within themselves to become better than they’ve ever been and to defeat the internal obstacle that is their despair or hopelessness or shame or feeling of inadequacy, and they vanquish that internal enemy to win. Right now, this is the eleventh hour, when we are facing our greatest threat. And the thing that’s really in our way now is just our trauma—whether it’s the multigenerational inheritance of scarcity that leads to greed, to the feeling that there’s never enough, or the multigenerational trauma of having been oppressed and feeling like our voices won’t be heard because someone else knows better. But this is the crisis. And I have decided to believe that this is our journey, and this is where we are as a species, and it’s time for us to be those heroes. It’s time for us to reach for this victory. The hero’s journey is not just something that we can use to craft good plots; we as a species have the potential, right now, to make it our own story.

Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program, teaching creative writing at UC Berkeley. Kensington Books publishes her award-winning feminist heist/romance series, Justice Hustlers: UPTOWN THIEF (2016), THE BOSS (2017), THE ACCIDENTAL MISTRESS (2018), and SIDE CHICK NATION (2019) which was the first novel published about Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Aya has received acclaim in the Washington Post, Village Voice, SF Chronicle, and The Establishment. Her work has also appeared in Ebony, Essence, Guernica, Writers Digest, Huffington Post, Catapult, The Root, The Toast, VICE, Ploughshares, Bitch Magazine, Mutha Magazine, and on Def Poetry.