Opinion

Writing in the Midst of a World in Peril

In the lead up to the publication of her new book SummertimeDeputy Director Danielle Celermajer reflects on the process of writing as a means of moving through rage, terror and grief.

Image by Jamen Percy, via Shutterstock, ID:1627345690.

On December 31st, 2019, Katy, one of the pigs with whom I live in our multispecies community, was killed by the wildfire that exploded around Cobargo, where she had been evacuated to ‘safety’ from the fire that was approaching our place. The news of her violent death threw me onto the floor, but the day demanded that I remain in action. I got up, and drove into our local town, a popular vacation spot on the south coast of NSW, to pick up batteries for the torch; it’s critical to be prepared for the type of fire that darkens the day. As I staggered towards the supermarket, I caught snatches of the light-hearted conversations typical of holiday makers. Driving back home, passing neighbours’ cars, packed with what they wanted to save, I noticed a group of tourists lazing by the waterhole on the river, novels and glasses of white wine resting by deckchairs. On the car radio, there was talk of the Sydney harbour fireworks which, unlike the more amateurish ones that mark New Year in our local towns, were going ahead.

Tossed between these disparate images of Australia’s New Year’s Eve, and riven by a toxic brew of terror, grief and rage, when I arrived to our emptied out house, I sat down and wrote. I wrote about the two Australia’s co-existing as the climate catastrophe unfolded – in all its unevenness – amongst us. When the sky darkened at 3pm and we left to evacuate ourselves, I negotiated the edits on that piece with my friend and sometime publisher at the ABC, Scott Stephens, driving past the scores of fire trucks heading south towards the Currawon fire now enveloping the coast behind us.

“Tossed between these disparate images of Australia’s New Year’s Eve, and riven by a toxic brew of terror, grief and rage, when I arrived to our emptied out house, I sat down and wrote.”

A few days later, as the cataclysmic extent of the killing of animals, trees, forests and whole ecologies started to become evident, and as both my rage and the intensity of my need to speak from the midst of this rage grew, I wrote a second piece. This one argued that we needed to recognise what was taking place as omnicide, the killing of everything; a crime. And again, a few days later, in a very different mood, as I witnessed, and tried to care for Jimmy, Katy’s brother, who had survived the inferno, I wrote a third piece ­­– this one seeking to convey something of the reality of the loss felt by beings other than humans. These three missives formed the seeds of what was to become my book, Summertime.

For all of us who work on the myriad forms of violence that human lifeways are inflicting on animals and the environment, the question of how our writing can make a difference has come to burn with an intensity that is difficult to contain. Many of us feel that we fall short of doing enough, given what is at stake. Many of us struggle with the disparity between the wild flux of emotions we feel and what often feels like the cold rigour of the academic form. There is no place to scream in a peer reviewed article.

“For all of us who work on the myriad forms of violence that human lifeways are inflicting on animals and the environment, the question of how our writing can make a difference has come to burn with an intensity that is difficult to contain.”

At its best, academic writing is uniquely capable of providing sharp and clear analysis of what is unfolding around us, and perhaps even explaining why. It can document and illuminate patterns and trends. It can pierce obfuscating rhetoric to make apparent relationships, causes and effects. It can draw distinctions and articulate concepts that allow us to see what we might not otherwise see. Yet, for the most part, as a form, such writing stands apart from the world it describes, gazing over at it. And in turn, it places the reader and the writer at a distance from that world, as if we were not part of it.

Increasingly, my sense is that as critical as such work is – and I do see it as critical – it is not sufficient. We also need writing (as we need art and activism) that brings us right up close; that places as, as I was placed, in the midst of a world and the flood of emotions and responses it provokes. We need writing that allows the writer and hence the reader to have an experience of themselves within the flux that is life – always, but especially in these times of fear, confusion and desperate hope. So long as we write and read as if the world that is heaving through heat and fire and flood remains at a safe distance, our writing and reading practices risk contributing to the illusion of immunity.

I wrote Summertime in part because, when the fires started to burn previously unburned rainforests in northern NSW, I realised that I was not immune. What had been somewhat abstract for me entered my body as truth. So, in the same way as, the very next day, I started to put together our emergency kit and make our emergency evacuation plan, I also started to write from this place of unmediated truth. With this book, I leapt right into the torrent of my own life in this moment of unfolding climate catastrophe, lived in intimate relationships with the beings around me – human and more than human.

Were I to stand (analytically), in my academic persona, and look over to myself writing thus, I might surmise that doing so would have felt like a risky endeavour. But that analysis would be mistaken. There was no choice. As someone who writes, writing became a way of holding myself in the face of what was happening, of understanding what was happening. And as someone who feels compelled to act as effectively as I can, I reached for the craft I know best: to weave words such that they might reach out to and resonate for others as they also seek to face what is happening, to understand what is happening.

“There was no choice. As someone who writes, writing became a way of holding myself in the face of what was happening, of understanding what was happening.”

As I read over the words that formed that book, I see that, as distinct from the academic styles we have acquired, in Summertime, I appear radically exposed. But the exposure was simply a telling. The black summer fires had already made patently evident that we are all radically exposed. Allowing each other to see how it is to live here, to lose here, to long here, and perhaps to act here, is simply to withhold concealment.

Summertime: Reflections on a vanishing future by Danielle Celermajer is available from February 1 through Penguin Australia.


Danielle Celermajer is a Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney, and Deputy Director – Academic of the Sydney Environment Institute. Her books include Sins of the Nation and the Ritual of Apology (Cambridge University Press 2009), A Cultural Theory of Law in the Modern Age(Bloomsbury, 2018), and The Prevention of Torture: An Ecological Approach (Cambridge University Press, 2018). Dany is Director of the Multispecies Justice Project and along with her multispecies community, she has recently lived through the NSW fires, writing in the face of their experience of the “killing of everything”, which she calls “omnicide”. Dany is the Research Lead on Concepts and Practices of Multispecies Justice.