Hope, Grief, Anger and Change: Imagining Futures with James Bradley

SEI editor Liberty Lawson sits down with the Institute’s new Honorary Affiliate, Australian author and critic James Bradley, to talk about the role of fiction and non-fiction in imagining and communicating change.

Photo by Steven Kamenar on Unsplash.

Liberty Lawson: We are so thrilled to have you joining the Institute. Could you tell us about what drew you to collaborate with the SEI, and what you are hoping to work on over the next two years?

James Bradley: I’m thrilled to be joining you! I’m a huge admirer of the Institute and its work. Environmental issues touch every aspect of contemporary existence, and the Institute’s commitment to developing inter-disciplinary and collaborative projects that engage with the broader community has a vital role in helping us grapple with the challenges they pose. For me as a writer, that interest in connecting different disciplines and communities is incredibly exciting, not least because it’s so relevant to the two projects I’m working on, the first of which is a novel set in a climate-changed Sydney, the second of which is a collection of essays about the ocean and environmental crisis.

Earlier this year in a beautiful and poignant Guardian article about the recent bushfire crisis you wrote; “the real question is what do we do when the anger subsides? How do we live once our disbelief at the scale of the disaster fades and we are left to grapple with the knowledge the world we knew has gone?”

Could you reflect back on this sentiment, in light of the vast global shifts provoked by the current pandemic? At the time, I’m sure you couldn’t have imagined our path to recovery would involve being thrown so suddenly from one collective grief into another…

Like most people, I’ve found the past few months incredibly dislocating. The loss of life and the human cost of the economic disaster unfolding around us are vast, and we’re going to be grappling with their consequences for years to come. But I have to confess I’ve also found the whole experience deeply fascinating at an intellectual level. Partly that’s because it’s thrown the real forces that shape our world into stark relief – you only have to look at the composition of the National COVID Coordination Commission to be reminded of the role extractive industries play in shaping government policy in Australia – and revealed that so much we thought was immutable is nothing of the sort. But it’s also because it’s forced us to recognise it’s not actually possible to place ourselves apart from nature, and that our assumption we’re in control of the planet and its processes is delusional and destructive.

In an odd way, though, the thing I’ve found most fascinating is the slightly uncanny sense that what is happening is a trial run for climate catastrophe. As the experience in Italy, Spain, England and the United States demonstrate, the mathematics of the virus’ spread and effects are completely inexorable, and unchecked, quickly lead us to a place where all of our systems are so overwhelmed they begin to collapse, much as they already are in the face of climate change. The only difference is the process is taking place over days and weeks instead of years and decades. But when we look at the images from the emergency rooms in New York, or the sports stadiums and skating rinks they’ve converted into hospitals and morgues in Spain, what we see is a glimpse of the kinds of disruption and grief that lie just over the horizon if we don’t rapidly reduce emissions.

Your new book Ghost Species continues with a theme that runs throughout all your work, the mapping of uncertain futures. Since you first began writing and imagining these futures, what shifts have you witnessed that you consider to be most significant, and have your fictional landscapes (and sometimes, accurate predictions) shaped your personal response when confronting the reality of these changes?

I don’t see fiction’s role as predictive in any narrow sense, but one of the really unsettling things about writing in the environmental space is the sense that reality is constantly outpacing you. When I wrote Clade there were a number of details that were, at the time, supposed to be decades away, as well as a few that were straight-up science fiction I just made up. But over the five years since it was published, I’ve watched one after another of those details – including the invented ones – come true. Likewise in Ghost Species, fire is everywhere, but I ended up editing the book through December and January in a city choked with smoke.

At a personal level that blurring of your imaginative world and the real world can be pretty unnerving. But I also think it can be useful because it prevents you from hiding from reality or denying it. And in an odd way that can be useful: whereas in Clade one of the things I wanted to do was open up a space for political possibility, in Ghost Species I was trying to grapple ideas about of inevitability and collapse and to think through how we might live in a world of catastrophic change.

Smokey haze over suburbs
Bushfire smoke, Australia, 2019. Image via Shutterstock, ID: 1580277991.

As a writer – quite rightfully – outspoken about the climate crisis, you address your concerns for the future through fiction as well as non-fiction. Could you reflect a little on how each of these forms might differ and coalesce, in both your own methodological approach to writing as a practice and for readers, in opening up spaces for fear, grief, hope?

I think there’s a continuity between the two, in the sense that my fiction and my non-fiction often inform each other in useful ways. Sometimes that process involves using things I’ve learned from the non-fiction in the fiction – Ghost Species is very much framed by a series of concerns about extinction and other minds, both of which I’ve written non-fiction about – at other times I find myself using non-fiction to refine and organise ideas I’ve been playing with in my fiction. But they’re also very different: even in more meditative, essayistic modes, my non-fiction is always concerned with communicating facts and ideas and mounting arguments, whereas I think – I hope! – my fiction works in more oblique ways involving imagination and empathy.

That said, I think they both have a role to play in grappling with the environmental crisis. Non-fiction lets us be present in this moment by bearing witness to what’s going on. Fiction can do that as well, but it also allows us to grapple with ideas and experiences that we might otherwise find difficult to get to grips with, or by allowing us to imagine realities different from our own. Certainly one of the things I wanted Clade to do was to give readers an affective sense of what it might be like to live through the effects of climate change.

But in an odd way, I sometimes wonder whether the real value of both isn’t the way they allow us to face what’s coming more honestly. For many – or possibly most – of us, the defining condition of our lives is the dissonance between our usually unspoken awareness of the looming disaster of climate catastrophe and the weirdly oblivious way we live our lives day-to-day. By creating a space where we can acknowledge that reality both fiction and non-fiction make it possible for us to let go of illusion and denial, and hopefully think more clearly about the world we want to live in.

James Bradley is an Australian author and critic. His books include the novels Wrack (1997), The Deep Field (1999), The Resurrectionist (2006) and Clade (2015), a book of poetry, Paper Nautilus (1994), and The Penguin Book of the Ocean (2010). His books have won or been shortlisted for many major Australian and international literary awards, and in 2012 he won the Pascall Prize for Australia’s Critic of the Year. His latest novel, Ghost Species (2020), is published by Hamish Hamilton. James Bradley is an Honorary Associate of the Sydney Environment Institute.