Randy Cohen likes to learn about people slant. Instead of asking them about what they do, etc., etc., he asks them about a person, a place, and a thing that are meaningful to them. It was a pleasure to talk with him about girls in India, maps of Texas, and falcons over Cape Cod. Person Place Thing from Northeast Public Radio’s WAMC was produced with Orion magazine. Have a listen here.
What is the role of storytelling in altering the future of plastics? How might storying plastics differently help shift culture? Or invite change? Or directly address plastic pollution, drawing down the volume of short-term use plastics and the host of support chemistries that make them possible?
This event emerged from a series of four pieces on plastics that Orion published over 2020-2021. You can watch the webinar here, hosted by Beyond Plastics’ Judith Enck, but I encourage you to read all of the pieces in the series, too. Dr. Rebecca Altman, who is a sociologist working on a book about the socio-environmental legacy of plastics, served as the guest editor and it was a beautiful collaborative process to work with her and Orion editor Sumanth Prabhaker.
Rebecca’s piece, “Upriver,” reveals her journey of generations, of thinking you’re moving away from something when you’re really diving right into it. Because you can’t not. Because it’s everywhere. Orion, which is a gorgeous magazine that you really should subscribe to so you can enjoy the sumptuous art and layout as well as the words, features Ansel Adams photography you’ve never seen before with her piece.
“Hand in Glove” by David Ferrier, author of Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils, was written early in the pandemic and considers all those plastic gloves…and the last hand he held before lockdown, his grandmother’s.
Plastics geographer Dr. Max Liboiron‘s considers their role as a researcher in Newfoundland in the piece “Plastics in the Gut.” When does scientific standardization turn into a form of colonialism and how can researchers learn to think with locals as they gather information? Their book, Pollution is Colonialism, explores this more deeply.
And my piece was “The Nature of Plastics,” in which I explored the ecological, biological and geological impact of this material that is so new, and so transformative, and so ubiquitous that it is altering every facet of life on earth.
Amy Brady and Tajja Isen have gathered together writers to explore how they’re living in a world changing in a warming climate. I’m honored to be one of the nineteen, which includes Lydia Millet, Kim Stanley Robinson, Omar El Akkad, Lidia Yuknavitch, Melissa Febos, and many more. Join Amy, Tajja and fellow contributor Alexandra Kleeman to celebrate the launch at this Zoom kick-off event on Wednesday, June 15 at 7:00 p.m. ET. Register here.
Update: here’s the video of the event, if you’d like to watch it:
Near the end of her essay, Subramanian writes, “We have returned to the times of mythology, and we need new stories to survive.” The World as We Knew It is an attempt to write these stories, to hold a mirror up to our lives at a crucial moment in our collective history, and reflect the slew of compounding, often conflicting fears that characterize it. In many ways, storytelling while on the precipice of global devastation is no different from storytelling at any moment in our history. Delve into ancient myths and you’ll quickly realize that the human condition has always been marked by an uneasy awareness that even the most rigid systems are subject to the whims of fate.
It began in 2013 as a question posed by Off Assignment: Who haunts you? It’s a brilliant premise (and excellent writing prompt): write a letter to someone, anyone, who has stayed with you. I wrote about a man I met in southern India, who spoke to me of dancing cobras.
The stories amassed and writer Colleen Kinder decided to collect them into an anthology. Letter to a Stranger: Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us came out this spring from Algonquin. Pieces by Lauren Groff, Leslie Jamison, Pico Iyer, Lia Purpura, Lavinia Spalding (who led me to Off Assignment so long back!), Irina Reyn and so many others each tell a story that is short, precise and aching in some deeply human way.
- Publisher’s Weekly review
- A nice mention in Shondaland.
- A lengthy piece in the LA Times.
- Lithub featured an event at Greenlight Books on their Virtual Book Channel.
- Featured on the Frommer’s podcast
- A few hot minutes on “What’s the Story” with Joy Lazendorfer
- And the very last Letter to a Stranger event, hosted by the L.A. Times Book Club
And here’s a video of an event I did with Book Passage in San Francisco with Colleen Kinder, Lavinia Spalding, Akemi Johnson, Faith Adiele, Emmanuel Iduma, and Anna Vodicka:
I’ve got a couple of events coming up this week. Hope you can join us!
Person Place Thing / Orion
The first is tomorrow (Tues. 5/3) at 6:30 pm ET. I’ll be in conversation for a live virtual recording with Randy Cohen, the delightful host of the podcast Person Place Thing, an interview show based on the idea that people are particularly engaging when they speak not directly about themselves but about something they care about. I’m trying not to think about the fact that his prior guest was Ken Burns. The man definitely has more stories than me!
The event is co-hosted by Orion Magazine, and here’s the link to register: https://orionmagazine.org/event/person-place-thing-orion-live-podcast-recording/
Letter to a Stranger
The second event is on Wed (5/4) at 8:30 pm ET. A wonderful new book emerged into the world recently called Letter to a Stranger. It’s an anthology of short, searing letters written to people that haunt them for all sorts of reasons, stories of love and regret and wonder and mystery. I’ll be joining editor Colleen Kinder and fellow contributors, Lavinia Spalding (dear friend and sister-in-law!), Akemi Johnson, Faith Adiele, Emmanuel Iduma, and Anna Vodicka. You can just jump into Zoomlandia directly the night of the event at this link: https://www.bookpassage.com/lettertoastranger
Hope to see you!
Join me for a talk at University of Arizona this Wednesday! I’ll be exploring plastics, boundaries, and monstrous ecologies and reading a bit from a forthcoming Orion piece.
Wednesday, February 10, 2021
7:00 pm MT (9:00 pm ET)
From our home places, we convene. It is tonic. To get a chance to explore storytelling with these talented writers, all approaching their craft from different angles, was such a pleasure. Here’s the full post about the October 1 event, with an expansive suggested reading list. We were: a panel of writers, journalists, and climate change activists considering the formal, structural elements environmental writers can bring to storytelling, how to handle or tell stories that support political stances, and examine the stories out there that can foster a better understanding of our environmental crisis. But it was so much more. Exploring systems of reciprocity, how far writing can reach (will there ever be another Silent Spring?) and, and, and….
Have a look. And then pick up Kerri Arsenault’s rooted true tale Mill Town. And Bathsheba Demuth’s exquisite Floating Coast. Travel the world through John’s latest Freeman’s: Love. Seek out the deeply thought-through essays on climate and the hard questions they force upon us by Emily Raboteau and Meehan Crist.
This was an evening of incisive conversation with MacDowell Fellows who work in investigative and long-form narrative journalism. In this era of the 30-second soundbite and relative truth, in-depth reporting and groundbreaking nonfiction writing are more important than ever.
MacDowell has been supporting journalists for decades, and believes a new model of assistance is needed for journalists who dedicate their lives to telling complex stories that have the power to change our lives and make our society better. The Art of Journalism Initiative at MacDowell is one way we support groundbreaking voices in non-fiction—like those of James Baldwin, Shane Bauer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Frances FitzGerald, Sheri Fink, William Finnegan, Adrian Nicole Leblanc, and others.
With The Art of Journalism initiative, we are investing $2 million in Fellowships for journalists and long-form non-fiction authors, as well as providing journalism project grants, while helping to link a new network of publishers, non-profit newsrooms, and other key players in the journalism community to MacDowell’s artist community. Get the scoop here .
Watch the video here: Art & Urgency Video
*Due to the coronavirus/COVID-19 crisis, this event has been cancelled*
During my time at Princeton University, I have the pleasure of organizing an event, and I decided to shape it around the powerful novel The Overstory. If you’re in the Princeton area on March 26, please join me. And thanks to Jules Bartl and the BBC for letting us use this exquisite image for the event (check out the short animated film!).
Award-winning environmental journalist Meera Subramanian will host the discussion “New Imaginings: Storytelling, Science and Activism” featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Powers, author of The Overstory; Robin Wall Kimmerer, SUNY professor of environmental biology and author of Braiding Sweetgrass; and forest activist Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology.
Subramanian, the 2019-20 PEI Barron Visiting Professor in the Environment and the Humanities, will lead a conversation exploring how the work of scientists, artists and activists come together to inspire fundamental shifts in perspective. From the underground networks that feed forests to how human activity impacts the upper atmosphere, our understanding of how the world works shapes our minds, the stories we tell, and the way we act.
This event is free and open to the public. Books will be available for purchase from Labyrinth Books.
Thu, Mar 26, 2020
4:30 PM – 7:00 PM
Princeton University, McCosh Hall, Room 10
It’s good to be back on the Mountain. Another round of teaching Creative Nonfiction at Sewanee School of Letters, up here on the Cumberland Plateau. If you find yourself nearby, I invite you to join me for an event this week. I’ll be reading and then having a conversation with School of Letters Interim Director John Gatta. Here are the details: