Doretta Lau speaks with the author of the memoir Turning about nature writing and diversity
Photo credit: Paul Capewell
In 2017, Canadian-Chinese-British writer and environmental historian Jessica J. Lee published a fantastic memoir called Turning, which is about a year of swimming adventures in the lakes of Germany. Since then, Lee has decided to address the diversity issue in nature writing by launching a journal called The Willowherb Review:
The notion that the New Nature Writing has a diversity problem is not new. Critics and scholars have been talking about the need for diversity in nature writing for some time—see Catherine Buni’s piece in the LA Review of Books, for example—and both readers and writers have been keen to see more diverse authors published. To meet that need, The Willowherb Review aims to provide an initial platform to celebrate and bolster nature writing by emerging and established writers of colour.
Submissions to the first issue of The Willowherb Review are open from August 1 to September 26, 2018. We caught up with Lee to discuss nature writing and her advice for writers who are attempting the genre for the first time.
Your memoir Turning is a beautiful meditation on self and the environment told through a series of swims. As you wrote the book, was one of your goals to bring your point of view to nature writing?
Jessica J. Lee: Definitely—I’ve long believed that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to talk about nature in the abstract, because it’s something we experience fully and viscerally when we’re out in the world. So my point of view was always going to be there. I have read a lot of nature and environment writing over the years, but rarely seen work that grapples with being an immigrant in a new landscape, with being a mixed-race woman working her way through a place she both belongs and doesn’t quite belong. The narrators and protagonists in nature writing often seem to be assumed—the solitary white man in the landscape, who “belongs”, or the Brontë-esque young woman in a brooding landscape, or the person who has never had to leave the place about which they write—and I wanted to trouble those notions a bit, because much of my life has been about needing to inhabit and re-invent my life in new places, about finding myself out-of-place.
What inspired you to start the Willowherb Review?
JJL: Perhaps a bit of frustration! When Turning came out in the UK, I looked at the nature writing scene and felt somewhat alone. And I saw so many readers online asking to read more nature writers of colour, but no one could come up with a critical mass of writers to suggest. In a world where borders are tightening and people of colour constantly have to justify their right to be in the world—especially in nature—it just felt needed. Then the Wainwright Prize (the UK nature writing prize) long-list came out—unsurprisingly non-diverse, despite being a great selection of books I really respect—and something kind of snapped in me. I figured I have a small platform at this stage thanks to Turning, and I want to use it to get other writers of colour published.
What kind of work are you hoping to publish?
JJL: I’m hoping to receive that transporting kind of nonfiction, the kind that puts you right in another place, in another person’s perspective. I do think it’d be great to have a bit of writing on belonging, migration, and place, but I don’t think writers of colour should always have to grapple with race or identity—a huge bugbear for a lot of writers. Attention to the environment is the key thing—work that attends to a more-than-human world, that shows knowledge and emotional intelligence. Above all, I want to see work that really demonstrates the amazing writing chops of new writers of colour and Indigenous writers, which stakes their claim to a place in the nature writing tradition. (<– Now that I write this, I realise how high my expectations are! But I know these writers are out there.)
Who are some nature writers who have informed your work?
JJL: It’s a long list… I spent a lot of time in my PhD engaging with the work of Anna Tsing, an anthropologist, and Arnold Berleant, an aesthetic philosopher. Both of them write about nature in ways that engage the whole body and all the emotions, from quite a humble place. I love that. I have always loved the work of Richard Mabey, particularly on the scrubby, forgotten bits at the edges of cities. In truth, though, I take a lot of inspiration from fiction and poetry. I’m currently obsessed with the work of Taiwanese novelist and nature writer Wu Ming-Yi.
Do you have advice for writers who want to engage with nature in their work, but don’t know how to approach it?
JJL: I often think of it as speaking a language—there are a lot of languages with which to approach nature, but once you are comfortable with one of them, a little bit of knowledge can go a long way. I think it also helps remove a lot of the tired sentimentality that plagues writing about nature. For me, I took a short course in botany, which really rounded out the work I had done studying environment from a humanities perspective. It made me feel like not only could I walk through a landscape and read my own history into it, I could tell you the context and history of its plants, its soils, which were so much bigger than me. But these languages don’t have to be scientific: they can be emotional, they can be historical, political, or personal. It’s like getting to know a new person or culture; you just need to make an effort to communicate with and understand a place.