I’m excited to share this really great post from Samantha Mabry. Her new book, All the Wind in the World, is out tomorrow, October 10, and it’s one that should absolutely be on your to-be-read list. It was long listed for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature, and it was one of the Book Expo America Buzz titles — both honors for good reason.
Samantha is here to talk about the genre she writes and what, exactly, sparked her connection with the label “disaster realism.”
At last spring’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Washington, D.C., I attended a panel that was called “Girls of the Apocalypse.” Mostly, I wanted to see Claire Vaye Watkins, author of the stunning novel from 2015, Gold Fame Citrus. If you’re not familiar with it, Gold Fame Citrus takes place in the near future when things have pretty much gone to hell because of climate change. California is basically uninhabitable, and much of the West has been transformed into sand dunes. The main character (her name is Luz; she’s 25) and her boyfriend leave Los Angeles, where they’ve been squatting in an abandoned mansion, head out into the dunes, and eventually fall in with a cult, the members of which are scraping out a living in this dusty new world.
During this panel –which was composed of Watkins and others –the moderator asked a question that I still can’t stop thinking about. It was something along the lines of, “Is ‘apocalyptic’ even the right word for what you’re writing or would a term like ‘disaster realism’ be more apt?” Picture me gasping audibly, because that’s exactly what I did.
Moderator, I’m sorry that I don’t remember your name, but I have stolen your term “disaster realism,” and am clinging to it. Many readers –myself included –are drawn to stories about life in a lifeless place. We think that perhaps, if and when disaster becomes real, we can become the heroes we always believed we were, or, at the very least, survive despite all terrible odds. Or there may a part of each of us that simply gravitates, zombie-like, toward disaster.
My latest novel All the Wind in the World could fall under the category of “disaster realism.” It’s about a determined survivor: seventeen year-old Sarah Jacqueline Crow. She’s among a group of people who live as migrant workers in the American Southwest after a gradual environmental collapse. She’s not particularly concerned with the details of this collapse. She knows it happened, and she believes she has the grit and ability to survive in the environment it has produced. What I set out to do, sort of like what Claire Vaye Watkins did, was create a future vision of the West that didn’t seem like too big of leap from the West with which I’m familiar and that currently exists. While there are elements of fabulism woven throughout, much of the world of the Real Marvelous was created by compiling natural events that have happened/are happening in Texas, such as freak swarms of killer bees, water that’s become too salty to drink, and out-of-nowhere dust storms. Again, this isn’t such a far-fetched vision of the future because it’s basically what’s happening now.
It would be hard not to see that the worldwide natural disasters we’re currently watching on the news and witnessing in our neighborhoods rival or surpass the disasters that can be plucked from our imagination, and this has led me to think more and more about the role and responsibilities of storytellers –about my role and responsibility as a storyteller. In my first novel, A Fierce and Subtle Poison, which was set in Puerto Rico, I used a hurricane as a plot device, and when I think about that now after seeing the pain and devastation Hurricane Maria has wrought, it makes me cringe. If we as writers use natural disasters as plot devices or backdrops, I’m wondering if we need to be more mindful or start to ask and answer different kinds of questions in our stories. One of those questions might be, “Now what?” The world has fundamentally changed, now what? Things will never be the same, now what? Young people are survivors, now what? I’m not trying to be prescriptive here and tell writers what to do and what to consider. I’m just trying to articulate what I myself have been considering. I write fiction, but the world is so full of true disasters, and I’m trying to find ways to honor the scars of the real while still exploring hope and magic.
Samantha Mabry grew up in Texas playing bass guitar along to vinyl records, writing fan letters to rock stars, and reading big, big books, and credits her tendency toward magical thinking to her Grandmother Garcia, who would wash money in the kitchen sink to rinse off any bad spirits. She teaches writing and Latino literature at a community college in Dallas, Texas, where she lives with her husband, a historian, and her pets, including a cat named Mouse. She is the author of the novels A Fierce and Subtle Poison and All the Wind in the World. Visit her online at samanthamabry.com or on Twitter: @samanthamabry.