Jill Stukenberg: Can You Write Eco-fiction Without Knowing It? (What’s in a Genre Label?)

Photo: Emma Whitman

My novel, News of the Air (Black Lawrence Press, Sept. 9), was born in a real place: an old-time fishing resort on a northwoods lake where overgrown paths connect musty cabins and the smell of diesel mingles with pine. I grew up on the shore of another Wisconsin body of water–Green Bay–so rich with plant life, and cyclical in fish kills, it was once known as “The Bay of Stinking Waters” (exacerbated today by warmer weather, more rain, and more farm run-off).

When writing my novel, I knew for certain that the setting would be alive, would be dynamic and not static. I’ve always known place as changeable: with the same stand of woods a green thicket in one season and ablaze with color in another; with sparkling water into which children might cannonball firm enough for a Ford in winter. In my own lifetime, I’ve seen shorelines disappear and reappear, and habitats transform due to invasive species.

So it was funny when, after years of writing my novel, and faced finally with the task of defining it, it took me a hot minute to embrace the word “Eco-fiction.” Like any label or name, genre descriptors highlight one aspect while obscuring others. (My book was still about a family, rural life, technology, and mental health. And, I hoped, literary.)

And just what goes into “Eco-fiction”?

Mary Woodbury, writing for Impakter, provides this definition: “Eco-fiction is made up of fictional tales that reflect important connections, dependencies, and interactions between people and their natural environments. Sometimes people are even left out altogether, resulting in purely ecological story webs. The genre is evolving along with the changes in our world, including newer and more accepted scientific findings, such as climate change.”

I’m taken with the idea of tales of ecosystems, of depicting characters as organisms within natural environments.

It matches how I felt over the years I wrote my novel, as the place and people nudged their way into being. I was interested in the changing world beneath my characters’ feet, which rose to a plot point as those changes drove a wedge between two of my main characters, a married couple increasingly divided over how to interpret and respond to a rapidly shifting natural world and the resultant shifts in human society. I discovered their teenage daughter and her friend group to be more influenced than anyone knew by their own sense of coming of age in a collapsing world.

Perhaps I was even writing climate fiction (Cli Fi). Natalie Batsha, in a recent essay for Literary Hub, says “to write climate fiction is to write fiction that understands that the only constant is collapse.” When I came across Batsha’s essay, I thought of the eroded banks, collapsed beehive colonies, and liquidation sales that spill from the pages of my novel, and the feeling I had been after: not only of things falling apart but of the anxiety of things falling apart.

One reason I didn’t embrace the terms Eco-fiction or Cli Fi earlier was because I didn’t want to write disaster-based fiction. Familiar narratives of apocalypse too often make a spectacle of catastrophe and in doing so–ironically–make real dangers seem too big and bizarre to be truly possible. I wanted my readers to wonder more. To ask “Wait. Is this the future? Or is this now?” And even–though it was risky for clarity–“What exactly is the crisis operating in the background? What’s causing it, and just how bad will it get?”

I also wanted to explore the story of the human relationships–our desires for love, connection, and recognition–that would go on, along with the minutiae of daily life, even during cataclysm. That seemed most true to me of how humans would act, how it would feel. How it does feel already to live right now.

I did finally choose to embrace the term Eco-fiction (and I don’t mind Cli Fi). As an artist, it was good for me that I didn’t have the terms and discourse at the top of my head while I was writing. (It might have penned me in, heightened my self-consciousness, led to didacticism that lacked mystery or beauty.) But since then, it’s been engaging for me to read about and to reflect on what I was trying to do–the same thing many other writers working within and writing about this historical moment are trying to do.

I see some of the passion I felt for truth-speaking reflected in a call to action for artists by Ben Okri, published in The Guardian, and by E.O. Farro writing for Brevity Blog, who claims artists can explore and document what scientists sometimes cannot. I’ve read that others share my concerns for avoiding spectacle and doomerism and seeming to “encode the inevitable” (Heather Houser, for Literary Hub).

Others pinpoint how fears of social change due to climate change simply showcase privilege and can even contribute to xenophobia (Sarah Jaquette Ray for Scientific American; Olivia Parkes interview with Elvia Wilk for Electric Literature). I did worry about that and see now the ways my book both responds and fails to respond enough to that concern. I’ve also come across researchers who seek to measure how Eco and Climate narratives can translate into real-world action for climate justice, and the ways in which they can backfire (Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, for Literary Hub).

Will my next novel be Eco-fiction? To what extent will the label serve me as a writer? I don’t know right now. I do wonder if the genre term itself will collapse as we realize that to center our narratives in the constancy of change in our environment–with many of those changes increasing in speed and impact due to human activity–is just “realism.”

But currently, Eco-fiction and Cli Fi are terms that point in the same direction as a truth I’ve been chasing.

Jill Stukenberg’s novel News of the Air won the Big Moose Prize from Black Lawrence Press. Her stories have been published in Midwestern Gothic, The Collagist (now The Rupture), The Florida Review, and other places. A graduate of the MFA program at New Mexico State University, she is now an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.


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