Our writer, Sammy Weaver, creates a thrillingly imaginative response to the Barbican’s recent feminist literary festival, New Suns, and reimagines words as seeds, bodies as earth and people as lichens.
I was lucky enough to attend the New Suns annual literary festival this year from the comfort of my narrowboat in the Rochdale Canal. New Suns is a weekend of talks, workshops and a film focused on feminist storytelling, in particular that of science-fiction writer Octavia E. Butler. Having never read Octavia E. Butler before, I knew her name and I knew she was one of those authors that I really should have read by now. The keynote talk between adrienne maree brown and Ama Josephine Budge left me ringing with inspiration. Alongside the festival, I began Parables of the Sower, the first book in Octavia E. Butler’s Earthseed series. The book has a journal structure, a technique explored in Alice Sprawls’ workshop on the Sunday. Following advice from adrienne maree brown and Ama Josephine Budge on the importance of honouring, as opposed to critique, I decided to write an experimental piece that hopefully honours the incredibly empowering conversations from the festival. I decided to write the piece as a journal in order to celebrate the intimacy, active engagement and open expression of that form. Through poetry, prose, musings, reportage and notes I explore the power of writing to imagine otherwise in a world ravaged by abusive practices towards both humans and nature. New Suns sowed a seed in my heart and mind for the amazing work of Octavia E. Butler – I am excited to tend to those seedlings and see what wild and beautiful plants bloom.
Friday, March 5, 2021
All that you touch,
All that you Change,
The only lasting truth
The Destiny of Earthseed
Is to take root among the stars.
~ Octavia E. Butler
I touch the packet of mixed flower seeds. Each one a bump under the plastic-coated paper. If I didn’t know, I’d think they were gravel or small pieces of hard candy, the pink and blue kind that fizzes on the tongue. On the back it reads: In a prepared seed bed in flowering position. Appeals to a wide range of beneficial insects. Semi-circular rows create a more natural effect. Note: Contents may vary from those illustrated.
I think of preparing a seed bed on a distant star. My spade is shaped for my hand, my hand is shaped for the spade after millennia of human-tool, human-nonhuman symbiosis on earth. Each time I dig into the helium and hydrogen gasses, figures appear like human ghosts only to implode into blades of light. Funny how we see humans where no humans are. Often, back down on earth, I would wake early in the morning and see a man in the folds of the curtains. Frozen, I would wait a few seconds, which felt like forever, for the man to retreat and for the curtains to reclaim their existence as curtains. Even this far from earth I can’t help but see humans, sometimes individuals, sometimes whole gatherings of them, confusing my vision, messing with my digging. I have even seen animals closer to the star’s core, in the superheated plasma of free electrons – sloths un-winding their heads, slow and serene, and monarch butterflies like blue origami crumpling in the fast winds. I do not have long before the spade vaporises in my hands. I do not have long.
I think of the beneficial insects that these seeds will attract. I think of bees. But what about a beneficial mosquito? A maggot? Who decides who is beneficial? Who decides who is beneficial and for whom? I do not know what this star needs. Back on earth, it was simple. The earth needed diversity and soil and fresh water and free movement. Now, I can’t work out the parameters of ‘beneficial’ and for whom. And as there is no ‘who’ to speak of here, I will have to re-shape ‘who’ to encompass the gasses and electromagnetic radiation. Can a star be animate? Be a person?
Then I re-read Semi-circular rows create a more natural effect. I wonder why semi-circular and not circular? Is a circle too ordered for the random scattering of seeds by the wind and birds back down on earth? I imagine the seeds in my hand as I attempt to sow them into my starry and chaotic seed bed of gasses. They are gone before I can even say ‘grow’. I think of ‘natural effect’ as that quintessential earthy blurring of the nature/culture divide. ‘Effect’ alluding to artifice, to artificial, to manmade, to womanmade, to culture, to cultivate, to growing, to gardening. Full circle the meaning of nature and culture wrap into each other like a Möbius strip. Perhaps that is what is meant by Semi-circular rows create a more natural effect.
I think of how I should Note: Contents may vary from those illustrated. And I think what a great motto for humans. I left earth because humans spent millennia not realising that contents often vary from those illustrated. The society I left was governed by assumption – see a face and assume the contents. Eugenics propaganda was the norm. Narrow nose meant higher IQ. Big bum (on a woman) meant higher fertility, which was frowned upon in the later days. The worse thing was that kids grew up thinking that if they looked like the models on the billboards they would feel content inside. Then there was the hyper-cyborg generation, HC GEN, who recycled plastic into their own bodies, moulding themselves so that they would have a better chance in life. I remember a man stopping me in the street and saying where are you from? I replied: I am from here. I am from here.
The flowers on the seed packet in my palms are yellow and pink and crimson and stippled white. They look happy, but what if the seeds that actually grow are discontented? What if they buckle and die? What if their flowers are ash-grey or anodyne-white or bile-yellow? I must be cautious with my thoughts and assumptions. I tear open the packet to a smaller white packet which says WILDLIFE 13757ID. I shake the smaller packet, then tear it open, careful not to spill the seeds. If I breathe on them, the smaller ones will be blown away. There are seeds that look like tiny hedgehogs, some that are teardrops of pale sun, some that are dark, hard commas, some that look like the dead and detached wings of a fly. Then, there are the globe-shaped seeds the size of shot from a shotgun, but less metallic and round. These ones are globes with a diamond shape pushing out from their core. They smell like fragrant mint, fresh with beginning. Each seed is a bullet of patience. Each seed is a solid bead of hope.
Back on the star, I scatter the seeds and they fly out into the shape of a woman’s dress in a breeze, then a spider’s web ripping with the weight of a wasp.
I sit down with my laptop and a candle flickering up the wall. adrienne maree brown is on one half of the screen, Ama Josephine Budge the other half. Inspired by Jackie Kay’s letter to Angela Davis, Ama starts by reading a letter to adrienne, a letter of awe, of love, of thanks. Ama reminds me of the importance of stars, by which I mean, of role models, but not to be imitated — to be inspired by, to be sparked by. The importance of giving oneself to mentors, to teachers. adrienne is blown away by Ama’s letter. The importance of listening to our mentees, our students. Then they discuss the geographies of the body, of the black body for so long shamed, silenced and traumatised by white supremacist, capitalist patriarchies. The importance of change, of shape-shift. The importance of collective honouring, over toxic critique.
Sci-fi = handful of earth + handful of sky
That when humans have damaged the earth and its inhabitants so much for so long, you look to the stars, to Mars, for relief, even though those worlds are inhospitable to humans. What makes a freezing cold rock where you can’t breathe seem like a good place for a home? When things have gone wrong for a long long time.
adrienne and Ama talk as if each word is a seed floating out of their mouths. They talk of the intimate relationship between trauma and pleasure. How pleasure is a practice that releases the body and mind into freedom. How Octavia E. Butler would masturbate her way through and out of writing blocks, reclaiming her body as hers. How the ‘I’ of her female protagonists are not saved by other male characters, be them lovers or strangers. That violence to the body is violence to planet earth, that violence to planet earth is violence to the body.
A sharp pain in my lower belly as if a drill is making its way to a seam of coal, somewhere in the world again, where the local people stand at the fence asking for work, anything to help.
Another swathe of coral bleaches with the rise in sea temperatures. The empty tenements
rattle in the warm currents. I brush my hair, big clumps of it falling to the floor.
Octavia E. Butler called it the ‘Horrible Ordinary Story’ – the shared trauma of women, of earth. adrienne and Ama talk about the need to break out of human speciesism. How homes are summoned symbiotically between the earth and someone looking for a home.
I talk to the water upon which my boat sits. The boat is a home made manifest by the water and the boat itself. Without the water, we would be stuck, locked on the silt bed with the dead trolleys and bikes.
This early morning, I beak a hair from a wire, fly it to the nook of last year. I think of my nest as a world. Time is measured by the diversity of sheep’s wool, brash and feather woven into the shape of the sun. Love is measured in the form of the eggs to come.
adrienne and Ama talk of the sacred design and fit of humans and earth. That we must listen to the dirt. Feel its voice of sediment move between your fingers. Its mind of mycelium connecting the whole world.
Saturday, March 6, 2021
Among the Stars: Izabella Scott, an editor at The White Review, on one half of my laptop screen, Dorothea Lasky, the American poet, on the other half.
News headlines: Perseverance Martian landing point named after Octavia E Butler.
Dorothea reads her poems to me through the wifi web. Snakes recur, un-coiling out of her mouth. I think of anaconda nights in the jungle, en la selva, with the medicine woman. Where outer space is right here in front of you, in your flesh. There is a spirit to things, Dorothea repeats. Her poems are colours – especially green. What is a green intention? To sit in the middle of a hazel coppice in the pouring rain. To nudge your nose behind another’s ear. To notice the small fine hairs on the dog’s nose. Dorothea reads, in every flower there is the stench of the infinite.
Izabella and Dorothea talk about the poem as a seed, the reader as the soil. A poem as a collaborative endeavour and a poem as an explanation for the inexplicable. Dorothea talks about outer space as familiar, rather than alien. Poetry-as-transformation. I think of places on earth that are inhospitable for human and nonhuman life, places that have the potential to be terraformed: the core of a nuclear power plant, the hard shoulder of the M6, a biochemical lab, a kitchen work surface blitzed with bleach.
Sunday, March 7, 2021
Alice Spawls, co-editor of the London Review of Books, guides me through a workshop of journalling, of disciplined extrapolation. The intimacy of the first-person perspective. Alice unpacks the multiple meanings behind ‘keep’ as in ‘to keep a diary’.
keep: seize, observe, pay attention, maintain, hold, to build a fortress, to care for.
She talks about the power of having the same motif to start writing a regular journal, like the writer Samuel Pepys who started each entry with ‘up’.
I decide on the repeating motif: This body then. ‘This body then’ knots together present (this) and past (then).
She talks about the power of writing a journal in the present tense, even when reflecting on the past and future. I think of the circuitous experience of time, so far from past-present-future linearity. Do progression narratives we tell ourselves rely on a logic of linear time? Octavia E. Butler was a keen keeper of her journal. Alice describes keeping a journal like standing in a big open space, perhaps a desert, in which you are a fully embodied self, in which the past is brought forward, and the future turns inward.
Prompt: write a memory, retrieval work, memories behind memories, visual memory, non-visual memory.
This body then thinking of the ocean to the east where I submerged myself in the cold body of water. The mind is kept silent by the fear of drowning, the need to watch each shift in shadow and ribbon-form in the waves. A set is arriving from afar. I see a billowing dark blue line at the horizon, which is moving toward this body then. I count not in numbers but in shades of blue. There is a man with a sun-weathered face and cracked lips sat at the shore on a wooden bench. When I am out of the water, I pass him and cannot tell his home, and how long. I name him Max – mad? big? god? hero? He advises me not to drink the water from the toilet tap. He has been here a long time and I don’t think he knows his home, nor how long.
Alice talks about writing as world-making. She talks about how keeping a journal as the canonisation of discomfort as we face ourselves and the fractures in memory. And how sharing those gaps and discomforts re-tell the experience for the reader. The journal can be an intimate space like a home, and also an uncomfortable space. Journalling is ontological freedom, is world-making. Keeping a journal is a rebellious act in which you push against internal silencing. Alice shows us a photo of a page in Octavia E. Butler’s diary. It is full of active affirmations and positive exultations written in a mix of different colours. The strength in those words illuminate the doubt within herself, and the power to overcome such doubt through writing, reading and world-making.
Prompt: write a memory that is strange, painful, uncomfortable. Allow the forgetting as part of the trauma.
This body then meets K in an area of Bristol that felt like a mid-point for both of us – between my rented room and his new life on a farm outside of the city. I am wearing a summery jumpsuit and I am conscious of my skin, how much is open to the world. We go into a supermarket to buy some ciders. I can’t recall what happened next exactly but I am suddenly feeling like a bridge between K who has turned into a castle and the cashier woman who is a stranger with a gun. K is shifty and agitated, but really the cashier woman has no gun. K behaves as though the whole world has let him down. We walk to a park and sit down, the land is tilting away. My legs are going numb and there is pain gathering in my forehead.
Prompt: write a positive memory.
This body then is holding a billhook in my left hand, an axe in the other. There are men teaching the group how to lay a living hedge. I will learn not from them, but by them, by which I mean side-by-side. We will share a portion of clear sky. We will sharpen the ends of hazel branches to make them into stakes that we will hammer into the earth. The sun is high. We will hack into the lower trunk of the trees, almost all the way through to the other side, but leaving a thin layer where the cambium remains intact. It will feel violent and wrong. We will bend the trees over and they will continue to grow, budding in a few weeks, and the buds bursting open their delicate flesh.
Watch: Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival
I end the weekend by watching Fabrizio Terranova’s documentary film on the ecofeminist thinker, science historian and writer, Donna Haraway. In the film, Donna talks about orthodontic work, racial anthropology, her childhood in Denver, colonial inheritance, her love of dogs, her love of sci-fi books and her passion to change the story of violence to humans and nonhumans.
There is a scene in the film where Donna and her dog are completing an agility course. My new rescue dog, Osita, perks up as she hears Donna’s dog bark through the laptop speakers. Osita sits up and looks at the screen. In that moment, Donna’s dog is dog and laptop. Osita recognises the sound of a dog barking as dog, but cannot match a doggy smell to the laptop. In true Donna-fashion, human and nonhuman are intimately knotted together in this moment:
Donna – dog agility
dog – dog barking through laptop and laptop as human-made nonhuman item
Throughout the documentary, Donna’s thinking is tentacular, drawing from multiple sources and trains of thought to illustrate her passion for rethinking human-nonhuman relationships. The documentary is made up of intimate interviews where Donna faces the interviewer off shot and just at an angle to the camera. Suddenly, a jellyfish pulses behind Donna — an animation. Suddenly, I notice the whole desk moving smoothly around Donna as if whilst she talks , perception of the world shifts, or new worlds are made possible.
Donna’s hands do a lot of talking, her fingers spread wide like the fronds of a palm tree. She makes herself laugh whilst she is talking and when she does it is as if there are bright green wings lifting her whole face to the sun.
Donna says, we are all lichens. Meaning: ? Meaning: we are only ever existing symbiotically.
Donna reads sci-fi texts as philosophical texts, whirring with ideas and new worlds. She talks about the feminist practice of tracing the precise history of ideas. Which ideas have gained power over the millennia of human history? And who do they benefit? Who do they kill? Which bodies are destroyed as a result of the white patriarchy?
Donna said to the earth that she needed a home, and the earth listened. She crafted her home in Santa Cruz with human-friends and redwood-friends. Donna says, good thinking happens at the moment of speechlessness. She talks about the importance of refusing the paralysis of scholarly critique and arrogance. She then tells the story of Camille 1 who has many parents. At birth, Camille’s birth parent chose monarch butterflies as the ongoing symbiont of Camille. Camille and monarch butterflies are united in a community of care and concern for each other. In this society, humans live for the recuperation of all critters on planet earth. This is just one story for making kin without babies.
That night, I dream I am half-human, half-reptile. I look down at my hands and they are see-through. I can see the blood pulsing round. My eyes are wider and I am growing back a limb. I can feel the cells multiplying and fusing me back together.
Feature image by Cecilia Serafini.