Environmental Justice and Bodily Autonomy
Michael J. DeLuca talks to Catherine Rockwood
Michael: Hi, I'm Michael J. DeLuca, publisher of Reckoning, the journal of creative writing on environmental justice. To celebrate the release of Our Beautiful Reward - Reckoning's special issue on bodily autonomy - editor Catherine Rockwood agreed to talk to me about the issue.
Catherine Rockwood (she/they) lives in Massachusetts with her family. Their poetry appears in or is forthcoming from Moist Poetry Journal, Strange Horizons, Scoundrel Time, Contrary Magazine, Rogue Agent Journal, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. Her chapbook, Endeavors To Obtain Perpetual Motion, is available from The Ethel Zine press. Another mini-chapbook, And We Are Far From Shore, is forthcoming from Ethel in 2023.
I should add that Catherine and I recently met in person for the first time after having worked together on Reckoning staff for several years, and it was lovely, relaxed and intellectually stimulating in ways I had honestly almost forgotten face-to-face human interaction could be in these isolating times. So I hope to share with you all a little bit of that today. Welcome Catherine!
Catherine: Thank you!
Michael: First of all, Catherine: what did you learn editing this special issue?
Catherine: I learned a lot. One of the things that I learned is purely personal and that’s just that I enjoy editing, which I didn’t know before. I learned to be really super grateful for Reckoning’s readers. They saved me from making a lot of mistakes, I think, they helped me read better. Everyone I forwarded things to got back to me with great advice and insights. That’s not to say I didn’t make mistakes, I did, but other people can’t fully save you from that. However, a generous advising team like the one at Reckoning helps improve outcomes.
We’re proud of the issue. Part of the reason I feel proud of it is because of the people who helped me put it together. It wouldn’t be as good as it is without everybody. I think the other thing that is really exciting is, I learned that editing expands the imagination kind of like reading does, and there’s a very different feel to it. So you’re not really asking yourself what does this individual poem or story do, but instead you’re thinking—and this was totally new to me, and so interesting—what does this poem or story do together with this other poem or story? And you kind of do that, and you do that, and you find new things, and you find new combinations, until you hit your page limit.
It should be said, we had a little difficulty putting a page cap on this issue. We kind of went over our initial limit because there was so much great stuff that was coming in and so many pieces that we wanted. But speaking in terms of what it’s like to edit: it’s super intense to be bringing that togetherness of this set of works into its final shape. And I loved it, but also: I was tired once we were done.
Michael: [Laughing] Me too! It is kind of magic how a group of people who don’t know each other can be all thinking about the same topic, and be brought together after they’ve written something on that topic into a physical/conceptual object—an issue of a magazine—and actually begin to feel like a community, mutually inspiring, mutually supporting. I’ve experienced this a lot with Reckoning. I totally want to echo everything you say about Reckoning staff, they are wonderful, they are a community that feels pretty resilient to me at this point.
Michael: I’m doing a lot behind the scenes, but the work culture, the creative culture of Reckoning staff is a solid entity of its own, and that’s wonderful.
Perhaps a fun thing to interject here is, as you said, we went over our intended page limit, and I’m glad we did, the work that’s in the issue coheres really well, but it made us have to change our intentions for the physical object, which is what’s coming out here in March. We got all excited about the idea of it having a zine format, sort of like an old style punk zine. We were going to have a piece of vellum—
Catherine: [Laughing] Yes!
Michael: —that would flip back and reveal the art….
Catherine: We got very excited about materials and binding, but yes, that had to change.
Michael: We got to a fair point of talking it through with your chapbook publisher, who is awesome, and was willing to do all this hand-binding, and then alas, too many great words. So now it’s a perfect-bound paperback like all the other Reckoning issues. Oh well—it’s still great.
Catherine: That’s right. Sara Lefsyk at the Ethel zine press was willing to work with us on it, but yes, our page count went over. But people should still check out the Ethel zine press, another great indie publisher.
Michael: Okay, so: what’s the connection between environmental justice and bodily autonomy?
Catherine: Right! This is a big question. And having thought about it—and I’ll just say these are really just my thoughts, which I’ve tried to inform as much as possible through reading and discussion—so one answer for me is that it’s harder to gear yourself up to take action on and for environmental causes if you don’t feel empowered to make basic decisions about what’s right for your own body. We have an essay by Amber Fox, it’s called “Ghost of a Chance: A Trans Girl Tries to Live” that really opened my eyes to that, as what I would call a fact.
Riley Tao’s flash fiction piece “Hangs Heavy on Their Head” connects developing concern for the environment with an increasing sense of possibility about presenting in public and to oneself as non-binary. When you feel that you can choose what’s right for yourself in terms of gender identity, I think that then extends to feeling you can make actual choices about the world and in the service of the world. Which is of course one of the reasons gender identity is so heavily policed. So—really big stuff there.
Michael: Yeah, for sure.
Catherine: Yeah! It’s huge.
Here’s another more rambling answer, and that is that the definition of autonomy is self-government. But when it comes to the environment, we’re all dependents. We’re all at the mercy of what the environment’s condition is. And that’s not a great position to be in at all right now, overall. Which is why more than ever people who can get pregnant should be able to self-govern about the pregnancy itself. Of course—and this is where the justice part comes in—some of us are more at the mercy of our local environments than others. Due to the historically unequal conditions that have determined where marginalized populations live, in the US and elsewhere. And that’s not fair. Environmental justice work increases bodily autonomy in the sphere of childbearing, where it helps equalize or balance local material conditions including the condition of essential natural resources like air and water that pertain to making a decision about a pregnancy—to continue it or not to continue it, to raise a child or not raise a child, now, as things are.
My thought on this is influenced by—or I would say sourced in—Sister Song, an Atlanta-based organization with national reach, founded and led by Black and Brown women. And you can find the organization at www.sistersong.net. In the 1990s, Sister Song coined the term “reproductive justice” and articulated a careful set of principles around it. I’m quoting here from their website:
“Reproductive justice is comprised by the human right to control our bodies and our future, the human right to have children, the human right to not have children, and the human right to parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.”
Where environmental justice comes into it explicitly of course is in that fourth principle, “the right to raise children in safe and sustainable communities”. There are many things that go into creating a safe and sustainable community, but a functional environment is a sine qua non, it’s an absolute necessity. For historically marginalized communities to experience reproductive justice, they must have clean water, clean air, a livable climate. Which as things now are would take some deep work. We should all be putting time, money, work in to make that a possibility.
So those are some of the connections that I see.
Michael: Yeah. And the concept of reproductive justice here perfectly illustrates how that works.
Michael: We got the idea for this issue as a result of the Supreme Court ruling about Roe v. Wade, and then very quickly were forced to expand—”forced”, I mean, we realized that the question of reproduction is only a small part of bodily autonomy and the more I sit and think it through, you know, as you’re saying, where you live determines what you can and can’t do with your body including have healthy children?
Catherine: That’s right.
Michael: I’m thinking about the people who live near me in Downriver Detroit who grow up with terribly contaminated air, and as a result, if you’re born in that area you’re incredibly likely to have all these allergies, and your kids are as likely, and all that’s about systemic economic factors that result in Black people ending up living in Downriver Detroit as opposed to white people, etc etc and on and on.
Catherine: Yeah, and again, I feel like I’m coming to this very belatedly and there are many people who’ve thought about it much more deeply, much more profoundly for much longer. But editing this issue, thinking about this issue really brought home to me that essentially, destroying the environment is removing fundamental choices from people, the ability to make fundamental choices. So in terms of the issue, one of the works that we published that really illustrates this for me, where the author is explicitly talking about that, like, you know, what choices remain to me, based on what other people have done to the environment, is Laurel Nakanishi’s “Ghazal for Freshwater”, where the speaker talks about having a new baby and living in an area where you are no longer in control of whether or not you can offer your child fresh water. And it should get to you, you know, thinking that way.
Michael: Should I say the hippie thing about star stuff?
Catherine: I think you should totally say the hippie thing about star stuff, yes.
Michael: [Laughs] Okay! Something this issue and working with you on it has taught me about is the progressive theoretical conception of “bodies”. This is something I heard about long ago when my partner was in a Women’s Studies program and couldn’t wrap my head around until this moment, really. We are made of profound stuff, star-stuff, as it’s a bit cliché to say in science fiction, but we’re these incredible, thinking, feeling creatures, extending far beyond our physical forms, but bounded by them. We’re in them, and in that sense, in a very real way, environment is a part of them, part of us. Industrialist, individualized society has made it too easy to sever that connection, to think of ourselves as independent of our bodies—and here when I say “our” I am probably unable to help meaning, more than I should at this point, dominant white male bodies—and that makes things conceived of as outside us—again, me—seem exploitable, disposable. And that includes bodies, other bodies. But we are what we eat, what we breathe, what we absorb through our skin, and that’s true of animals and of plants and of people. It’s easy to begin to sound here like I’ve eaten too many of the special brownies, but the lens of environmental justice has shown me that body-mind-spirit is all one thing in ways the hippies that surrounded me in my youth never managed. And I will stop myself there.
Let’s try to talk more about some amazing moments in this issue, without spoilers if we can.
Catherine: So I’m mainly a poet in terms of practice—well, in terms of my own writing practice—and so I’d like to start with the poetry and then move on to the amazing fiction. And I would say, true for both of those…. Let’s see, we have one nonfiction piece in Our Beautiful Reward, we have Amber Fox’s essay, but in terms of the poetry the thing that I like the most about what we assembled is that it really varies in terms of style and form. So we have free verse, we have Laurel Nakanishi’s “Ghazal for Freshwater”, we have Marissa Lingen’s litany, which ends the issue. There isn’t a sameness to the poetry stylistically. And every poem is on topic, but also highly individualized, and that was just—and I’m going to swear here—it was a fucking joy. I mean it was so great to read and think about this very different but again very focused work. Plus the pieces, the poems, you know, really ring the changes on and against each other.
For example, we start the issue with Linda Cooper’s poem “After the Ban”, and I don’t think it’s a spoiler—I’m going to do a little, like, on-the-go criticism. So in this poem—and you have to read it to see how this is done—a young woman is kind of disassembled by “the ban”. And implicitly this is the ban on abortions at all stages of pregnancy, I mean moving into very early weeks where it is in fact impossible to know that you might even be pregnant. The young woman in the poem is sort of disassembled by the ban into a set of abstractions that suddenly reform in just a wild, powerful way at the end of the poem.
And in Annabelle Cormack’s “Charcuterie”, a young woman is disassembled in a very different, non-abstracted way. So we also had—and I was delighted by this, we had some very necessary, very visceral body horror included in this issue.
To conclude, we have Marissa Lingen’s “Exception”, where instead of the material world turning against known rules, the speaker’s own voice turns against her. So in the framing poems of the issue, “After the Ban” and “Exception”, in both cases—these are very different poems—there’s a moment where what’s settled or decided in the poem drops away, and a whole new set of possibilities hovers or explodes into view. And I love that. It’s a bit of a response; there’s this sense that, with the overturning of Roe v. Wade, you know, something that we understood—that was of settled benefit to a large percentage of—to the American population—dropped away.
And, you know, it’s trying to remember that this is a true loss, and it’s costly, and it’s hurting people now, and that we can also try to think of it as a moment of unsettlement, a moment where new possibilities are going to come into view in terms of what might happen in the future. So the poems do that, I hope the issue does that, and I just love what the writers have done.
Michael: Yeah. This again is reminding me of how beautifully it all came together. The sense that—you called it “falling away”—that this is an issue about a shock.
Catherine: A shock of loss.
Michael: Right. And it shares something with the other special issue we did, which was about COVID, in that it’s a bunch of reactions. And that’s—it’s both wonderful and sad, I mean if we had given people more time, if we had waited, perhaps the issue would have had more activism, more resistance? But it still has a lot of resistance, and it is important to me to give that sense of loss a platform.
Michael: It also always astonishes me how poetic meanings can evolve—and in prose too, I mean, we read these pieces over and over as we’re developing the issue, and every time I read them in that process they mean a little something different to me. I read Juliana Roth’s poem, “Roses in Washington Square Park”, so many times before I was able to just engage with it as a narrative of something that was happening to a narrator and her mother in a park, and when it actually did I couldn’t understand how I had engaged with it the previous times I’d read it. The other thing that occurs to me here is that Mari Ness’s poem “Green Leaves Against the Wind” articulates exactly what I was talking about a minute ago about interdependent bodily forms.
There’s the line “I could feed this garden with my blood.” And I’m thinking about every time I clip my nails. This may be gross, but I put it in the compost, and then those proteins feed my plants, which feed me again, and I am interconnected with all that. My garden is me. And that is something it has taken me until this long to realize about that poem. And this is about how the pieces interact with each other, as you were saying at the beginning of this discussion.
Part of the wonderful thing about editing is looking at these pieces individually and then learning new things about them when they’re placed side by side. And the most striking example to me in this issue of that is what happened when we looked at Julian Jarboe’s and Dyani Sabin’s poems next to each other. They’re both about the risks of physical and emotional love when bodies are under threat, and they really play off each other beautifully, and they’re both very subtle, and I was unable to grasp some of the subtleties until I looked at them next to each other.
Michael: Which makes me feel obtuse, frankly, but in a good way because I’m learning.
Michael: But we should talk about the fiction too. Which direction are we walking—as an issue, as a field, as a society—with respect to Omelas? I really like how comparatively undystopian this issue is in the traditional sense, the science fictional sense, considering the subject and where we are in the world right now. Nobody’s trapped in a distant orbital maze to make a point. Instead, for example in Anna Orridge’s story, they’re trapped in a walled subdivision taking care of somebody’s kids. The dystopia here is close, in time and in scale, it has nuance. Does that feel like a relief to you as much as it does to me?
Catherine: Yes, and I think also particularly in relation to this topic, that it’s important to understand—I think it is like genuinely capital-I Important to understand that to some extent the dystopia is us. [Laughing.] And yet that sources of hope and familiarity and community are also us as it relates to this topic, environmental justice and its relationship with bodily autonomy. Leah Bobet, who has a wonderful poem, “fertile week”, in the issue, recently talked about the interest of setting work what she called “five minutes into the future”. So that’s a Leah Bobet quotation there, “fiction set five minutes into the future”. A lot of what we accepted for Our Beautiful Reward is set there. I think that is because, as you say, one of the factors is that our call was quite immediate, it was quite reactive in relation to the overturn of Roe v. Wade at the end of June 2022, and so people's responses were immediate, you know, this applies to my life, this applies to your life, fictional renderings of that. But this is, I think, important—it was certainly important to me as an editor. I think generally, though not universally, this is important to Reckoning as a publication. You could speak more precisely to that. But none of the stories end on what you’d really call a note of despair.
So Rimi B. Chatterjee’s “A Question of Choice”—fantastic story—leaves us with a view of evolving resistance to patriarchal reproductive tech in northern India. That story is just so fun, I mean it shows and discusses a lot of super difficult things, but it’s also just fundamentally unbowed at its very core, and I hope lots of people read it. Dana Vickerson’s beautifully structured short story “On This Day, and All Days, I Think About What I Have Lost”, does end in a state of profound grief, but it’s also about endurance, stubbornness, recovery.
I do love the fact that if you’ve read around in the field, you know, in speculative fiction and in what you would call more—not space opera necessarily, but more distant worlds, you can kind of get the outlines of galactically huge things under the surface of the apparent everyday in the fiction in this issue. So for instance, Anna’s story “Wild Winter Rose” is partly I think about the way dislocation to another country can be as terrifying as emergency space travel unless you have the help of some kind of community.
Michael: Yes! So much of this is in conversation with a shared body of work. And I never want Reckoning to be exclusively genre and I personally have no idea how to distinguish between genre poetry and non-genre poetry, which you and I have talked about in the past.
Michael: But I feel like genre thinking and metaphors are much more in the public consciousness than they ever have been, and a moment like this… I felt like this in 2001, actually. When 9/11 happened I thought, I have entered a science-fictional side timeline, and I didn’t like that feeling, and I didn’t think that reaction was appropriate to what had happened. But, you know, an emotional response is an emotional response and I can’t be too critical of myself about it at this point from something so long ago. But I feel, with everything that’s happened, not to name that orange-headed guy, but it all repeatedly feels that way these days, and we have these huge metaphors underlying everywhere. So when I was reading the Dana Vickerson story, I thought about the world of Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, in which some similar things happen, dystopian, dark things that look a lot like the United States of today, in frightening ways that lots of people have pointed out. But Vickerson’s ending is hopeful to me in an interior sense where Butler’s ending… the hope it provides is in the stars.
It’s saying “this world sure is messed up and dystopian, and this country’s origin is in slavery, and maybe that’s inescapable, but maybe we can get away from it into the unknown. And that never quite worked as well on me as the ending of that Dana Vickerson story, even though it is incredibly sad, tragic, and the character is left isolated and without much more than her memories and her grief. And yet there’s this internal hope, which feels much more real to me than the idea of colonizing space ever did.
Catherine: This is so interesting. And I think, again, the way that the field needs to, must, and will continue to have conversations about…. [Laughs.] You know, this world or other worlds? Right? Do we place our hope in this world or other worlds? And that conversation has been going on for a long time. It’s achieving nuance, achieving new information sets, new factors all the time. I do wonder—you know, I think you could argue that some of this is still about race, and whether the color of your skin has anything to do with how much you feel is left to recuperate, environmentally, psychologically, on earth. So I’m thinking here about Sofia Samatar’s fiction, and in particular I’m thinking about her short story “Request for an Extension on the Clarity“ which is in her collection Tender, and I think it first appeared in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet—
Michael: Yes, that was my guest issue, I bought that story, so proud!
Catherine: Oh, did you? It’s such an incredible story. And that, to me, that’s a story I read and I was like, “oh, shit!” [Laughs.] You know?
Catherine: Here’s something I, comparatively affluent cisgender white woman, had never thought about before. So this is where a nonwhite protagonist can’t bring herself to return to earth, but also isn’t fully ready to throw away her relationship to the planet, and so for the time being—and this is sort of the always time of the rest of the sequel of the story, I mean as far as you know she’s just going to stay where she is which is on a space station, an in-between space of contemplation between these really difficult, different options. I can’t remember all the fine particulars of that incredible story, but I remember that essential and deliberate positioning that Samatar really wanted us to think about. So—the conversation will continue. And it was so incredibly exciting to have an editorial seat at this particular iteration. And a tremendous amount of affection, I would say, for the experience and the undertaking is what I’ve been left with.
Michael: That is a reasonable stopping point?
Michael: I sure would love to talk—you know, each of these pieces—there are things for us to squee about. But we need not squee about every single one of them.
Catherine: Yep, yep. [Laughing.]
Michael: So I’ll say, thank you very much, Catherine. This was a lot of fun, and I hope what we have talked about excites people to read the rest and get excited about that too.
Catherine: Yes, exactly. Please read these wonderful works.
You can now purchase the Our Beautiful Reward issue of Reckoning journal.
Michael J. DeLuca lives in the rapidly suburbifying post-industrial woodlands north of Detroit with partner, kid, cats and microbes. He is the publisher of Reckoning, a journal of creative writing on environmental justice. His short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Apex, Mythic Delirium, and lots of other places. His novella, Night Roll, released by Stelliform Press in October 2020, was a finalist for the Crawford Award.
Catherine Rockwood is a staff member of Reckoning Magazine and a reviewer for Strange Horizons. She has a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies, and many remaining questions about everything.
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In this extract from a book featuring a climate solution, Sarah E. Lewis shares an extract from The Change Agents about animals seeking an extraordinary partnership with humans and racing together against the climate crisis to save their shared world:
The wolf looked calmly and authoritatively at the Alliance members and then scanned the attendees in the gallery, making all feel included. She said, “We called this special meeting of the Alliance to discuss a new development in our Climate Change Initiative. Mission Command has been working on a project for years now with the goal of partnering with humans to fight climate change.”
The crowd released a collective exclamation while the members of the Alliance looked over the audience reassuringly.
The wolf continued, “The world is on a perilous path because of the warming climate. The more time that passes, the less time we have to avert disaster where our habitats are destroyed and our species dwindle into extinction. We in the animal kingdom can only do so much in the climate fight. The sole way to have any chance of success is to enlist the assistance of humans to slow down and ideally reverse global warming. We are pursuing any involvement with humans cautiously, but after decades of working on our own, it’s clear the beings who caused the conditions resulting in climate change must address it.” The Alliance members shook their heads in agreement.
“We have information and capabilities that humans don’t and working together is the only hope for saving ourselves and this planet as we know it.”
The gallery members chattered among themselves, surprised to hear of the Alliance’s decision to work with beings many viewed as enemies.
“Mission Command made contact with a human we believe can help us,” informed the wolf. The eyes of the Alliance and those in the audience all turned to Eliza. She immediately blushed and a ‘who, me?’ look came over her face. Bebop leaned into her for moral support.
The wolf went on, “The human who Mission Command has identified knew nothing of this mission, and we brought her here to fill her in on it now.”
Discord erupted in the audience and a badger moved toward the front of the gallery.
“May I ask a question?” he asked a number of times, each louder than the last in an effort to be heard over the attendees. Eventually the uproar settled and the wolf invited the badger to speak. He cleared his throat and said, “We’re concerned about a partnership with humans. They only care about their best interests and not ours. That’s how we ended up in this mess in the first place. Why should we waste any effort working with them now?”
The wolf replied, “The Alliance had the same concerns and we’ve discussed it every which way for quite some time. We kept coming back to the reality that the actions needed to slow the warming can only be done effectively and most impactfully by humans.”
A crow piped up from a rock above the gallery. “But what can we do to convince them to take action? They don’t even listen to other humans, much less to us.”
The elephant answered, “You’re absolutely right, humans are a challenge, and we don’t understand them. That’s why we believe the only way to get our message to them is through another human. We’ve tried everything we can think of on our end and have nothing to lose by giving this a shot.”
Consider supporting the World Wildlife Fund’s work to protect natural species.