Ecological lake pollution in a merfolk tale
by the Odyssey Theatre, plus Cynthia Zhang talks fighting for something finite
Counselling resilience by Cynthia Zhang
cw: discussions of suicide, racial violence, hate crimes
For quite some time now, it’s felt like we’ve been living in the end times. Check the news, your Twitter feed, the bookshelves of the YA section—it’s all dystopias and apocalypses, islands of plastic and radioactive waste that will not dissipate for a million years at least. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and no one is feeling anything remotely close to fine.
I know that. I know that the ice caps are melting and the tigers are running out of habitat, that we are in the middle of a mass extinction event and that in fifty years our everyday luxuries—plentiful chocolate and cheap coffee and Florida oranges in the middle of winter—may be mere memories. I know that there is a great deal of suffering that awaits us in the future and that, despite our best efforts, there will be only so much we can do to alleviate it.
I worry, nonetheless, about the absolutist ways in which we frame global catastrophe. There is, I’ve noticed, a streak of deep nihilism in talking about climate change—well-deserved nihilism, perhaps, but one which still worries me. In some places, it feels like even suggesting the idea of hope can get you labeled as willfully naive, an ostrich blissfully burying its head in the sand to hide from reality. You poor, naive soul—you think there’s still a chance that the world will be merciful, that you will live on? It’s time to face facts, and all the reports are telling us that we’re doomed.
Under reports about the unsustainability of our planet in fifty years, I see people discussing contingency plans and worst-case scenarios. If things are bad, I read strangers commenting on Twitter and Youtube, and if they’re only going to get worse—then how do I know (how will I know) when it’s the breaking point, when I can reasonably give up? Living through the collapse of modern civilization is a harrowing prospect; with so many reports alleging the inevitable death of the human species, is it any wonder that some people would want to decide their own suffering? When you have no home and money and the future looms like a void, what sense is there in holding on for the tenuous hope of change? With Nazis on the horizon and a lifetime of illness and suffering weighing on her, can we blame Virginia Woolf for choosing to drown?
Like all decent people with a shred of empathy, my instinct when faced with other people’s despair is to argue, to comfort. I want to say all the usual platitudes—that there are resources, hotlines, people who would need and miss you even then at the end of the world. That nature is resilient, and that even if we lose chocolate and pandas and processed sugar, there will still be things worth living for—small joys, dandelion fluff and spring clover and squirrels who walk up to you for offerings of bread and nuts.
It’s hard, though. It feels ingenious to talk about the beauty of life when I too often find myself falling into despair, traveling down nihilistic paths of what-ifs. There are a lot of things to worry about these days, and the coming future hardly seems any more stable. Counseling resilience and hope for others feels unbelievably presumptuous and insincere when there are days that I can do nothing but lay in bed, worrying about forest fires and nuclear winter.
And yet, despite everything, I want to believe in hope, in a future built on the slim chance that we are not yet fully doomed. I want to live, and I want my friends to live.
For someone who spent much of their adolescence in a miasma of low-level despair, this has been a rather unexpected shift of attitude for me. I was an unhappy, cynical teenager, obsessed with death and self-destruction—never enough to actively act on it, but enough so that I still remember what it feels like to see the world as nothing but a yawning black hole, an endless abyss into which all happiness would vanish. Even today, I am skeptical of inevitable happy endings, the idea that so long as you make it out of adolescence, it will all get better—that the moment you turn eighteen or move out of your small town, you will find yourself bright and shining on the other side of happily-ever-ever. It gets better for some of us, yes. It gets better, yes but not always, and not for everyone. It gets better for a day, a month, maybe whole years at a stretch, but the world has never promised any of us happiness, only the certainty of silence and death.
Yet I think there’s still value in fighting for something finite, something that will necessarily end. I think of New York City in the 80s, the men who cared for friends and lovers through the height of the HIV epidemic. Was the time they spent ultimately in vain, rendered useless by the fact of death? Or is there still value in that kind of care—care without grand ambition of cure or eternal repair, care that only hopes to better things for today and for now?
I think of N. K. Jemisin’s assertion that “an apocalypse is a relative thing,” the fact that for many people—indigenous peoples dispossessed from their homes, Black peoples forced from their homelands into slavery—the end of the world has already come. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale offers a harrowing vision of a patriarchy, but as other critics have pointed out, the violence Atwood describes is all too real for Native and Black women. So many of the symptoms we associate with dystopia—famine, violence, a stark disregard for human life—are in fact already present in even supposedly civilized countries, just a few feet away from Whole Foods and microbreweries. As anti-trans legislation continues to be passed and ICE separates children from their families, it’s so easy to give in to look at the state of the world and give into despair.
And yet every time I go out to engage with my various communities, I’m inspired by the strength I find. When the world is literally built against you, it is so easy to give up, and yet there are so many people who do not, who continue to fight against the despair of a world built to erase their existence. I don’t want to fetishize the strength of marginalized communities—Black women shouldn’t be expected to be constantly “strong,” and abuse survivors are no less valid for being angry or scared instead of brave and inspirational. Still, incurable optimist that I am, I can’t stop myself from thinking of the way resilience persists even under the most dire conditions. Like dandelions growing through sidewalk cracks and matsutake mushrooms growing in the wake of nuclear disaster, kindness and empathy are hard to truly kill.
I think of the Japanese pensioners who, in the wake of the nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi, volunteered to help with the radiation cleanup. In their sixties and seventies, they argued that they, and not Japan’s youth, should bear the risk of radiation exposure. “We're doing nothing special,” volunteer Masaasaki Takahashi told reporters in 2011. “I simply think I have to do something and I can't allow just young people to do this.”
I think of the documentary Babushkas of Chernobyl, of old women who sing folk songs and make jam from irradiated berries and leave mushrooms for the hedgehogs in the winter. Because species of fungi can feed on radiation, an on-site scientist tells the filmmaker watchers that even mushrooms gathered from safe zones can absorb high levels of radiation. But against the prospect of starving during the winter, what other fate are the hedgehogs meant to choose? If the hedgehogs must live short, irradiated lives, are they still not worthy lives nonetheless?
I think of Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary, the love that millions of internet strangers willingly invest in these animals that, to many, are already damaged goods—too old, too sick, too doomed. A bad investment, one that will give out after four or five years at most. I think of the dogs themselves—Leo and Gracie and Captain Ron and Gertrude, all so happy, all so loved. Blind and tri-pawed and arthritic, they did not live in fear of death, did not spend time on pity and trembling in the face of their own impending demise.
Tomorrow I could be hit by a car in traffic or struck by a sudden freak asteroid; tomorrow my heart could decide to stop, some blood vessel in my brain burst after years of hard service. I have been lucky; I have healthcare, a relatively stable income, and the luck to live in an area of the world with easy access to clean water and modern medicine. Yet I know that all of this is fragile, infinitely contingent and provisional. Tomorrow, someone could set my apartment and all my belongings on fire; I could trip while walking down the stairs or fall sick and lose all my savings in attempting to navigate the US healthcare system.
For now, there is sky and grass and a content cat napping on my bed. For now, I am alive, and so are you, and billions of people as well, many of them suffering the same or worse than I am. For now, I can leave out bread for the birds and nectar for the hummingbirds, pick up plastic where I see it and participate in mutual aid instead of hoarding against an unknowable future. Maybe these are ultimately all small gestures; maybe they will only be helpful for a few hours or days, the way fallen baby birds so rarely survive even under the best of care. That does not make the work any less important.
As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass, “Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy.” To respond in kind with joy then is not naivety, but a returning of the gift that the world has given us. If either my life or death is to have any meaning, this is how I want to live—giving joy to others, making use of the time I have to make the world a little kinder for the ones I share it with.
Find out more about Cynthia’s queer science fiction novel After the Dragons here.
Dragons were fire and terror to the Western world, but in the East they brought life-giving rain…
Now, no longer hailed as gods and struggling in the overheated pollution of Beijing, only the Eastern dragons survive. As drought plagues the aquatic creatures, a mysterious disease—shaolong, or “burnt lung”—afflicts the city’s human inhabitants.
Jaded college student Xiang Kaifei scours Beijing streets for abandoned dragons, distracting himself from his diagnosis. Elijah Ahmed, a biracial American medical researcher, is drawn to Beijing by the memory of his grandmother and her death by shaolong. Interest in Beijing’s dragons leads Kai and Eli into an unlikely partnership. With the resources of Kai’s dragon rescue and Eli’s immunology research, can the pair find a cure for shaolong and safety for the dragons? Eli and Kai must confront old ghosts and hard truths if there is any hope for themselves or the dragons they love.
Cynthia Zhang is a Ph.D. student in Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture at the University of Southern California. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kaleidotrope, On Spec, Phantom Drift, Xenocultivars: Stories of Queer Growth and other venues. She is a 2021 DVdebut mentee and is on the web at czscribbles.wixsite.com.
Ecological lake pollution in a merfolk folktale
Mary Woodbury, social media coordinator for the Climate Fiction Writers League, talks to C.S. MacCath about their new podcast radio play The Belt and the Necklace, which is available to listen soon here. It was commissioned by the Odyssey Theatre in Ottawa for its new The Other Path Podcast. These plays are contemporary adaptations of traditional folk tales produced for audio by professional actors and sound engineers under the direction of Laurie Steven.
Mary: As someone who grew up enjoying fables, folklore, and fairy tales, I wonder sometimes if these stories—where animals, myth, magic, and parables aligned heavily with the natural world—informed my adult gratitude for what we consider the wild making its way into fiction. Not to mention, I never lost the wonder felt as a child when reading these genres. So, I was happy to reach C.S. MacCath and talk with her about her upcoming play The Belt and the Necklace, which is adapted from an original fairy tale. Who better to take this on?
I've been enjoying your folklore and fiction newsletter. What drew you to the genres of folklore and fairy tales?
C.S.: I’ve been drawn to narrative all my life as a reader and writer, but as a doctoral candidate in the Folklore Department at Memorial University of Newfoundland, I’ve gained a far deeper appreciation for it. My academic research documents ethical beliefs among contemporary animal rights activists and the ways they are expressed in activism, and it also engages with the idea that narrative can be a means of maintaining or resisting power. My interest as a writer is in traditional folk narrative genres like myth, legend, fairy tale, ballad, and tall tale because these kinds of stories are an integral part of humanity’s storytelling heritage.
Mary: Your newest radio play is "The Belt and the Necklace". It's based off a tale of the same name. What did you change?
C.S.: “The Belt and the Necklace” is one of five hundred fairy tales collected by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth in the 19th century and subsequently lost in a Regensburg archive for over a hundred and fifty years. Schönwerth was careful in his transcription of these tales, and many of them have not been collected elsewhere, so they aren’t sanitized or heavily adapted like the tales collected by the Grimm brothers. “The Belt and the Necklace” itself is short, barely a page, and in it the ugly daughter of a king wants to be beautiful, so she bargains with the merfolk for a magical belt and necklace that will either make her radiant or invisible depending on how the pieces are worn. In exchange, she agrees to give the merfolk her third-born child and the most beautiful of her children when they are born. My adaptation situates the plot in a modern setting where the fat daughter of a fashion magnate loses her inheritance to a model because of her body shape, and the merfolk want her future children for reasons that aren’t part of the original fairy tale.
Mary: Can you talk about the structure of folklore tales like this, and the importance we derive from them?
C.S.: The Folklore & Fiction dispatch and podcast endeavour to help writers emulate the structure of traditional folk narratives so they can tap into the ways these narratives resonate with people. For example, fairy tales are:
· Short Prose Narratives: Short stories which may be told or written as prose.
· Both Magical and Mundane: Containing supernatural beings, objects, and other story elements that intervene in the everyday lives of people.
· Infused with Moral Lessons: Imparting social values relevant to the contexts in which they were created, told, and received.
· Resolved by Rewarding the Good and Punishing the Wicked: Often called "happy endings," it might be more helpful to think of these resolutions as logical outcomes of moral lessons the tales impart.
· Passed Down from Oral Traditions: Collected in cultures where people learned these stories from other people.
Hallmarks like these can act as structural aids for writing new fairy tales that remind people of the traditional fairy tales they already love. The same is true for myths, legends, ballads, tall tales, and other folk narrative genres. I would add, however, that it’s not always possible to categorize folk tales as one genre or another, and folk narrative genres can be slippery in general.
As for their importance, well, that’s another sizeable topic. The Grimm brothers collected and sanitized German folk tales in part as a means of preserving German national identity. Gàidhlig waulking songs contain elements of Scottish and Cape Breton history, but they’re also work songs that help to pass the time. Apache stories connected to place are told as teaching devices in such a way that the places themselves encourage people toward right behaviour. So the importance of folk narratives is nuanced, just like the cultures that give rise to them. As a folklorist, I care about what these cultures can tell me about their stories, but I also care about what you think of your own favourite folk tales. For example, we’ll never know why “The Belt and the Necklace” was important to the person who told the story to Schönwerth, but it’s important to me because it tells a truth about what it means to be labeled “ugly” and mocked for it. It might be important to you for a different reason.
Mary: Mermaids and mermen are an important part of the story. These creatures have a rich background in myth and stories. What makes them so interesting to you?
C.S.: I wasn’t particularly interested in merfolk before I adapted “The Belt and the Necklace,” but I did find several points of interest along the way. Much as there is a horizontal veil between this world and the Otherworld of the fairies, I came to see the water as a vertical veil between this world and the Otherworld of the merfolk. With that in mind, I was able to treat the merfolk as beings who enforce the bargains they make (much as fairies do), abduct children (much as fairies do), and are somewhat inscrutable (much as fairies are). I also came to see them as representatives and protectors of an underwater world plagued by ecological hardship, which led me to the motivation I gave them in the play.
Mary: How does your play relate to climate change and modern ecological imbalance?
C.S.: Ecological imbalance is a supporting theme in the play, and it’s the second time I’ve made an ecological issue part of my work without giving it centre stage. The first time was in a short fable I wrote for Rhonda Parrish’s Alphabet Anthologies series titled “Metal Crow and Ghost Crow,” in which a little girl dying of thirst on a boat once populated with climate refugees seeks safe harbour in a small Canadian settlement. “The Belt and the Necklace” addresses ecological imbalance from the perspective of merfolk living in an over-fished, polluted lake. I hope that by including these themes as supporting plot concerns I can help people engage with them in a way that doesn’t come across as sermonizing.
Mary: Do you have any favorite books or plays that relate to climate and ecological change in the world? What are they, and why do you enjoy them?
C.S.: There’s so much good, new fiction about the climate crisis right now, and there are several books by members of the Climate Fiction Writers’ League in my queue. Ghost Species by James Bradley and Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse look especially interesting, and I’m hoping to read them soon. But for books I’ve already read, I’d have to put Dune at the top of the list. Frank Herbert’s Arrakis is a desert world its Fremen inhabitants hope to terraform into a green paradise, but there are tragic consequences associated with the planetary engineering they undertake.
What’s so interesting about this is the inversion of our expectations about terraforming and the ways turning Arrakis into a green world disrupts not only the planet’s native ecosystem but much of the galactic civilization itself. Another tremendous climate-themed duology is Mary Gentle’s Golden Witchbreed and Ancient Light, in which a slave-owning species obsessed with death unleashes a weapon that turns much of the planet Orthe to glass. The descendants of the slaves venerate the planet itself as a goddess and eschew technological advancement in the hope they can preserve what life remains on the world. It makes me wonder what our descendants will venerate and preserve.
Mary: Do you have anything else to add?
C.S.: I invite everyone to read “The Belt and the Necklace” in The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales and listen to my podcast radio play by the same name when the Odyssey Theatre in Ottawa releases it this month. Finally, the Folklore & Fiction dispatch and podcast have been exploring folk narrative structure once a month for nearly three years, and my archives are freely available at folkloreandfiction.com.
C.S. MacCath is a PhD candidate in Folklore at Memorial University of Newfoundland, a writer of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, a playwright, and a musician. Her long-running Folklore & Fiction newsletter, now a podcast and written dispatch, integrate these passions with a focus on folklore scholarship aimed at storytellers. Ceallaigh’s research interests include animal rights activism as a public performance of ethical belief, and she brings a deep appreciation of folk narrative, ecology, and Neo-Pagan spirituality to her writing. Work from her two fiction and poetry collections has been shortlisted for the Washington Science Fiction Association Small Press Award, nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and nominated for the Rhysling Award. She lives in Atlantic Canada.
Mary Woodbury graduated with BAs in English and anthropology at Purdue University. She grew up in the United States, where her parents introduced her at an early age to hiking, climbing mountains, horseback riding, canoeing, white-water rafting, and camping—filling her with a deep respect for the wilderness. She now lives in Nova Scotia with her partner and two cats. As a curator at Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores world eco-fiction, she has interviewed several award-winning authors and built a database of over 800 novels. She also founded Moon Willow Press in 2009 and its newest imprint Dragonfly Publishing.
5th April - ‘Black Literature vs. the Climate Emergency’ online conference - through the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley, celebrates the power of Afro-Diasporic fiction, non-fiction and poetry at the forefront of addressing the climate emergency by featuring contemporary Black authors from the US, Africa and throughout the African Diaspora whose work directly addresses these issues. Streamed via YouTube on Tuesday, April 5th, from 12PM-6PM Pacific Time/3PM-9PM Eastern Time, the event invites an escalation of literary efforts to document and imagine a successful movement for climate justice, as well as encouraging the engagement of Black communities.
Tell the government to stop funding Mozambique gas [Friends of the Earth]
How do we change the minds of climate deniers? [Independent]
11th April - London Literary Community Writers XR evening - If you are a writer, an editor, an agent or a publisher, please join us on Monday 11th April, for Rewriting the Future: an evening of talks, complimentary wine and to see how best to use your talents in the service of our beleaguered planet. Please arrive at 6:15pm for a 6:30pm start. We’ll be brainstorming what positive actions we can all take, and what more - with your support – Writers Rebel can do for literature to rise to the occasion of our times. The Swedenborg Society, 20-21 Bloomsbury Way, London WC1A 2TH.
Short story competition: Theme: clean vs green. Deadline July 22 Deadline 21st July 2022. £500 prize - create a engaging fictional story to help readers understand how over-cleaning and misinformation about bacteria can mean that we can end up killing our bodies ‘good’ bacteria through over-use of harsh cleaning products.