Too Many Metaphors: In Interview with Nicole Walker
Managing editor Krys Malcolm Belc on today’s interview: I was so excited to sit down with Nicole Walker when she came to Northern Michigan University's campus to read. Nicole's new book, Sustainability: A Love Story, explores the tension and conflict inherent in trying to consider, and live, sustainably while also enjoying life in contemporary America. The book is terrifying and well-researched but also deeply personal and, at times, hilarious, as Walker weaves research with anecdotes about her own life and family. Nicole visited the Passages office to talk about the book, her teaching, and what she's reading.
Passages North: So the first thing I want to talk about is epistolary writing. I read that you have - I think it was called a “one-way pen pal relationship” with the governor of Arizona so I was interested in opening up the book and having it start with the essay “Dear Rain.” I’d love if you could talk about writing out to someone who might not respond.
Nicole Walker: This is my favorite thing to to talk about because I love writing to a particular person, especially in my letters to Governor Ducey. I’m on letter number 208. He’s responded to zero of them. The other day I wrote a letter to the Democratic nominee for governor and he wrote me back. So. Maybe he will indeed be the winner.
“Dear Rain” is a really strange essay because it says “Dear Rain,” but in a lot of ways it’s to my husband. The reason I chose to double up that addressee because that sort of pleading I do with rain is the beginning of a book that’s saying, “How do we, dear husband, how do we, dear kids, how do we, family and community, how are we going to make it through this time where you can see actual climate change happening and we can feel it happening?” The same day that there was the Florence flood in the Carolinas, the Porcupine and Rhino fires in Flagstaff conjoined and the smoke was so thick across the entire San Francisco peaks.
I feel like this letter is pleading to all those people at the same time. Even though it’s directed at my husband, what it’s asking for is some sort of solution. I know there’s no solution, and my husband probably isn’t the one who has the solution and I’m not the one who has the solution. But my dream – and this is what I hope for in the whole book – is that together, maybe, we can get it together to find a solution. And we will never do it alone. And maybe it’ll be that sort of thing where you do a rain dance and then you say, “Ok. The rain has finally come.” Some way to solve global warming will come along in that providential way.
PN: I love that the book starts with you bringing your husband in and joining together. I think that in the book there are so many instances of you looking at your own behavior and become very narrowly focused on “What I’m doing” and “What I’m thinking about while I’m doing it” and I like that structure of saying, it really is a collective that I’m writing to here.
NW: That’s what I hope, and that’s one of the way the book moves. I was telling your colleagues at lunch that I just gave this really hardcore reading where the audience was just not receptive in any way. They were older and super wealthy and they just were like, “There are too many metaphors in here! How do you sleep at night with so much going on in your brain?” And I said, “You know, there IS too much going on. It’s hard to focus on things like sustainability and climate change because you have a million other things to do. But it’s all, to me, emblematic and representative of all things that we really need to do to live more sustainably and to collectively come to some sort of cooperation about climate change.
PN: I feel like your book is…I don’t want to say relatable. I want to say accessible. One of the things I was interested in is how often you use food. Food brings everyone in and…I don’t know that everyone loves food, but I love food. You write that “Tacos are emblems of free will.” That comes in a very tonally serious essay. There’s this very heavy subject matter of a suicide that was close to your family and then there’s stuff about how your mom served tacos and let everyone have all this choice. I’m interested in how you approach writing about food, and why you have a preoccupation with food.
NW: I have been talking a lot about the idea of Proust’s madeleine, and how as he puts it in his mouth, all of the memories of his first madeleine come rushing back, and so, as you say, that word “relatable.” That’s the word I use. So many creative writing professors hate the word relatable, but I don’t get it! I relate to it, I guess is the way it might be better phrased. But to me relatability is that sense that you and I both know what a taco is. Even though we have different images of what a perfect taco is, or what kind of taco we might want to have, we can share that.
PN: I want to talk a little bit about how in the book you look at the Earth from “on high,” even from space, and how you integrate that with talking about dailyness, what you do in your home and your workplace. How do you transmit that as a teacher to your students, working with them to learn the braided essay form?
NW: That’s one of my favorite things to teach. I think it’s really important to get the reader into the space as soon as possible. My poor husband and children, I will avail the world to them because I feel like….they’re just little stories. They’re just anecdotes. And like with the madeleine, we all share some version of family, some version of friends, some version of community, and we also all share little versions of the frustrations we have. But if you can get the reader into the story that way, then you can persuade them to stick around maybe, so you can talk about your data points around global warming or your concern about the acidification of the ocean or your dream that maybe it will be whale poop that will save us. Wouldn’t that be great? Whale poop creates more plankton, and the more plankton we have, the more carbon oceans can absorb.
I think if you began that way – though some people might be interested in that – to begin with data is a different kind of book. It is to say, “I offer you,” and then these things you get from environmental books. You either get guilt, or you are ripping your hair out in frustration, or you get just plain data. That can be really useful, and obviously we need those kinds of books, too. But in this book I really wanted people to feel like they could relate to a person and then look at the bigger picture.
So when I teach it, I try to teach students to look at a small thing in their lives, whether it is a memory of their first kitchen, or the bark on a tree, even. I tell them that “Ok, that’s the little story, now how do we go from there. Think about something you can’t wrap your brain around. Think about something you obsess about. What’s the last thing you Googled? Let’s do some research on that.” And then I ask them to go back and forth between that idea of the personal story and big story. What happens is that in between, recurrent images come, there are repeated phrases. Things happen to create the connective tissue between that small idea and that big idea, and then when they go to revise, they can use that connective tissue to really re-state almost an argument.
I had a student in workshop last week who wrote an essay about luck. She wrote a personal story about playing Boggle, and then she wrote about the definition of luck, some different cultural understandings of luck, and some idiomatic expressions of luck, and by the time she got done, she told a story about how she thought luck was just this thing that happens, but she turned it inside out to say that what’s really the lucky thing is being able to play a game with these people all night long. So that really, to me, is a great way to re-create an understanding of how the brain works, how it takes one synaptic idea and moves to another, and use that as a structure for students in an attempt to write an essay that is both personally meaningful and globally meaningful.
PN: It probably works the other way, too, right? You get a science major who just signed up for a class, and you’re like, “Now you read and write poetry! I’ve had students I feel like I’m dragging through personal writing, but if they feel like they’re writing about a larger issue….”
NW: Yeah, that can compel them into the personal story.
PN: If one of the big takeaways from reading your book should be connectivity and finding a way to enjoy life despite knowing what’s coming for the Earth, can you talk a little bit about things you read for enjoyment?
I do like to read a lot of dystopian fiction…
…but also, what I like – and maybe this is along those ideas of connectivity and expansiveness – my dream is that our brains work like the universe, or what we want to believe the universe is working like, that it’s constantly growing and expanding. And so the books I read, I want them to be genre-bending, because that’s the thing that’s most surprising to me. That’s the thing that makes me think new thoughts, or think I’m thinking new thoughts.
Right now I’m reading Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, which is just one long dramatic monologue in novel form, or a novel in dramatic monologue form, about a guy trying to re-create a space in Los Angeles, an African-American farm community, and it’s totally amazing the way he uses idiomatic expressions and assumptions about African-American culture. He’s hilarious, and it’s crazy, and I love it.
I just read Robin Wall Kimmemer’s book. She’s a member of the Potawatomi Nation, but she’s also an ecologist. She braids together – the book is literally called Braiding Sweetgrass – and she braids together the story of her cultural understanding of plants and “Western civilization”’s idea of plants, so you know twice as much about plants. She also brings out personal stories abut her kids so you feel really grounded in a place. And so anything that can really sharpen those connections for me is the kind of book that I really like to read.