Abi Andrews is a writer from the U.K. midlands. She studied at Goldsmiths college, and her work has been published in Five DialsCaught by the River, The Irish Times, and other publications, along with a pamphlet published with Goldsmiths Shorts. Her debut novel The Word for Woman is Wilderness was published by Serpent’s Tail in February 2018, in the U.S. with Two Dollar Radio in 2019, and will be translated into four languages. She is working on her second novel.

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The Word for Woman is Wilderness is the book I wish I had at 18, when I decided—to the worry and confusion of my family—to put off college and go to live in the woods, first on a backpacking trip in Utah and after to an organic farm on the coast of Maine. I knew there was some sort of precedent for this that I wasn’t necessarily apart of. I ended up always hedging the experience, adding a degree of safety between me and the woods, joining a group to backpack with and staying with a family on the farm rather than off in a cabin by myself. Sure, I felt brave, but I knew enough of the precariousness of my body at that age, what was risked in doing something as simple as taking the train alone as a young woman, especially one who is clearly seeking. A woman’s seeking is often sexualized, exploited, or pandered to, rather than honored as the intellectual and spiritual quest that it is. If I had seen a character like Abi Andrew’s protagonist, Erin, one who asks the spaces and people who have left her out of their limited imagination exactly why they did so, I perhaps would’ve allowed myself a bit more freedom, at least to know what exactly I was armoring myself against. In The Word for Woman is Wilderness, Erin takes on not just a singular quest of self-exploration, but the entire history of science and environmentalism in doing so. Camera in hand, Erin leaves her suffocating town in the U.K. to live out a feminist reimagining of Into the Wild, landing herself in Alaska. Her journey is fully embodied, which includes her intellect, making the book dense with mourning for lost landscapes alongside the intricacies of Nuclear war, whale behavior, and theories of time.

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Juliana Roth: I have to start by asking, because locality seems essential to this book, where were you when you wrote this book?

Abi Andrews: Locality is essential, you’re right, and part of my thinking at the time was that I really didn’t want to write about anywhere I had ever been before, to fall into the trap that my protagonist Erin nearly does. I started writing the book when I was still at university in London, feeling stifled by the city and hankering after a trip like Erin’s. I was concerned with a certain masculine vein of travel writing, where writing and words can enact a colonisation of the place being written of. I wanted the book to be an intellectual exercise in the sense that it’s about the ideas we hold of places rather than the places themselves.

When I graduated and was still writing the book, I went hiking in Nepal. The trip was very different to Erin’s, and I wasn’t alone, but there were some emotional contingencies in the mountains there that perhaps surfaced later in the book. I hadn’t been to North America until two years ago, shortly after the publication of the book.

JR: That trajectory from city to mountains reminds me of Erin’s despair over urbanization in the book. When you did go on your own trip to North America after publishing the book, did you feel similar to Erin about the ecosystem of the city, or were you drawn only to more traditional sites of “nature”?

AA: I believe in breaking these categories apart, of insisting that the city is not outside of nature and vice versa. I think the problem is one of saturation. We can value “nature” in the city and culture in nature, but we need to be attentive to the interplay, and recognise what has been lost or obscured.

In WWW I was specifically thinking about our ideas of “wilderness,” in the sense that we have constructed it as the absolute other to the city or civilisation or culture. Although critically I believe there is no such thing as wilderness in the absolute sense, it’s still a useful descriptive, as long as it is pliant and yielding. Because absolute wilderness is all too easily corrupted and then loses its value. To bring these ideas into the book, it was important to have a character who set out with a particular idea of “wilderness” in its most absolute sense, in order to bring it into question.

JR: What you’re saying about there being no such thing as absolute wilderness reminds me of Camille Dungy’s proposal that all writing is environmental writing. If all writing is environmental writing, what can the dilemmas of nature writing lend to writers, broadly?

AA: I couldn’t agree more with Dungy. The so-called Anthropocene infiltrates our categorisations of “nature” and “culture,” and in a way, it acts as a uniting force. Because nothing is outside its effect, it permeates everything and it defies our dualisms. You can’t write and not be writing about the Anthropocene because every human action is part of a chain of consequences invested in it. You can claim to not care about “nature,” be indifferent to a specific aspect of it, about a certain species of fish for example, but now we understand that our destiny is tied up in theirs. The repercussions can be felt throughout the whole ecosystem, of which you are undeniably a part.

Like Dungy I’m uncomfortable with the compartmentalisation of “environmental” writing, “nature” writing, or the genre of “climate fiction.” They perpetuate the idea that they are somebody else’s subject to write on, somebody else’s thing to protect, that you are a “nature person” or “not a nature person.” I was invited to write for an essay series on “re-wilding the novel.” The series looked at how the novel was born from the modernist city, from human interiority, which in ways perpetuates human exceptionalism and is at odds with the value of more-than-human worlds. I wanted to pose the question of how we can give value to the more-than-human within the novel form. I think there’s scope for literary fiction to do this, but you have to ask, why isn’t all contemporary fiction explicitly about climate catastrophe?

JR: It’s so tempting to deny that being the reality of the moment we’re in.

AA: Yes, and I agree with Dungy that in not foregrounding the environment, perhaps even succeeding in omitting it, you are making a statement about the value you place in lives other than human lives, and the lives of humans already affected by climate catastrophe. A method is to force open the categories, to queer the lines between them, to question the human exceptionality that is reinforced by the interiority of the novel. Dungy gives the example of “de-pristining” nature writing, which I like.

JR: That’s great. Did this de-pristining, this queering what’s seen as human, intersect with the explicitly feminist project of the book?

AA: To me, writing as a feminist, it’s helpful to look at the world through an ecofeminst lens, to understand resonance in the Anthropocene. Ecofeminism helps us to understand that the oppression of “nature” and women are connected, that in fact all oppression stems from capitalist hetero-patriarchy. I think a critical lens like this can be helpful because it explains the contemporary condition so well. And as a writer, it helps me to understand that there is a power if you choose to use it. I believe that language and writing and stories can help us to understand our love for the living world, in spite of the fact that the written word has helped us to forget, has encouraged human exceptionality. It’s currently the best tool we have to give a vision of a partial future worth striving for.

JR: But there are obvious limitations to this when Erin puts these ideas into practice. For instance, she writes, “My leaving would have been a casting out, an initiation ritual, had I been boy. Women who leave always abandon.” I felt her discomfort with her journey being watched throughout the novel. As a filmmaker, Erin leans so much on her ability to turn the lens away from herself, from being at the center of her own narrative of discovery.

AA: I tried to make the reader think about Erin as a situated, embodied character. In her essay, “Situated Knowledges,” Donna Haraway asks us, “from whose blood were my eyes crafted?” Thinking about power and gaze, and what it might mean to make a feminist documentary on wilderness, I wanted to call attention to the aids we have to vision, and the special power of a documentary camera (vision that transcends the ephemeral: recorded vision), and the particular power at stake in it. What happens to the landscape and animals and other people under the female gaze? It was a way to make the feminism intersectional in focus.

The question of the power at play in gaze is at the centre of the book, so the device of the camera was a way to keep this question hovering at the forefront. I wanted to cajole the reader into watching Erin watching, which gives a different voyeuristic slant to a straight first person narrative. I wanted them to see the world as Erin sees it, to see Erin as she appears to others, at the same time as how she wishes to appear to others. In the playback of the documentary, Erin is also watching herself. In the cabin this becomes a kind conversation, makes her feel less alone. You can achieve that with writing a diary, yes, but the physical act of speaking while alone makes the solitude more viscerally felt, I think.

JR: I felt it. What you’re saying about gaze and being seen reveals a lot about how invested Erin is in the binary between what’s good and bad, proper and not, for her quest to Alaska. Not flying, for instance. And when she has a brief affair on her journey, she moves on quickly so as to avoid emotional attachment and to let the man be the one left along the journey (as so often happens to women). Looking at Erin in these moments, I saw the fallacy of her thinking—that acting “like a man” doesn’t necessarily free you from the ramifications of those negative behaviors, or in Erin’s case, bring you closer to a new relationship with the Earth—but at the same time, I didn’t want her to slow down and do the stereotypical thing a young woman might be written into doing in those moments. How did you deal with navigating those stakes?

AA: The premise of her quest had a lot to do with this idea of “authenticity,” this difficult to define, transcendental “truth” that Thoreau puts so much emphasis on. The conditions all had to be right, the land had to be “wild,” the journey had to be arduous. To question how absolute and authentic these categories can be, and in turn question the dichotomies on which our value system is based, I needed to first be working with those categories. So the trip must at first be “authentic” for it to mean anything against the values she is out to emulate.

This changes as the book goes on. She begins to see these as masculine values, and of course this realisation doesn’t sit well with any feminist quest. She is stubbornly seeking to rebuke stereotypes of women, yes, by embodying those of men somewhat, only she isn’t aware of this at first because, of course, we place masculine values as universal or “human” values. When she realises the fallacy of this, she is freer to feel good valuing the things she has been taught are of lesser value and associated with femininity: care, community, porosity, etc. I navigated it quite simply, really; it was a slow chipping way at her dogged insistence on asserting herself into situations like a man would, in order to achieve her goal. Gradually she is unlearning “values” she once thought were intrinsic.

JR: Did you apply the same sort of process to examine how Erin’s whiteness affects her journey?

AA: Erin’s whiteness imbues her journey completely, as it does one’s everyday experience. She is out to question the specific privilege of white males travelling, but it takes her some time to stop and think of the privilege of whiteness for white women. There are definite gradations to the oppressions she is out to counter; her femininity holds her back, her whiteness gives her the privilege of relative safety and movement not enjoyed by, for example, Indigenous women when she passes through the Highway of Tears, a site of high numbers of Indigenous women’s disappearances. That fight becomes inseparable from her own (although of course very differently experienced) because the roots of those oppressions are the same, and no true feminism, and even more unavoidably so, no true ecofeminism, can be anything but intersectional.

JR: With that, there were more obvious dangers a woman might encounter when traveling alone that you didn’t write into.

AA: In terms of her needing to insist on experiencing the trip “like a man” in the first place, it’s her naivety that gets thrown up when she encounters hurdles to this, situations in which her particular vulnerability as a young woman in a patriarchal world are brought up. But things could have been much worse for her, yes. We are reminded again and again that the world is not safe for women. The danger is often there for Erin, but it doesn’t ever fully surface; it stalks her. I had to allow her to get to Alaska and to grow out of the idea of the trip and the thing she was originally seeking. That couldn’t have happened if something catastrophic had forced her early on into becoming a victim or a survivor; that would have had to have been a different book. I didn’t want to write that book, and I didn’t want to add to the reasons for women not to do these kinds of trips. It’s difficult though, because the dangers are real, so there had to be this lurking anxiety.

JR: So, ultimately, do you see Erin’s journey as a story of hope? I guess I ask because I’m curious what your hope as a storyteller might be in the midst of a 40-degree average temperature rise in Greenland, where the novel begins, and in the U.S., where it ends, with the climate kids’ lawsuit that may set a new precedent for viewing ourselves as responsible for own ecology? Each of these moments represent extremities, one of powerful action and one of increasing loss.

AA: I think since the book’s conception five years ago, my outlook has changed in drastic ways, as has our wider societal narrative. We’ve had #MeToo, we’ve had the youth climate strikes, and Extinction Rebellion. When I started writing, I didn’t feel like feminism or climate change were particularly dominant topics. Not to say they weren’t, but that I didn’t feel surrounded by a great many people. Now I feel completely differently, and I’m not sure by what combination of developing awareness on my part, and more awareness in the media and wider culture.

I do think the book ends with hope. But I also don’t think the book is alarming enough in the first place. I don’t think it sits with the fear of climate catastrophe as much as I now feel it. WWW was written for a particular reason, which was to deconstruct this idea of wilderness, and I do feel that was important because not everyone is there yet, and in a way I chose to approach the disaster of the Anthropocene with the hope of recruiting rather than alienating that time around. I wanted to introduce what I see as the renewed importance of ecofeminism, and the book is to that purpose, but it also doesn’t go far enough.

But I sit a lot with the idea of hope in relation to storytelling. I think there is a balance, and I don’t think that’s what WWW addresses, and I hope to be more confrontational in the next thing I am writing. I think hope needs to be painful and difficult, what China Miéville calls “hope with teeth.” We need to confront the pain that is being caused, inadvertently, due to our actions, and the losses that are already underway, and we need to sit with all that grief and fear. But we also can’t steal the future of young people with nihilism. I came of age at the same time as the spreading awareness of mass extinctions and irrevocable environmental damage. And yet I love the world, and I don’t need to be told by wizened environmentalists that all is lost. We need grief and we need to be realistic, but not hopeless.

I hope that perhaps stories can save us. That might be read as my own naivety, but instead I see it as an insistence, a commitment. Talking with a friend, I tentatively described this as radical responsibility, and we talked a bit about use of the term “radical,” which he didn’t like, and “responsibility,” which didn’t quite sit with me. Then he used commitment, which I now want to insist as a radical commitment. To insist that we are looking at degrees of degradation and loss, and that it is always worth striving to grasp back any scrap of the world while it teeters.

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Juliana Roth
Juliana Roth

A multi-genre writer and educator raised in Nyack, NY, Juliana Roth is the creator of the web series, The University (theuniversitywebseries.com), which follows the bureaucratic failures of a university in the aftermath of a sexual assault on campus. Essays, poetry, and stories by Juliana have appeared or are forthcoming in Entropy, VIDA Review, Irish Pages, The Atticus Review, The Establishment, Yemassee, among other publications.

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