Allegra Hyde Believes We Are a Product of the Stories We Tell Ourselves
Jean Marc Ah-Sen interviews Allegra Hyde about her novel ‘Eleutheria,’ the concept of climate fiction, and reckoning with the patterns of the past.
Jean Marc Ah-Sen: Your work has been associated with the emerging genre of cli-fi. Thinking about books like Anthony Burgess’s and J. G. Ballard’s , which also depict environmental disaster, I’m curious about whether you view such dystopian narratives as being distinct from climate fiction.
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JMA: Was it exciting to devise new thematic perimeters andhelp evolve the imagery and language of a burgeoning genre? Or did you feel beholden to honor the elements of previous cli-fi offerings?
JMA: is a hybrid novel: You’ve paired the queer bildungsroman and the campus satire with hard-bitten activist fiction. Did putting these components into proximity stimulate new narrative connections?
JMA: Can you talk about the novel as a site of resistance and its potential for effecting social change? Willa Marks obsesses over a manual called Living the Solution—were there activist texts whose mechanics you sought to lay bare for a reader with these excerpted passages?
AH: Eleutheria’s commentary on social change was born from a synthesis of activist treatises, sociological principles, and my background studying/participating in intentional communities. An example of an activist treatise would be Earthforce! An Earth Warrior’s Guide to Strategy by Paul Watson, who founded the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, or Micah White’s The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution, which uses Occupy Wall Street as a starting point for reinventing activism. One of White’s most thought-provoking points is the potentiality of spontaneous, improbable, and miraculous moments in a social movement. Maybe that’s why, sociologically-speaking, I became interested in concepts like “collective effervescence.” In Eleutheria, I tried to illustrate how this human capacity for unplanned collective action might play out for the benefit of our planet.
When crafting excerpts from my fictional manual Living the Solution, I drew on two particular forms of rhetoric. One was the language of American jingoism, with the idea being that (for the characters involved) its familiarity would make environmentalism palatable to the masses. The other rhetoric was the empowerment dogma and bootstrap individualism peddled by self-help profiteers. Tony Robbins might address an audience by saying: “I know what your problem is and also how to fix it.”If you’re in a hopeless place, to have someone say that is seductive. Living the Solution is a text that my protagonist becomes enamored with for its environmental vision but that also charts a path that perpetuates patterns of exploitation that have played out over and over in the history of the Americas under the guise of patriotism and self-empowerment.
JMA: You alternate chapters with a history of the Bahamian island of Eleuthera, ensuring that readers are aware of the connection between the colonialist project and climate change. What was the reasoning behind these sections?
AH: Willa is the homeschooled daughter of doomsday-prepping parents. She is trying to find a way to cope with the catastrophes of our modern age in a manner that differs from the way she was raised. Willa is an idealistic seeker and is often naive to the ways of the world. Her narrative consciousness couldn’t realistically contain an understanding of colonialism in the Bahamas, where she journeys to join the eco-compound Camp Hope. Eleutheria could have been more streamlined without the historical interludes, which are not meant to merely add illuminating flavor—they are the true backbone of the novel. Willa participates in the same cycles of idealism and exploitation as generations of settlers before her. Whether she starts to recognize this is ambiguous, but the situation shouldn’t be unclear to the reader. Ultimately, what I hope readers take away from Eleutheria is that we can’t address the problems of the future without reckoning with the patterns of the past.
JMA: The novel advances various culprits for the state of its world: the profligacy of the ultrarich, activists who may be too busy chasing their tails to address macro-level socioeconomic problems. How can a collectivist solution forgo deadlock mired in compromise?
AH: It’s useful to identify common goals. Most of us want the same thing. We want to breathe clean air and drink clean water, spend time with the people we love. We want our lives to have a sense of meaning and purpose. Those shared goals have the potential to bring people together, to establish real collective power, to initiate genuine revolutionary change. As a corollary, recognizing the true enemies of a collective climate movement is also essential. The enemy is not a civilian failing to recycle their soda bottle. The enemy is a politician who votes down environmental legislation. The enemy is corporate leadership actively exploiting our planet—people, in other words, who have accrued power and who wield it at the expense of all of us for the short-term benefit of a few.
JMA: Eleutheria shows how politics can descend into opportunistic factionalism, with “Green Republicans” featuring prominently—billionaires on the right who embrace climate science by lining their pockets with smog stock futures and geoengineering projects. Were you signaling the futility of party politics in America?
AH: Political systems are more malleable than we realize. The two-party system in America might seem immutable, but a glance at history shows that political structures are constantly evolving, inverting, failing. Platforms and cultures change. A descent into factionalism is possible in America, as are Green Republicans who, in my rendering, use environmentalism as a talking point through which to accumulate resources for the 1 percent. Other political possibilities are out there. That’s why the novel mentions speculative political systems like “Generational Democracy,” in which representatives are chosen by age groups rather than geographies. Maybe that sounds outlandish, but we’re allowed to reinvent how we want to govern ourselves. If we didn’t, we’d still be governed by a king.
JMA: Willa makes a pilgrimage to a revolutionary enclave championing eco-utopian ideas. To join its ranks, one must abandon the “ethical pollutants” of romantic love. Do you think ascetic principles must inform the fight against climate change?
AH: When crafting the eco-utopian vision for Camp Hope, I drew on the Shakers—as far as utopian communities go, the Shakers had a great run. For a time, they were financially prosperous, technologically innovative, and ahead of their time when it came to gender equality. They were very rule-oriented—you couldn’t eat bread the same day it was made, you couldn’t wear bright colors. You couldn’t have kids, because then you’d care more about your child rather than the group.
In the mid-nineteenth century, there were thousands of Shakers. Now there are just a few. Many factors contributed to their demise, but not having kids or being able to attract new converts had a significant impact. I think asceticism can be temporarily effective for creating alternative social realities, but it is unlikely to work in the long-term. Most human beings aren’t hardwired that way. We also need moments of pleasure, physical connection, and excess. Such “hedonism” can be revolutionary and society-changing too, particularly when it pushes back against capitalist norms around relentless labor and consumption. Working less can be pro-climate. Having meandering dinners with friends can be pro-climate. Taking steps to mitigate the environmental crisis out of love for your family—that’s definitely pro-climate.
JMA: Eleutheria might be seen as a portrayal of the state of leftist politics. Sylvia Gill and Willa are lovers who represent the class divide between corporate-minded intellectualism and downshifting social philosophies. Why was it important for you to end the book by reconciling these ideals?
AH: I wanted to make good on the novel’s utopian promise. There are innumerable ways to approach our environmental crisis—with Sylvia and Willa representing two examples—and I was interested in finding a galvanizing common denominator. What could bring us together, across class and culture? My best guess was future generations. If we truly reckoned with what we are taking from our children (biological or in a broader communal sense), what we’d see is nightmarish. We’re stealing futures to uphold systems that consolidate our resources in the hands of a few. I know not everyone would agree with me, but I believe that the horror of what we’re doing to our children could be a unifying force.
JMA: You’ve been public about your belief that we have the strategies to fight climate change but that “the psychosis of denial” is holding us back. What will it take to break this denialism down and to convince us of our imminent mortality?
AH: Unfortunately, more people may need to feel the effects of catastrophe personally and persistently. That’s why I talk about already having the tools to face climate change. As we face floods and wildfires and recognize the urgency of the situation, we can’t throw up our hands in the face of the enormity of it all. Recognizing the full scope of the disaster can precipitate despair, but to give in to that despair is just another form of denialism. We need to recognize our own agency instead. This is the reason that, toward the end of Eleutheria, I include a list of actions we can take as societies to mitigate the effects of climate change. I wanted to articulate a set of steps we could take right this second.
JMA: You write about the world we are leaving behind for future generations. As a creative writing professor, what do you make of the publishing landscape that your students will inherit?
AH: Working with Gen Z students offers a window into their current thinking. Many of them are anxious about the future—but they aren’t afraid to question conventions. In a writing class, this means they are looking for ways to break rules, reinvent formulas, turn assumptions upside down. Sometimes I feel that it is my job to show them the rule or tradition so that they can break it. One tradition they’re interested in breaking is the notion of a solitary artistic genius. My students see value in collaborative creative work. I’m excited to see how this might impact the publishing industry or storytelling more broadly. We are a product of the stories we tell ourselves—and stories that are born of collaboration have the potential to manifest a more collaborative world.
JMA: You’ve finished a new story collection. Will it continue your engagement with pressing social issues?
AH: Yes! The collection is called The Last Catastrophe (out in March 2023). It’s a series of stories about “global weirding”—a term for how climate change is making our environment, as well as a way of life, go haywire. I explore this in a literal and figurative sense. A girl grows a unicorn horn, rich people run a finishing school in space, and vegan zombies roam the planet. The Last Catastrophe is obsessed with ecological and social collapse but also with locating wonder and joy and our collective possibilities even amid the most daunting crisis.