When NYC literary critic Amy Brady, PhD UMass, began writing a cli-fi trends literary column in early 2017, planet Earth had just closed out its hottest year on record. And 2017 was already shaping up to be another year dramatically impacted by global warming.
Now, with her 11th column this year, Dr Brady writes in her latest column:
Sadly,  lived up to expectations.
As wild fires in the West consumed thousands of homes—of both people and animals—several hurricanes spun their deadly arms across the Atlantic, ultimately devastating Puerto Rico, many Caribbean islands, and multiple U.S. cities.
The American federal government turned a blind eye to climate change, but state governments and local municipalities are stepping up to make a difference. And writers from around the world continue to join them in the fight.
Case in point: This past October, writer C. Morgan Babst published her debut novel, The Floating World. Set in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the book introduces us to the Boisdorés, a family that can trace its ancestors back to the founding of New Orleans. When news of the approaching hurricane reaches them, Joe Boisdoré, an artist and descendant of a freed slave, leaves the city with his white upper-class wife, Tess. They leave behind their eldest daughter, Cora, who refuses to abandon her home. When the parents return, they find their daughter mute and trauma-stricken by what happened in their absence. Del, their youngest daughter, returns from New York to help figure out what happened to her sister, and discovers that to find answers, she must wrestle with the city’s racial and class tensions.
The Floating World is a beautiful novel that speaks profoundly to the current moment. Babst spoke with me about her inspiration for the book, the real-life effects of Hurricane Katrina on her beloved home town of New Orleans, and how climate change continues to impact the city’s most vulnerable populations.
However, with a couple of touchstone exceptions—Peristyle, The Blue Nile, a snippet of autobiography—the specific houses and characters of the novel were entirely imagined. Considering the magnitude of the losses that so many of my fellow New Orleanians had experienced, I wanted to be very sure my characters weren’t trespassing on anyone else’s property. Instead, I used the book to resurrect older ghosts. Though there are living Boisdorés in New Orleans, the family in my novel descends from an 18th-century man who, as far as I can tell, died without heirs, and I built the Boisdorés’ house on a parking lot on Esplanade where a house must once have stood.
It’s only in the aftermath of emergency that we can begin to reckon with it; only after the shock wears off and the damage is surveyed do we really understand what happened. This was particularly true of Katrina, which unfolded as a series of belated revelations about what had just occurred. Those of us who had evacuated went to bed, dry and relieved, after watching news broadcasts about a few broken windows, and woke up to images of the city under water. Those who stayed saw the water rise in their houses after the storm had passed.
Loss follows the wrecking. Work follows, as do grief and drinking and PTSD. But what is really strange is that the past—the cause—of catastrophe reveals itself in the aftermath. Underbuilt levees, warming oceans. Inadequate evacuation plans, unmitigated poverty. Fragile infrastructure, incompetent government. So, though it is less exciting to linger in the wake of a disaster, I think we have to—that is, if want to understand the consequences of doing nothing to prepare for the next one.
After Katrina, I heard a lot of people say, “How can something like this happen in America?” That sentiment inflected news reports, in which New Orleanians were referred to as “refugees”—as if these unhappy people carrying their lives in plastic bags could not possibly be Americans. It was shocking, of course, to see the nation’s, and the city’s, long history of inequality and racism—our refusal to protect all of our citizens equally—explode with such force, but it would require real effort not to see that that’s what was going on.
Though the levee system failed in multiple places, and the flood cut a wide economic swath, society’s other failures were more focused. People without the means to evacuate were not evacuated. Outside the shelters of last resort, people waited for days for buses that did not come. On the Mississippi River Bridge, police shot at a group of people trying to leave on foot. And that’s was just the beginning. Returning home, for those without means, was made no easier, and rebuilding home has been harder still.
In conceiving the novel, I tried to position my characters at the center of that conflict, so that my readers might see the tragedy from all angles.
Considering what a mess this place is—politically, economically, racially, environmentally—it can be a burden to belong to it, as was made abundantly clear when the city flooded in 2005. It would have been easier, probably, for all of us to leave, to make a life somewhere else, on higher ground, but then where would we listen to funk in the mud? Who would throw the crawfish boils? What would awaken us in the middle of the night, if not a tugboat moaning on the river or a streetcar’s thunking gears? The city’s sounds and smells are potent and strange; they house our memories, and they make us who we are. New Orleans is my mother. She’s also a femme fatale.
I do feel, though, that as a fiction writer I can do a little something. One of the challenges with getting people to pay attention to climate-related issues—enough attention to call our governments to account or at the very least to prepare our homes and families better—is that the worst case scenarios we hear about seem distant, impossible, too terrifying to contemplate, or all three. I don’t think that the human brain is really equipped to grapple with catastrophe of such magnitude; even the concept makes us shut down, turn our faces away. In fiction, however, I can give you one family, one storm, one flood, and that can be a doorway to empathy, preparation, understanding—maybe even change.
The Floating World by C. Morgan Babst
Published October 17, 2017
C. Morgan Babst’s essays and short fiction have appeared in such journals as Garden and Gun, The Oxford American, Guernica, the Harvard Review, and the New Orleans Review. The Floating World is her first novel.
Dr Brady's very well-received literary column on cli-fi trends began in February 2107 with this column: https://chireviewofbooks.com/2017/02/08/the-man-who-coined-cli-fi-has-some-reading-suggestions-for-you/