The Unreality of Memory – Elisa Gabbert
[FSG Originals; 2020]
Love After the End – Joshua Whitehead, ed.
[Arsenal Pulp Press; 2020]
One morning last September, I woke in my apartment in Portland, Oregon, to find the city submerged in a viscous stew of yellow-grey smoke, like the color of a rotten tangerine. Two days earlier, a freak Labor Day windstorm had whipped more than a dozen wildfires across the state into a frenzy; by mid-week, there were fires burning out of control within 20 miles of nearly every major city in western Oregon. The flames spread with disorienting ferocity: the Beachie Creek Fire exploded from 500 to 130,000 acres overnight, leveling rural towns and old-growth forests at a rate of three acres per second. Just south of Portland, my friend A. was forced to flee the monstrous Riverside Fire, corralling her cat and three dogs and four chickens into the car and abandoning her home in the belief she would never see it again.
Those of us not under evacuation orders barricaded ourselves indoors against the smoke, obsessively refreshing the real-time wildfire map for updates. In Salem, the state capital, the sky turned blood red. In Portland, visibility plummeted to a few hundred feet. The air quality index, which usually clocks in around 20 (“Good”) and maxes out at 500 (“Hazardous”), skyrocketed to an incomprehensible 800 and didn’t budge for days. The sun disappeared. Shadows vanished. The temperature hovered eerily at 57 degrees, day or night. City and state officials told people not to leave their homes. The one time I did, for an emergency grocery run, I found the supermarket filled with a thin haze, blurrily translucent beneath the fluorescents. Things stayed this way for ten days before rain finally arrived. Across the state, the fires had burned more than one million acres and destroyed thousands of homes. Experts warned that future years would be even worse.
For those of us just far enough from the flames, the 2020 wildfire season was a prolonged mix of dread, paralysis, tedium, and the surreal, plodding sense of business as usual. After all, the fires were not even the year’s first major disaster. Months upon months of public health debacles and cultural reckonings had failed to derail the churning machine of American industry. Already working from home to avoid dying in a pandemic, I now toggled absurdly between work emails and apocalyptic videos on Twitter of whole communities burning to the ground, dutifully attending Zoom meetings as the air outside grew too toxic to even check the mail. I felt increasingly incapable of balancing these two extremes, especially as one crisis begat another, and by the time Oregon Governor Kate Brown ordered a second COVID-19 lockdown in mid-November, I was deep in the throes of apocalypse burnout: at once too acclimated and too exhausted to be scared, or upset, or disappointed. I was simply present, nothing more.
What does it mean to be a person at the end of the world? For a culture so obsessed with apocalypse — whether in the form of Hollywood blockbusters or the Book of Revelations — we have proven remarkably ill-equipped to deal with an actual one, in part because our mass entertainment has taught us all the wrong lessons. The disasters in films like The Day After Tomorrow and Deep Impact and even The Avengers arrive with massive, earth-shaking fanfare, leveling the New York skyline in one fell CGI swoop. It doesn’t help that these end-of-the-world movies are rarely about the world itself, but rather humanity’s rugged individualism, an opportunity for man (because it is usually a man) to reveal his indefatigable knack for survival. Humans are notoriously bad at recognizing or staying alarmed at slow-motion disasters, and there are precious few stories about the collective action or self-sacrifice we owe to each other in such situations. There are even fewer about what we owe to ourselves: joy, love, and resilience, and retaining them on a years-long march toward a horizon of flames.
Part of the problem, as the poet Elisa Gabbert writes in her essay, “Magnificent Desolation,” is our addiction to spectacle. A sense of awe accompanies moments of catastrophe, a stunned disbelief that compels us to keep looking even as the Titanic sinks, or the Challenger explodes, or the Twin Towers collapse. With horror comes adrenaline, the all-consuming pull of watching the unthinkable unfold. “Deaths by smoking or car wrecks are not a disaster because they are meted out, predictable,” Gabbert writes. “A disaster must not only blindside us, but be witnessed, and rewitnessed, in public.” It’s the inherent drama that elevates an incident from tragedy to disaster, the way it captures our attention en masse.
“Magnificent Desolation” opens Gabbert’s arresting new collection, The Unreality of Memory, which spirals outward to ponder the human condition in our current age of disasters — a period Gabbert terms the “pre-apocalypse.” And while Gabbert gives the first pages of her book to the “spectacles” of 9/11 or the Challenger, she’s ultimately more concerned with the large-scale disasters that we can’t see: climate change, radiation poisoning, global pandemics. In fact, it takes her almost no time to subvert her original definition of “disaster” when she concludes her second essay — a meditation on the fascination and stigma of nuclear disasters like Hiroshima and Chernobyl — with a deft rhetorical pivot:
There have been many more deaths, orders of magnitude more, from accidents in the fossil-fuel industries than in nuclear energy. But I can’t think of a particular accident with as much disaster capital as Chernobyl. In 2010, there were ‘the 33,’ the trapped coal miners in Chile, but they all survived and became heroes.
Why are some deaths more horrifying than others?
Why indeed. “Climate change accelerates natural disasters,” Gabbert continues: hurricanes and heat waves and yes, pandemics. Yet the creeping death tolls from such events fail to rattle us as much as the all-at-once shock of a 9/11; they become part of the landscape. (Remember May 2020, when we were still so shook by the coronavirus that the New York Times did this?) Gabbert quotes the writer Rob Nixon’s concept of “slow violence,” which describes an event of such enormity that it occurs “gradually and out of sight . . . dispersed across space and time.” Governments and individuals struggle to properly respond to slow violence, in part because the destruction occurs on a level that is almost too large to grasp. “To look at the moving object we have to pause it,” Gabbert writes, “which renders it inert, allowing us to contemplate it passively.” The threat appears abstract, a problem for another day, and by the time the damage becomes visible — through melting ice caps and rising sea levels, say, or a deadly virus on our doorstep — it is already too late.
Gabbert is haunted by this idea of “slow violence,” the way it distorts our sense of scale and tricks us into acquiescence. “It’s paradoxical, how quickly we adapt to suffering,” she writes, and it is this theme that forms the backbone of The Unreality of Memory. She cites the looming “Big One” in the Pacific Northwest, the long overdue and evocatively named “megathrust” earthquake that could strike at any moment, and the millions of people who, in full knowledge of this fact, willingly continue to live there. (Guilty.) A few pages later, in a spookily prescient chapter on viruses and pandemics, Gabbert notes that many people at the time of the Black Plague “seemed to take this mass die-off in stride, ‘like the weather.’” It appears not much has changed.
But Gabbert soon leaves the natural world behind in favor of trickier, more philosophical terrain. Questions of delusion proliferate, and of how these delusions corrode our sense of self. The book’s longest and most ambitious essay, “Witches and Whiplash,” weaves conversion disorder, mass hysteria, the Slender Man, Morgellons disease, and witch hunts into a fractured meditation on emotional suggestion and the contagion of pain. “Vanity Project” ponders our relationships with our bodies — phantom limbs, mirror delusions, our struggle to recognize change in ourselves over time — and how these phenomena temper our own consciousness. Even the “unreality” of the book’s eponymous essay refers not to the nonexistence of memory, but the distortions and crevasses and false moments strewn precariously throughout. Our very understanding of reality — how we discern both identity and the world at large — is built upon a tool that cheerfully denies reality’s rules, a rickety film reel with missing frames and warped, broken images. To rely on memory is thus its own kind of slow violence, a delicate crumbling we cannot fully comprehend.
So where does that leave us in terms of the apocalypse? Unfortunately, more or less the same place we began. In the aptly-titled “I’m So Tired,” a reckoning with the violent escalations of the Trump era, Gabbert concludes her book’s train of thought by openly wondering, “What is my responsibility? How much about global suffering am I supposed to know, and what can I really do with that knowledge?” Few among us have likely not worried about the impacts of the 24-hour news cycle and its billions of push notifications, but the fact remains that we’ve diagnosed a problem without coming close to a cure. We’re self-aware enough to be anxious all the time, but not enough to avoid the quicksand of compassion fatigue. “I worry sometimes I haven’t paced my outrage,” Gabbert writes. But elsewhere, she concedes: “You can’t prepare for the worst-case scenario when the scenario keeps getting rapidly worse.” We can only try the best we can, petrified of what our inexorable lapse means for the planet, our neighbors, our souls.
Depending on where you’re sitting, of course, the world already ended a long time ago. If you’re searching for a plague that wiped out a thriving civilization while a white supremacist government put up its feet and watched, simply look to the European settlers who breached the shores of what would soon be known as the Americas in the late 15th century, killing an estimated 93% of the 60 million Native people who lived there and dispassionately stealing the land they had tended for generations. By this metric, the United States itself is a post-apocalyptic nation, with its Native people cloaked in the centuries-long shadow of its aftermath: displacement, forced poverty, and genocide.
Just as Black writers wielded Afrofuturism to imagine worlds beyond the grasp of white violence, so too have Indigenous and Native authors turned to science fiction and dystopian literature to expose and interrogate the violence of settler colonialism. The last few years in particular have seen a sort of golden age for this style of storytelling, with the welcome publications of Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves, Waubgeshig Rice’s Moon of the Crusted Snow, Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun, and Claire Coleman’s Terra Nullius, among others.
Now there is a new and vital addition to the genre of Native speculative fiction: a collection of short futuristic narratives by Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer writers called Love After the End. Edited by the Oji-Cree/nehiyaw writer Joshua Whitehead and published deep in the midst of COVID-19, Love After the End immediately draws a straight line from our present-day pandemic to the train of viruses unleashed on Native peoples across history. “Who names an event apocalyptic and whom must an apocalypse affect for it to be thought of as ‘canon’?” Whitehead muses in his introduction. “Who is omitted from such a saving of space, whose material is relegated to the immaterial?” In its totality, Love After the End poses an alternate version of that question: how might those omitted voices offer a different perspective of the world and its apparent end?
This is especially significant in the realm of science fiction, whose tales of undiscovered planets and final frontiers drip with the language of colonialism. Here, those narratives are turned inside out. In Adam Garnet Jones’ “History of the New World,” humans seeking to flee a ruined Earth seem to luck out when they discover a portal to a pristine parallel universe. But there’s a catch: this apparently uninhabited world — a “blank page,” as one character calls it — is in fact home to a race of intelligent alien beings, an underwater species who resemble Earth’s manatees. For the majority of humans, this discovery changes nothing: crowds upon crowds push through in their eagerness to settle this so-called New World. But the same cannot be said of our narrator, a Two-Spirit nehiyow who now must decide whether to wreak the same damage on another world that was once wreaked on their own. What would it mean, the story asks, to be a colonizer and Indigenous? What is one’s responsibility to their culture, to the Earth, to the residents of an unknown world? The climate crisis figures prominently here: a riled, injured world is treated as if we could depart for another at any moment. Sometimes it takes science fiction to reveal just how deeply we’ve been tricked by our own fantasies.
Love After the End makes two other crucial adjustments to the formula. The first is its singular focus on queer, transgender, nonbinary, and Two-Spirit Indigenous authors, whose writing expands the genre beyond its frequently gendered parameters. Science fiction, after all, is uniquely positioned to explore gender bending and the queering of bodies, from cyborgs to sentient technologies to any type of alien life you can imagine. In Nathan Adler’s “Abacus,” a bio-engineered AI in the body of an Ojibwe rat hatches a plan to escape a space station with the help of his best friend, a teenage Anishaabe boy. In jaye simpson’s “The Ark of the Turtle’s Back,” a journey to a freshly terraformed planet unfolds simultaneously with the narrator’s gender transition and the dawning possibility of pregnancy. And in Gabriel Castilloux Calderon’s “Andwànikàdjigan,” stories physically manifest as tiny red markings on the bodies of adults, appearing of their own accord “when someone shared a story and you truly listened, listened with all your heart.”
Stories like these illustrate the distinction between “Native information” and “Native in formation,” first coined by the scholars Joanne Barker and Teresia Teaiwa and cited by Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton in Shapes of Native Nonfiction. Their definition rejects “the colonial demand for factual information about Native life” in favor of a framework that recognizes “indigeneity as a dynamic, creative, and intentional form which shapes the content that is garnered through its exploration.” The characters in Love After the End, then, are truly Native in formation, a vibrant celebration of the way Two Spirit and Indigiqueer people shape, and are shaped by, their journeys through the universe.
For this reflects the other innovation made by Love After the End: a shift in focus from the dystopian to the utopian. “Utopias are what we have to build, and build now,” Whitehead writes, “in order to find some type of sanctuary in which we all others can live . . . What better way to imaginable survivability than to think about how we may flourish into being joyously animated rather than merely alive?” There is pain and anguish throughout these nine stories, the stamp of trauma and repression. But there is also life and resilience and possibility, the refusal to be crushed by fatalism. It’s right there in the title: the end is not the end. There are whole stories to be told in its wake, universes to explore, love to discover. If Gabbert and The Unreality of Memory spy disaster in the things we can’t see — the apocalypse slipping in under our very noses — the writers in Love After the End find hope: memory not as a trap but a tether to the future, a link between what has already been survived and may be survived yet. The apocalypse may be nigh. What comes after is up to us.
Will Preston‘s writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has appeared in publications across North America, including The Common, The Smart Set, Smithsonian Folkways, The Masters Review, and Maisonneuve. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and holds an MFA from the University of British Columbia. Visit him at willprestonwriter.wordpress.com.