Catherine Bush


Climate Science/Climate Culture: Possibilities for Bio-Empathetic Fiction

Talk delivered at Fiction Meets Science: Narrating Science Conference, Toronto, Thursday May 25, 2017.

  1. Provocations

In thinking about fiction’s possibilities at a time of crisis in the biosphere, I’ve recently been challenged by two writers: the Australian philosopher Clive Hamilton and Indo-American novelist Amitav Ghosh.

In a recent excerpt from his new book Defiant Earth, due out in North America in June, Hamilton writes: Bookshops are regularly replenished with tomes about world futures … as if climate scientists do not exist.”

He goes on to note: “Many intellectuals in the social sciences and humanities do not concede that Earth scientists have anything to say that could impinge on their understanding of the world, because the “world” consists only of humans engaging with humans, with nature no more than a passive backdrop to draw on as we please.” (quotes taken from The Guardian, May 5, 2017)

Cue Amitav Ghosh from the section entitled “Stories” in his 2016 nonfiction work, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, which tackles our cultural inability to imaginatively respond to or confront the scale and potential destructions of climate change.

“If the urgency of a subject were indeed a criterion of its seriousness, then, considering what climate change actually portends for the future of the earth it should surely follow that this would be the principal preoccupation of writers the world over – and this I think is very far from being the case. But why?

 There can be no doubt that this challenge arises in part from the complexities of the technical language that serves as our primary window on climate change. But neither can there be any doubt that the challenge derives also from the practices and assumptions that guide the arts and humanities.” (The Great Derangement, University of Chicago Press, 2016)

Both these quotations are excerpts from books, whose production timelines mean that the words themselves were written at least a few years ago. And things are beginning to change in our literature or literatures, which is my area of interest here. Both Ghosh and Hamilton are speaking about literary fiction, which exists largely in a realist mode. I, too, will be focusing my comments to address literary fiction, my area of expertise. There are a growing number of works of literary fiction that touch on climate change in some way. Literary works themselves take time to create: the process of assimilating complex and difficult subject matter and transforming it into art can be slow. Nevertheless, the words of Hamilton and Ghosh are provocative, useful and gesture in essential and troubling directions.

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Writing the Weather

Canadian Creative Writing and Writing Programs Conference Paper, May 2016. Republished in the online magazine, Dark Matter: Women Witnessing, Issue #5, June 2017.

Last month saw the biggest year-over-year jump in atmospheric levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide on record. And that, reports NOAA, the US weather service, took May 2016 to the highest monthly levels of CO2 in the air ever measured — 407.7 ppm.
At the same time, the National Snow and Ice Data Center reports the warming-driven death spiral of Arctic sea ice hit a staggering new May low. May 2016 saw Arctic sea ice extent drop “about 600,000 square kilometers below any previous year in the 38-year satellite record”.

— from an article by Joe Fromm in the online forum Climate Progress.

Closer to where I live, after a warm winter, it was cold for weeks this spring and there were no cherry blossoms. Now a surfeit of swallowtail butterflies has appeared, sucking nectar out of my garden’s wild phlox; hawks nest a couple of blocks away and send keening cries from silver maple trees onto passersby below. Cars speed past. A strong wind blows out of the west. In the park a mother hovers over her 13-month-old son who wanders among the dogs. He’ll only eat off the floor with his mouth, she says. He drinks from the dog bowl and pants, and she’s fine with it for now but worries about what will happen to him when he gets older. When he grows into this world of ours, whatever this world will be.

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Review of Hill by Jean Giono, translated by Paul Eprile

appeared in Brick 99, Summer 2017.

While searching for works of fiction in which non-human presences—animal, vegetable, or mineral—are as essential as human ones, I stumbled upon Hill, a wondrously strange and enduringly vital novel by French writer Jean Giono, first published in 1929. New York Review Books Classics has recently reissued Hill (Colline in the original French) in an energetic new translation by Canadian poet Paul Eprile.

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Ecological Unravelling

Panel Talk, March 28, 2017, Innis College, University of Toronto

One central question for me at this time is: how do we return people’s attention to what sustains biological life? Even our cellphones begin as metals dug by someone out of the ground. The electricity that we depend on to wire us to the web of digital information and each other depends for its creation on natural sources, whether uranium, in the case of nuclear power, or water or wind. Yet we tend to think of such things as phones or electricity simply as objects or energy to be grasped and used: we prize them for their utility and stop our thoughts there. We have been deeply seduced by material comfort and digital attachment. Our lives have become structurally shaped by these seductions. And in so doing we lift ourselves out of the web of living connection.

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The Weather Changers: Fiction Responds to Climate Engineering

Panel Talk delivered August 21, 2014, as part of “Climate Engineering in Popular Culture: Art, Media, Games, and Fiction” at the Climate Engineering Conference/CEC 2014, Berlin, Germany

I want to start with an anecdote. Twenty-one years ago I published my first novel, Minus Time, in which one of the central characters is an astronaut. And a woman. When I told people this, many then said, So it’s science fiction. I found this strange. This was the ‘90s. There were real astronauts. Even real female astronauts. Even a real female Canadian astronaut. I was writing realist fiction, I said. And pointed out that there were real astronauts, etc. Climate engineering exists in a strange intermediary zone. Some here at this conference will say that it doesn’t exist. Others that it shouldn’t exist. It is theoretical. And yet it is real in so far as it is intensely discussed and researched by real people here in the real world, as at this conference, which is real. And the debate about what it is and whether it should be researched and even potentially deployed is spreading further out into the real world. It is part of our being here, what it means to live here and now, and my interest in it as a novelist is because of this realness, the way we inhabit climate engineering and it inhabits us.

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Think You’ve Seen Newfoundland? You’ve Never Seen Anything Like This

Travel Feature on Fogo Island, The Globe and Mail, July 20, 2013.

“Steer by the inn,” says Captain Ane Emberley, at my shoulder as I take a brief turn at the wheel of his tour boat, the Ketanja. I line up the prow with the Fogo Island Inn. It’s easy to navigate by; its intersecting white rectangles rear from a jut of granite on the treeless shore.

The inn, which officially opened on May 15, is like nothing else on this small, rugged outpost off the northeast coast of Newfoundland. Its attention-getting presence signals an attempt to steer the island itself in a different direction. Once fishing culture defined this place. Now visitors arrive, drawn by the lure of a place where old culture meets new.

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Philip Pullman Puts the Grimm Back into Fairy Tales

Book Review, The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, translated by Philip Pullman, The Globe and Mail, November 16, 2012.

Why read fairy tales? We hardly need books any more to know the outlines of the most familiar ones. They are continually returned to us in new forms, often aimed at adults: a Red Riding Hood movie last year, two Snow White movies this year, not to mention Grimm, the TV series with a fairy-tale twist. Still, we think of fairy tales as reading for children, or we read them to children, even the often violent and bloodthirsty tales gathered by the Brothers Grimm in Children’s and Household Tales, first published 200 years ago this year.

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CCWWP Conference Paper

If It Lives, It Moves: Looking at the Kinetic as a Reading Strategy

This is a talk about reading in the writing classroom and in particular approaches to reading the work of published writers in a writing class.

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An Excerpt from “The Embrace,” an essay on grieving the death of my father

If it’s possible, in the wake of a parent’s death, for that parent to retreat to the point where he or she is barely thought of, I don’t know it.

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A Roundtable on Empathy in Fiction

Bookninja is proud to present the first installment of its Fall 2007 Magazine — a roundtable discusion of empathy in fiction, suggested by Catherine Bush and joined by four other prominent novelists: Peter Behrens, Barbara Gowdy, Sheila Heti and Lisa Moore.

This discussion represents the opinions of some of the most talented, brassy, and thoughtful authors contemporary Canadian fiction has to offer (between them they have dozens of award nominations and wins — Governor General’s Award, Giller Prize, Commonwealth Prize, IMPAC Award) on an issue central to the nuts and bolts of both reading and writing. It is a must-read for anyone who cares about either end of the process.

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Ever Revise

Before I’d actually published my third novel, Claire’s Head, but after the book was out of my hands and at the printers (the stage, in other words, when most sane writers would say they are finished), I told my partner (who’s also a writer) that I wanted to do another draft of it. He looked at me as if I were crazy. Don’t do it, he cried.

When I told my editor and publisher, a few months later, after the publication of the novel, that I had written a significant revision and I wanted to publish this version as the paperback edition, she said to me, No one has ever done this. (Though I wondered if that was really the case.)

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A Short Talk with Anne Carson

Catherine Bush: Two of the most notable things about your work are your hybrid use of form and your radical roping together of the ancient and contemporary. I read in an article that you became a classicist out of an early fascination with Oscar Wilde, who studied classics. Was he your route into the classical realm? In other words, why classics? And, what is it about Oscar?

Anne Carson: I admired Oscar Wilde for his clothes not his classics. Classics discovered itself to me (about age 15) one day in a shopping mall in Stoney Creek, Ontario, when I happened on a bilingual edition of Sappho and decided to learn ancient Greek.

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the only question worth asking of a story … is, "Is it dead or alive?”

- Mavis Gallant


Catherine’s contributions to UBC’s optional-residency MFA audio downloads can be heard here (2009-2006). Scroll down to 2006 for her instructor talk: "Why Fiction Matters: Some Thoughts on Realism, Authenticity and Conviction"


From the Authors’ Aloud website, Catherine Bush reads from Claire’s Head.
"to create life which does not eat, procreate or drink but which can live in people who are alive."

- Henry Green on writing