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In Search of Better Skies: An Interview with Jennifer Neal

This is an abridged transcript of our Green Library Event “In Search of Better Skies” with Jennifer Neal. On the 8th of July 2020, Jennifer joined us on zoom and gave us some insights into her work. She is an Australian-American writer, artist and occasional stand-up comedian who currently lives in Berlin. She has published short stories and a wide array of journalistic articles and essays, and has recently finished a novel. Jennifer talked to us about writing nature and environment, and shared some thoughts on speculative fiction.

When I read your short story “In Search of Better Skies”, I was struck by how histories of racial injustice seem to be written into the very soil of the description of Woodland in Georgia; how evil seems to be embedded in the landscape. Could you talk about how writing nature and the environment works for you in the sense of speaking to the histories housed by the places you write? What relationship does the nature you write have to the story you want to tell?

I use the surrounding environment as a primary character when writing because I actually see human beings as nebulous, transient characters. People migrate, borders shift all the time and people are essentially unreliable: we lie, we deceive, and more times than not, we rewrite histories to accommodate our own levels of cognitive dissonance. That’s why history is, in a sense, a genre of its own, because how it’s told depends on who’s telling it. Examples of that are how slavery has been written out of American textbooks, or how the Namibian genocide and the Berlin conference have been written out of German textbooks. And by ‘written out’, I mean not included at all.

So, nature is the character that interrogates what is essentially unspoken. It’s honest, it’s brutal, it’s challenging. I use nature to act as a fact-checker in my writing, because land remembers. I mean that not just in a spiritual sense – although the idea lends itself to that – I mean it in an archaeological sense, because we have things like street names, grave sites, carbon dating and DNA analysis. All of these things fill in the gaps of unreliable narrators, who are often the arbiters of our problematic history. As a prescient example, I think of Colson Whitehead’s book The Nickel Boys, which was inspired by the Dozier School for boys in Marianna, Florida, where Dr. Erin Kimmerle, a fantastic forensic anthropologist uncovered more than fifty graves of abused boys when the state had for years denied that anyone had suffered from abuse there.

I was really struck by how the land on which the school was based in the book was a character around which the story was built. It was described in a very insidious way that haunted the story from chapter to chapter. It was omnipresent; it haunted the characters.

In my essay, my grandfather is an extension of a piece of land that doesn’t want to let him go. I rely on what I know about that piece of land to fill in the gaps of a life that I feel it’s my solemn duty to remember. I feel as if I can do that, because the history that made him flee from Woodland is the same history that made me flee from the United States. It’s perennial. It’s in our blood.

In this essay, you describe the trajectory of a grandfather who fought the Nazis, only to return to a Georgia that, as the story goes on to describe, is so suffocating that he has to move on again, this time to Florida. At the same time, you note the strangeness of how you are now able to live in a place “once overrun by Nazis”. Could you tell us about these related journeys, and how the relationship between these spaces, these landscapes, affect your writing – also as someone who has for the moment chosen to make Berlin their home?

I’ve asked myself this frequently. Some years ago, my parents took a DNA test to trace our ethnic lineage, and the results were all over the place – as is typical for African Americans. We come from the Americas, the Caribbean, Ireland and Scandinavia – and West Africa, of course.

Since then, I’ve had an idea I’ve been mulling over for a long time, of travelling to all of these places to examine my relationship with the land and the people there – and I’ve done that with some of them. Do any of these places feel familiar to me, or even like a home? Because for better or for worse – and by ‘worse’ I mean slavery – they are a part of us.

As someone who has lived on four different continents and travelled to forty different countries, I pay attention to the feeling of a place. You can call it whatever you want: a vibe, a mood, but I definitely had a feeling about Berlin the first time I landed here. It could be related to my grandfather’s journey, because I’m fascinated with the idea of cycles, and how future generations unconsciously seek to resolve the issues that they inherit through their forebears.

Yaa Gyasi did an incredible job of exploring that in her book Homegoing, which starts with the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the 1700s, and ends with their descendants returning to Ghana for a holiday in modern-day times.

What I’m interested in is related, but also different. I’m interested in the complex post-traumatic stress disorder and intergenerational trauma, which is, interestingly enough, a concept first coined in regard to the children of Holocaust survivors, though it would definitely apply to people from the African diaspora as well. I wonder if that intergenerational trauma passed down in my bloodline keeps me away from Florida. I wonder if intergenerational trauma pushes us away from our homes, when those homes threaten to break us. Does that escape then dilute our ethnic lineage by forcing us to relate to a new piece of land with its own brand of intergenerational trauma – which Berlin definitely has. There’s a book called Decolonial Daughter by Lesley-Ann Brown, a Trinidadian woman who went to Denmark, where she talks about the machine of so-called progress being predicated on the demise of our ethnic lineage. So I think of my journey as an extension of what my grandfather started: for him, Georgia to Florida; for me, Florida to everywhere. I wonder if it’s also a subconscious effort to – and I want to careful about how I word this – to extract that trauma from my bloodline. That’s something I’m trying to figure out every day.

In a piece you wrote recently for Gay Mag on speculative fiction, you offer a Toni Morrison quote that describes the imagination as the “last uncolonised territory”. First of all, could you give us a working definition of speculative fiction? And do you find that there is some particular anti-colonial or decolonial energy to this genre of writing? What does it enable for you?

Speculative fiction is an umbrella term used to describe literature that is classified as science fiction, fantasy, horror, dystopian, utopian, supernatural fiction – basically, the rejection of reality as we currently know it. That’s not to say that it couldn’t ever be true. The art of speculative fiction is that it describes what could be, and that it walks a delicate tightrope between what is and what civilisation is often teetering on the verge of becoming.

In my experience, it’s often pushed outside of ‘literary fiction’ circles and given a naughty corner all of its own. Possibly, it appealed to from a rebellious standpoint. I embrace it because I feel a very deep, seething dissatisfaction with the canon of ‘traditional’ establishment literature. The books we studied in school that were used to contextualise how we’re supposed to read and write were given through the lens of problematic white men.

Literature is more than an art form. It is a form of thought and self-identification. Growing up, reading books by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Conrad in school, I came to identify with their experiences, their gaze and their stories, more than I did with the ones that described my own. I came to view myself as a tertiary character in my own life. Of course, that’s not entirely because of literature, but as a bibliophile and a lifelong writer, it had a tremendous impact on the way I thought I could write. For a while the stories I wrote privately centred on white people, because I grew up knowing so much more about what it means to be a white woman or a white man than what it means to be a queer woman of colour. Literature that described that experience was something that I had to actively seek out. The interesting thing is that in that discovery, I had to shed many of the preconceptions I had formed when I was young, because I was brainwashed into accepting a world view that wasn’t mine. When you begin that line of questioning, you don’t stop. Many of the things that affect my life are constructs that were built to benefit others, but they are really made-up things, with race and gender being the most obvious examples. These things affect my life and the lives of everybody in an extremely real way, but they are made up with the idea of subjugation. So I can make up my own constructs with the idea of liberation. When I do that, even when it’s only for a page, I am in essence rejecting years of state-sponsored school curricula, policies and structures that would seek to keep me in a very narrow definition of what a ‘Black writer’ should be – in favour of someone who embraces self-determination to the detriment of oppression.

Our next Green Library Event will take place on the 22nd of October 2020. The Green Library series is supported by the Berlin Senate.