Emily Raboteau on Mothering and Climate Change


Writer Emily Raboteau joins co-hosts Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan to talk about mothering in the face of climate change and systemic inequality. Raboteau discusses the difference between “resilience” and “trauma-informed growth,” and considers which one more realistically describes how people react to devastation. She also reflects on writing about Indigenous communities and histories, developing language to capture shifting environmental realities, and the intersections of climate and racial justice. Finally, she explains the influence of her late father, Albert Raboteau, a groundbreaking professor of African American religion, on her community-minded approach to these topics. She reads from Lessons for Survival, her new collection of essays about care and mothering in the climate crisis.

Check out video excerpts from our interviews at Lit Hub’s Virtual Book Channel, Fiction/Non/Fiction’s YouTube Channel, and our website. This episode of the podcast was produced by Anne Kniggendorf.

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From the episode:

Whitney Terrell: Could you talk a little bit about how your different identities as a Black woman and a mother, among other things, brought you to these questions of resilience and how to think about resilience in the face of climate change, looking at other examples of resilience from the past?

Emily Raboteau: I just learned another way of thinking about resilience from this writer Anya Kamenetz, who doesn’t like the term resilience—I don’t mind the term—and she suggested we think about that idea instead as trauma-informed growth. Resilience suggests bouncing back from something, whereas thinking about trauma-informed growth suggests something slightly different. 

The reason I thought of my grandmother was, and maybe that was a strange association, I was really glad that The New York Review of Books let me write as much as I did about my grandma when what it was supposed to be was a book review about sea level rise—basically a book of science of incredible environmental reporting by Elizabeth Rush—I felt invited to do that because she was such a resilient person. 

Resilience is something we’re being encouraged to think about, but when we’re only thinking about it in terms of finance, in terms of economic recovery, or in terms of something like architecture, then we’re not paying attention to resilience in more spiritual and emotional terms. If we’re not backward-looking in addition to forward-thinking then I think we’re missing out on important lessons. The reason I brought up Mary Annaïse Heglar’s important essay, where she reminds us that this isn’t the first existential threat people have faced, is it’s also an instruction to look at folks who really have something to say about resilience and survival and to look to those folks in these times.

WT: I have one quick thing that I wanted to say. I agree with you that the more important aspects of surviving this are going to be the human ones, but when you’re reading that essay, and you’re talking about managed retreat from coastal areas, what I also think about is the last financial crisis in 2008, where many homes suddenly didn’t have the value that the banks thought they had, that they lent money on, and they weren’t going to receive payments. Suddenly, the banking system seems like it’s going to collapse. Isn’t this the same thing that’s going to happen with coastal properties? They are overvalued right now, and if there’s going to be a managed retreat from them, banks are going to own a lot of paper that is going to be worthless.

ER: Yeah, and what’s so disturbing is how much growth is still happening. We see it here in New York, you see it in Florida, the pace is not decreasing, which is insane. I think it’s not only insane, it’s evil. I think we’re thinking in terms of the length of a mortgage, as opposed to death at a mass scale. Again, the problem here, when we’re talking about this is not microaggressions, we’re talking about the work being done and enacted to the environment in this sort of capital framework, where you’re going to keep growth at the pace that it is in coastal communities. We need to stop thinking in those terms.

V.V. Ganeshananthan: One of the other things you write about in this essay is Harriet Tubman and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and visitor center, which is in Maryland, where I’m from. You talk about the fact that the marsh grasses have sensibly retreated to higher ground to survive the rising water at that site. You also talk about her as someone who was engaged in managed retreat, which was a really helpful comparison for me to think about, like, how would that work?

It seems to me like the distinction you were drawing earlier about what Anya Kamenetz said about resilience… and I also sometimes bristle at that resilience language… I feel like it’s a coded way for someone to be like, “It’s okay that something unjust was done to you, look at how strong you are.” I don’t really want to be strong at this particular time, I’d like to curl into a ball and be left alone. It’s often language like this that’s aimed specifically at Black women and other women of color, like, “Oh, you’re so strong and competent,” which is also a way of veiling the trauma and forced language. 

Maybe another way to think about it is like, how can we expand our notions of resilience? The essay makes a great argument for managed retreat as a form of resilience and as a strong thing to do—running from threat is an intelligent survival tactic. We live in a culture where running is shamed, and here’s some examples of strong people who ran. As a Marylander, as someone who watched and writes about Sri Lanka, and watched the Indian Ocean tsunami, those were the things I was thinking about as I read, and I was shocked to realize that the Harriet Tubman site is going to be flooded. I thought, of course. Of course.

ER: It’s really sad because it’s an important site. At the same time, how much sense does it make to memorialize somebody who needs to be memorialized in a place that is going to be under water sooner than any of us would like to admit. On the one hand, they’re daylighting this brook in our neighborhood as a work of climate mitigation—this big green wonderful thing. 

I’ve also wondered, “Is this the right use of many millions of dollars, when maybe what that money should be spent on is some form of managed retreat preparation for this neighborhood that chronically floods?” 

I read and reviewed this book called Charleston by Susan Crawford. I’ve never visited there, but it’s chronically flooded. That’s something she questions like, “How much sense does it make to spend so much money making this resilient?” That word again, right, when maybe resilience looks more like running? 

I also talked to some indigenous peoples in this book who have a different strategy of thinking. This might depend on the environment, but another strategy is staying and fighting. You can’t fight water, but you can fight a pipeline. You can fight settler colonialists. So, I just want to point out that they’re different strategies of resilience that make sense in different circumstances, and I was interested in paying attention to those two in this book.

Transcribed by Otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Mikayla Vo. Photograph of Emily Raboteau by Rachel Eliza Griffiths.

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Emily Raboteau:

Lessons for Survival: Mothering Against “the Apocalypse”Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African DiasporaThe Professor’s Daughter • “Climate Signs”|The New York Review of Books, February 1, 2019 • “Lessons in Survival”|The New York Review of Books, November 21, 2019 • “The Unequal Racial Burdens of Rising Seas”|The New York Times, April 10, 2023 • “Gutbucket”|Orion Magazine

Others:

Fiction/Non/Fiction: Season 2, Episode 15: “Emily Raboteau and Omar El Akkad Tell a Different Kind of Climate Change Story” • “Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5 ºC”|Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, October 2018 • “UN Says Climate Genocide Is Coming. It’s Actually Worse Than That” by David Wallace-Wells|New York Magazine, October 10, 2018 • The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells • “Young Readers Ask: The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells” by Geronimo Lavalle|Orion Magazine, April 9, 2019 • “In Pictures: New York Under a Haze of Wildfire Smoke|Le Monde, June 7, 2023 • Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush • “Why Indonesia Is Shifting Its Capital From Jakarta”|Bloomberg, August 24, 2019 • “Sea Level Rise and Implications for Low-Lying Islands, Coasts and Communities”|Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, September 2019 • “Managed Retreat through Voluntary Buyouts of Flood-Prone Properties” by Katherine J. Mach et. al.|Science Advances, October 9, 2019 • “Climate Change Isn’t the First Existential Threat” by Mary Annaïse Heglar|ZORA, February 18, 2019 • Anya Kamenetz • “‘Culture Will Be Eroded’: Climate Crisis Threatens to Flood Harriet Tubman Park”|The Guardian, November 23, 2019 • Charleston: Race, Water, and the Coming Storm by Susan Crawford and Annette Gordon-Reed • Justin Brice Guariglia • Albert Raboteau • Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South by Albert Raboteau



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