Category: Writer in Residence — Published:

Over the course of 2019 as Writer in Residence, Rachel Pimm will be publishing a new series of texts on the Whitechapel Gallery website, alongside a curated series of live events. Here they outline some of the ideas behind their approach to the residency. 

What kind of writing do we do about the environment, and how can this writing be also for the benefit of the environment? I saw a talk titled Reading for the Planet where Jenifer Wenzell, literary critic, honed in on Chinua Achebe’s 1978 essay The Truth of Fiction, in which he asserts that writing fiction is not an apolitical act: “there are fictions that help and fictions that hinder” These can be beneficent, benign, and also malignant- – such as the fictional ‘belief in inferior and superior races’, which forget they are just fictions and become violent. Writing about the earth and its life and non-life has a potentially unwanted effect of fixing parts of it which need to be urgently unfixed – for Wenzell, words like crisis do more to produce climate apathy and apocalyptic fantasies than to create useful strategies for living together in a dying planet.

I am interested to try and understand the role of writing words of and with the earth – to try to tell stories that engage with the planet rather than simply mining it. How can I write about the environment and what do words do to that environment? Intention is one thing, and effect is another. Which words are beneficent? Before saying anything there is some serious listening to be done and before writing anything, there is some serious reading to be done.

There is a logic propogated by ‘explorers’ that certain landscapes need to be conquered. Considering I work through fieldwork, how do I untangle the act of going there at all in order to start to un-produce this relationship of bodies to the ground that supports them? Can post-colonial, feminist and queer materialisms help? What library will form as I read? I’m hoping to use the year to continue trying to understand my colonial role in relation to the earth, to think through, combine and shit-stir disciplines like maths, physics, chemistry, biology, and engineering.

I want to learn to produce not simply performative words, (read: performative earth-allyship), but to try to learn to write productive and generative words in order to shuffle privilege, to hear from, rather than always speak for: places; natural resources; human and non-human, living and non-living agents with whom we share earth, and by whom our lives themselves are produced.

Rachel’s reading list (in progress)