Connecting Cultures, Connecting People: Recommendations from ASLE Leadership

The second entry in our end-of-the-year series of recommendations focuses on connections between people and across cultures. These recommendations are sometimes joyful (and danceable!) but sometimes more serious. Even the more serious ones, however, offer possibilities for comfort, fruitful work, expanded horizons – and hope.

Jenna Gersie, Graduate Student Liaison

In Jenny Offill’s 2020 novel Weather, Lizzie, the narrator, works for her former graduate advisor, Sylvia, answering emails that arrive in response to Sylvia’s climate change podcast, Hell and High Water. In her podcasts, lectures, and articles about climate change, Sylvia tries to include a hopeful sentiment. “‘I have to call you back,’” she tells Lizzie. “‘I’m about to send off this article, but I have to come up with the obligatory note of hope’” (67). Though Sylvia’s hope for the future diminishes throughout the novel, Offill insists on maintaining hope, including in the back of the book the URL to a website:

On the website, Offill asks, “How can we imagine and create a future we want to live in?” Noting that she herself struggled with how to get involved in the climate justice movement, Offill turned to the ways that “ordinary people” were contributing. The website provides information about organizations like the Sunrise Movement, Transition Towns, and Extinction Rebellion, and about people contributing to climate justice goals through work such as urban farming, disaster relief, repairing broken technology, and more.

Also included on the website are “Tips for Trying Times,” a list of forty-five quotes that draw attention to hope, gratitude, reciprocity, and joy. Within the quotes lies practical advice to foster hope, such as growing a garden or writing a story, and whimsical advice, such as whistling in the dark or looking up at the stars. Above all, these quotes ask us to pay attention: to “be aware of the air around you, the scent of morning freshness that is bestowed on you,” as Hermann Hesse writes, or to observe the weather, as Thomas Merton encourages, “because I myself am part of the weather and part of the climate and part of the place.” We are reminded to look.

Cajetan Iheka, Executive Council

2020 has been a difficult year, but it is also the year that Africa confounded “experts” who predicted the worst COVID-19 outcome for the continent. Nnedi Okorafor’s concept of Africanfuturism and the stories in the new volume Africanfuturism: An Anthology also defy the dystopic expectation of Africa. If science fiction is considered a western genre, with mostly white male characters, Okorafor orients her readers to locate in Africa powerful resources for imagining futures and for rethinking the cartography of science fiction and fantasy. In Igbo, the Nigerian language I share with Nnedi Okorafor, her name means Mother is good. Mother in this culture transcends the biological to articulate a larger female principle. Nnedimma is a tribute to black female power and agency, a central theme that runs through the anthology’s stories.

In Dilman Dila’s story, “Yat Madit,” the “digital princess,” operator of a cloud business, is surrounded by computers, electrical parts, “robots, and the LED tubes blinking with her shop’s name” (19). She refuses to corrupt the digital information system for her father-politician, opting instead for safeguarding its integrity as informative tool for deliberative democratic participation. In Okorafor’s “Sunrise,” we meet Eze, herself an Africanfuturist writer. A white blogger who approaches her at the airport is surprised that the author of his beloved Rusted Robot series is African and female, asking, “a futuristic Africa . . . that’s not really Africa, right?”  Taken together, the new anthology challenges this regressive view of Africa by entrenching women at the center of a progressive digital Africa.

Women are also at the forefront of forging a new planet in the anthology, “a planet with a conscience. A planet that could guide life instead of suffering from it” (Africanfuturism 79). With its mixture of indigenous technologies and the so-called Western science, and with its nod to renewable energy with solar-powered phones, hoverbike, and other gadgets devoid of dirty fuels, the anthology posits Africa as the future.

Rina Garcia Chua, Diversity Co-Officer

The first wave of lockdowns back in late spring this year have reminded me that there is so much comfort that is nestled within the spines of well-loved poetry books. There were a couple that I reached for as I tucked myself in my bed at night in that state of an unknown (new) world, but one of those that truly made my heart sing was Iep Jāltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter by Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner. A warning: It is not a feel-good or easy read. Kathy peels away the scars of history and the uncertainties of the fast-approaching future in a brutal yet poignant manner. Yet, I kept coming back to it as the pandemic intensified and as the Black Lives Matter protests filled my social media feeds. I came back to it again as I regrouped my plans to reunite with my daughter in the Philippines – not as a source of comfort this time around, but as a string of hope.

Kathy is honest in her poetry. The whole collection is a metaphor for the delicate act of weaving, beginning and ending with two versions of “Basket” – of women stringing the past and present together to keep both good and bad memories alive. She keeps her ancestors present in the hymns and vivid stories of her culture, including her mother’s translation of a song her great-grandfather wrote: When will I hear my mother’s voice / Calling to me / When will I see again my family / In my own home? She does not shy away from the violence and degradation of colonization and the fragmentation of identities as she figures out herself in the diaspora. However, hope pierces the collection with the birth of a child to whom the second half of the collection revolves around. There are promises made here to fight for the child’s future and to continue the act of weaving.

How does this give someone like me, an immigrant mother, comfort? Poetry has always soothed me and has always been the wave of truth I’ve clung to. Yet, a collection like Kathy’s tells me that despite everything else we are going through at the moment in our own collective experience, there is a space for all our emotions – for grieving, for happiness, for love, for anger, and, most importantly, for hope. In the second version of “Basket,” Kathy writes, I fell asleep / dreamt / my words / were / a current / flowing / to greet you. I think about these words a lot as I continue to regroup my plans to reunite with my daughter. I’m not sure when it will be safe enough for me to cross the Pacific Ocean once more, but I take solace in both the certainties and uncertainties of the future. There will be that moment for a reunion and for our lives to once again begin together in this land, but, for now, I allow myself to hope. That is the strongest current that ebbs through me every day, and it keeps me flowing.

Laura Barbas-Rhoden, Co-President

The ordinary labors of co-creating a future of more thriving fill my life. Gathering, writing, civic action. I’m motivated by a vision of an inclusive climate refuge, always in the making, in this southernmost part of Appalachia where I live. What gives me energy? Relationships, including the relationships evoked, created, fostered by song. In the relational world I inhabit, of having my heart in multiple places at once, music and cooking and planting are summonings into the present of memory, life, and hope.

My childhood in the US South was shaped by the sounds of rembetiko and laïko, music that called together the displaced of the Greek-speaking world. Mikis Theodorakis, Haris Alexiou, George Dalaras, and others sang of loves and lands lost. They sang on records my parents brought back from Cyprus, on cassette tapes in the car, through the crackle of a shortwave radio on my father’s desk.

The machinations of empire ruptured the bonds of land and language in my family. We wrested from it a gift of other tongues, and many songs and stories. So, my offering for this ASLE series is a polyglot playlist for place and people and hope, always in the making.

As we head toward solstice, I wish you a world of joy and justice. Dance in the kitchen, march in the streets, sing with friends. And may you be well.