Illustration by Indi Maverick

Mothering Against the Apocalypse

A conversation about climate, Blackness, and survival with Emily Raboteau

Orion contributing editor Emily Raboteau sat down with author-activist Aya de León for a beautiful and pointed conversation about language, solidarity, street art, domestic labor, and raising children in the era of accelerated climate change, in celebration of Emily’s new book Lessons for Survival: Mothering Against “the Apocalypse”.

Aya de León: In sharing your personal experiences around climate, motherhood, Blackness, and justice, you are treading on such important but contested territories. What are your biggest hopes in telling these stories and what are your biggest fears? In a parallel question, what were the biggest forces propelling you forward and what were the biggest obstacles (internal or external)?

Emily Raboteau: I believe a lot of readers can relate to these stories. I hope the book will make those readers feel less alone and consider more deeply the systemic imbalances of power that lead to inequities in health, safety, and power. I don’t have any fears about putting these stories out, except maybe that book sales will be low because climate change is a downer!  I’m being facetious. My real fear is that thinking deeply and writing on these issues won’t change anything.

The biggest force propelling me forward is as I wrote was my concern for our children’s well-being. In general, the main obstacle for me, as a writer, is finding solid chunks of time to write without distraction. I’m a working mom. I have a lot on my plate, including childcare and teaching at a public university. However, I had support from terrific editors who published these essays in their original forms in journals and magazines like Orion. For example, I wrote an essay for Orion called “Spark Bird” that included photographs I took of the Audubon Mural Project’s bird murals in upper Manhattan. The murals represent birds expected to be extinct by 2080 if we continue on our current climate trajectory. I broke that essay into sections, like “Our Nest,” and wove those sections, along with the bird photos, throughout the book. Consequently, the book has a mosaic style. Structurally, I was inspired by Joan Didion’s essay collections, Slouching Toward Bethlehem and The White Album, which capture particular periods in time. As with those two books, Lessons for Survival blends investigative journalism with personal narrative. I wanted to make a book that captures what it feels like to live in this uncertain age of global heating; what it feels like to belong to the last generation able to stop climate change. My lord, the pressure of that. I wanted it to contain multiple voices and perspectives, to show a larger picture. I’ve been thinking about that line from Dharwish’s poem, “Earth is Closing in Around Us”, Where should the birds fly / after the last sky?

ADL: Your prose is stunning, throughout. But there’s a language moment in the essay “While We Are Still Here” that really stood out to me. You write:

‘They all look like raptors,’ [Karen]  said, referring to the same five-story mural by Lunar New Year that bugged out Kamila. Furthermore, Karen took umbrage with the proprietor of a new café called the Monkey Cup who said she liked the project because it offered kids something beautiful to look at—as though beauty was lacking before the birds showed up.

I LOVE this because we have the straight-up GenX hip hop slang “bugged” as in “buggin’ out” next to a sentence with the word “umbrage.” I see you as stretching in this collection to be all parts of yourself. Deeply connected to your community and geography, as well as grounded in your generation. And unafraid to reach for the big words and complexities needed to language this moment. What else would you like to tell us about your uses of language, both in storytelling overall and in code-switching? What else would you like to tell us about what it has been like to stretch to contain all the stories and insights of this collection?


 I’d say I feel in solidarity with mothers of children at risk. That’s all mothers living now, and especially mothers living in frontline communities.

ER: Girl, this is exactly why I wanted to do this interview with you. What a dream reader you are, to be noticing, and appreciating, the code-switching. And I like how you phrased that: “language this moment,” with language as a verb. It reminds me of what Toni Morrison said in her Nobel acceptance speech. “We do language.” I can’t tell you how often I have to fight editorial to let me jam a bit of slang up alongside a ten-cent SAT word. But that’s my genuine voice, you know? The writers I most admire are masters of code-switching. Around the time Greg Tate died, I was working on a piece about the Bronx. I wanted to use the phrase “stereotypical caca” alongside the phrase “sophisticated sociology,” and met with resistance. But then I pointed to Greg Tate’s playbook, and the editorial team let me get away with it, because he was all about that. For this collection, it felt important to me to use the language of the street, the language of the kitchen, the language of the bedtime ritual, the language of “the Talk,” the language of the university, the language of science, the language of the Bible, the language of the citizen detective, the language of prayer, the language of rage, the language of the photograph, the language of the pilgrim, the language of the witness, the language of resistance, the language of loss, and the language of hope. As far as storytelling and style, it’s been exciting to discover new forms and structures to try and meet the moment. One of the essays is a global chorus, a gathering of voices. I don’t even know what to call it. It’s a lament, maybe. A dirge.


Purchase your copy of Lessons for Survival: Mothering Against ‘The Apocalypse’ here!


ADL: Speaking of lament and loss, I read the pandemic content of the “How Do You Live with Displacement?” essay in the dark on my phone so as not to wake my family. And I cried recalling the experience. Our lives have many similarities. As a mom, faculty member, and working writer, I just didn’t have enough time to feel everything at the time. What was it like to go back to those sections? Also, with regard to Coronavirus, one theory I heard about the cause of the pandemic was this: climate chaos causes massive loss of habitat, and under these conditions, species must migrate and then they may come into contact with other species or with humans in new ways, those encounters potentially spreading new viruses. Regardless, I really appreciated the connections you consistently drew between climate and COVID. Is there anything you would add about those connections?

ER: No joke, that was a tough time for working mothers. Bone-crushing. We’re still feeling the aftershocks, don’t you think? It’s not like we’re done with that time. I remember when I saw you last, Aya, it was in September at the Free Black Women’s Library in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn right after the March to End Fossil Fuels. Remember? You were moderating an event you called “Parable of the Movement: An Ode to Octavia Butler,” which I participated in. But you were simultaneously managing a health crisis back home in the Bay area because your mom had COVID and couldn’t get to the pharmacy. So, you were wearing three hats: activist, literary citizen, and conscientious daughter doing elder care. We’re always wearing at least three hats, balancing too many plates in the air, (I’m mixing metaphors) holding it together for our communities, which is why I open the book with a reflection on the physical and mental toll it can take on the body to be in such a role. Honestly, I haven’t had a chance to go back to the book’s pandemic sections because I’m already on to the next thing, meeting the next deadline, reading the latest study, putting out the latest fire on the homefront, planning the next class, doing the laundry. But I’m really glad that I documented what it felt like to live through those times as we were living them, and to learn that part of the book resonated with you. I’ve heard the same thing as you about habitat loss and inter-species spread of viruses, and also that more viruses locked in the ice may be unleashed as warming continues. The connections I tried to make between COVID and climate change had to do with grief and loss, but also the need to combat crises of this scale communally. We can’t do it alone.


Emily Raboteau

ADL: Yes, thank you for the witness of that health challenge. Praises be that my mom is okay!  

When I reflect on care labor, wage-work, and motherhood, I had trouble finishing the book after I went back to teaching, and had to request a digital copy, so I could read in bed without waking anyone in my family. As an unexpected consequence, I experienced this collection as two different books. First I read the print galley, which didn’t have the photographs. And then when I switched to the digital copy, I got all the photos. I wish you could have seen my face light up (photos!!:D) I had seen some of them when I read the original essays, but it was amazing to have access to all of them in the book. You are truly using both words and images to document these times. I recall growing up in the 70s and 80s, when the expense of film made visual documentation so much more expensive. It seemed so precious then. These days, people are documenting everything all the time, especially on social media. And yet, these bird murals and your complex reflections about them really cut through all the noise. The birds are actual, thematic, metaphorical, beautiful, vulnerable, even menacing (I also loved how you put bird sounds into words). Can you say more about the urge to document, the process of documenting, and anything about your training or self-taught study of photojournalism? Was this your first big photo project? You really rolled like a pro and captured so much.

ER: Thanks! This book has over a hundred photographs in it. I took all of them with my iPhone. I think of my method as “writing with pictures.” W.G. Sebald was an early influence in that regard. I feel a sense of allegiance with other contemporary writers who count photography as foundational to their artistic practice, including Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Maaza Mengiste, Jeff Sharlet, and Teju Cole. I’m a visual thinker. I’ve studied a lot of street photography. The usual suspects. Eugene Atgèt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Vivian Maier, Gordon Parks, Roy De Carava, Ming Smith. Like them, I have an impulse to document and celebrate what’s disappearing in the urban landscape and to explore social issues. I go to photo exhibits whenever I can, sometimes as a critic. I think a lot about frames. How to frame a photo. How to frame a story.


Emily Raboteau

ADL: I love your visual framing and also your metaphorical framing about birds and habitats. Early on in the book, you say “I am the mother of Black children in America. It is not possible for me to consider threats posed to birds without also considering the threats posed to us.” This so deeply encapsulates the perspective of people of color when it comes to climate and environment–we cannot talk about the planet without talking about the people and about racism. I resonated with this so deeply. And I also was curious about your word choice “mother of Black children.” Is this to emphasize the vulnerability that your Black children have that you don’t have? Is this in solidarity with all parents raising Black children, even those who aren’t Black? Is this in part because–as a Black woman of mixed heritage–sometimes people misidentify you as other than Black? Something else?

ER: My children are more vulnerable to certain prejudices than I am because their skin is darker than mine. They’re more likely to be perceived by the state as Black. In another sense, they’re more vulnerable because (God-willing), they’ll outlive me–they’ll live longer into the future. That future will be increasingly unstable if our economy continues running on fossil fuels. I’d say I feel in solidarity with mothers of children at risk. That’s all mothers living now, and especially mothers living in frontline communities. I live in a coastal inner-city, in an area plagued by police brutality, as well as by environmental injustice. I wanted to document what it’s like to raise kids under conditions like these, but also, to find solidarity with liberation struggles beyond this nation that so often endangers Black life, with people from historically resilient communities who have real wisdom to share about survival. Among the many wise people I interviewed for the essays that make up this book, I identified the most viscerally with Lama Hourani, a Palestinian activist and mother whom I met in the West Bank when I was reporting on the Israeli occupation. Some of the fears she expressed for her son could have come out of my own mouth. Yet, because of the tradition I was raised in, I describe this book as a work about social and environmental justice through the lens of Black motherhood.


Emily Raboteau

ADL: That’s a perfect segway into another question I have been trying to formulate. The book overall seemed to live at the intersection of environmental and climate justice, Blackness and motherhood. There are many other implicit themes in these locations that do reveal themselves, sexism, class issues, and gentrification. There are also powerful themes of arts activism. The essay on Palestine was unexpected however, and yet it was so clearly continuing to illuminate some of the same struggles that you were already writing about. You would have had no idea that the book would be coming out at a time when violence in Israel/Palestine would have escalated so brutally. It was very profound to read about your experiences in the past and be confronted with the fact that many of those locations and resources have been destroyed and many of those people may have been killed. It’s heartbreaking. What are your thoughts about what’s going on now in Israel/Palestine? 

Revisit Emily’s essay “Hidden Spring” about a grassroots alliance in the West Bank here

ER: Yes, that essay on Palestine, as well as “Gutbucket” (set in the Arctic) are both outliers. All the other essays in the book are centered in New York City, where I live—upper Manhattan, specifically. You know why? It’s not so easy to travel that far from home to do investigative reporting when you’re mothering little kids! Before they were born I was a travel writer of sorts. After they came along, my wings were kind of clipped. However, when our kids were three and five years old, I was able to travel to Palestine as part of a cohort of writers invited by an organization called Breaking the Silence to learn more about the occupation in anticipation of its 50th anniversary in 2017. I wrote about the imbalance of power between Israeli settler colonialists and Arabs in the South Hebron Hills region of the West Bank by looking at inequitable access to clean water and electricity. It was my first explicit piece of environmental writing. You’re right, Aya, I had NO idea that the book would be coming out during a war of such horrifying scale between Israel and Hamas. I do hope that this essay might offer readers some added insight about the decades of conflict that led up to this war. Your word for the war is the same word that I would choose: heartbreaking. And I would also name what’s going on genocide, for the sake of precision and truth. We’re at the 100-day point (as of the time of this conversation). The latest data from the Ministry of Health in Gaza shows more than 10,000 of Gaza’s children have been killed since October 7. As a mother, I find this atrocious, and intolerable. What I didn’t see coming was the impotence of the wider world to stop it. If Octavia Butler had seen what I saw in Palestine, I bet she would have foreseen it. She saw the big picture. 

Read Emily’s essay “Gutbucket” here

ADL: As you know, Octavia Butler had a vision of ending her Parable series with hope about the climate crisis, but she never finished the books before her death. I have heard that she had many frustrated attempts, in which she started books and abandoned them. She didn’t have a sense of how we might get out of the climate crisis, other than space travel (finding a Planet B). She passed in 2006. Since then, answers to the climate crisis are much easier to access–we have all the ideas and technology we need in order to transition our societies to renewable energy and can begin the challenging but scientifically doable process of decarbonizing our economies. Our current obstacles are not a lack of solutions but a lack of political will to implement those solutions because they are not profitable to those in power. At the Black Hive, we have a vision for a Parable of the Movement, in which we complete Octavia Butler’s series by living her final book, in which we help build the movement that will bring those solutions to life. Since you finished writing the book, what signs of hope and movement building have been spotted in the wild, particularly among Black people?

ER: I felt chills when you articulated this at the Free Black Women’s Library – that we are the third book. Signs of hope? I feel very encouraged by the Black Hive at the heart of the Movement for Black Lives’ (M4BL) climate and environmental justice efforts. Also, it was thrilling back in December when those kids sued the state of Montana over climate change and won. How beautiful to see the organized transformation of vacant lots in Detroit into green space including gardens and urban farms. I’m inspired, too, by The Intersectional Environmentalist, a climate justice collective radically imagining a more equitable and diverse future of environmentalism, and the book by Leah Thomas of the same name, which I’ve taught in my Climate Writing class at the City College of New York. I learned so much while working on my book from Robert D. Bullard, father of environmental justice, a self-described “kick-ass sociologist” who’s modeled his path after W.E.B. DuBois, as have so many of us working in the tradition.

 I’m writing about environmental racism, how it’s affected my kids’ bodies, how it’s affected my psyche, my community, my ancestors, and other people at-risk who’ve entrusted me with their stories. What is the cost of that kind of exposure? What is the point if not to counteract such legacies of trauma and study our resilience? 

ADL: I see your book in the tradition of big-picture commentary in Blackness. In “The Ramble” you have two beautiful quotes: “Blackness is not a beauty that everyone sees; some see danger, and so my [bird] watching is always tenuous, provisional, unstable.” And “Black pain is not so cheap. And Black joy is not so rare.” They both really struck me. Can you unpack the second one a bit? I think I know what that means, but I’m not sure…

ER: Don’t you ever feel like you could slit your wrists and wipe it on the page and get a lot of money for it? There is such a thing as trauma porn. I sold this book in the summer of 2020 after George Floyd’s murder. It was a good time to be a Black writer in the sense that everyone suddenly wanted stories about Black pain; stories to explain racism. Suddenly it became de rigeur for institutions, including conservation organizations, to put out anti-racist statements. I felt very suspicious of that kind of attention. I don’t owe my vulnerability to strangers. I have had to think deliberately as a writer about what to share, who I’m writing for, and why. One book I’ve enjoyed teaching at City College is Ross Gay’s Book of Delights. For him, the most radical way to counteract white supremacy was to write about delight, such as his tenderness toward a tomato seedling. I’m writing about environmental racism, how it’s affected my kids’ bodies, how it’s affected my psyche, my community, my ancestors, and other people at risk who’ve entrusted me with their stories. What is the cost of that kind of exposure? What is the point if not to counteract such legacies of trauma and study our resilience?  I needed to balance the pain with the joy, quite literally, in many of these essays I would hinge in the middle from hard stuff to good stuff. Over and over again, that’s my maneuver of craft. In the last essay, for example, “The Dream House and the Pond,” I describe living in an imperiled house in a flood zone in the Bronx, balanced with the happiness inside its walls and the simple joy of tending the garden out back.

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Emily Raboteau is the author of Lessons for Survival: Mothering Against “the Apocalypse”Searching for Zion, which received the American Book Award, and the novel The Professor’s Daughter.  She teaches climate writing as an English professor at the City College of New York (CUNY). A regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and a contributing editor at Orion, she lives with her family in the Bronx. (Photo by Angie Cruz.)