Climate Change Short Stories: An Inconvenient Book Club

The illustration shows a futuristic scene of a woman walking through a green wood; she wears boots and has a long blonde braid down her back. Various creatures in the darkened wood are illuminated as if they were made up of stars from the sky, and there are background stars above as well.
Illustration by Rebekka Dunlap, from the short story “The Tree in the Back Yard” by Michelle Yoon

By Susan Thornton Hobby

Climate change is scary, and cli-fi short stories are here to help.

“Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming whether you like it or not.” – Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, age 18

Change is coming, both in the climate, and with luck, in human behavior. Reading about climate change is frightening, and sometimes shuts people down. But as many climate activists have explained, there is hope.

Environmental and animal activist Jane Goodall said it well: “I do have reasons for hope: our clever brains, the resilience of nature, the indomitable human spirit, and above all, the commitment of young people when they’re empowered to take action.”

But reading alarmist nonfiction doesn’t always reach the heart. Story, however, seems to sneak through our defenses and climb straight into our souls. Climate fiction, a genre of literature sometimes shortened to “cli-fi,” pioneered with J. G. Ballard’s novels of climate change (especially the 1962 classic The Drowned World) and Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune (see the review).

Since March 2019, HoCoPoLitSo recording secretary Susan Thornton Hobby and climate educator Julie Dunlap have led a climate fiction book club at Howard County Library System. Attendees are interested in literature that explores the facts and mysteries of Earth’s changing climate, and we have read and discussed eight incredible novels to date.

We’re mixing things up in January, and have chosen to read the award winners of a climate fiction short story contest sponsored by Grist Magazine’s Fix Solutions Lab. Organizers of the contest, Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors, urged writers to envision the next 180 years of equitable climate progress.

Sponsored by the National Resources Defense Council, the contest is “an uprising of imagination,” as Fix describes it. The winning stories, a dozen pieces of short fiction by authors including Black, Indigenous, disabled, and queer authors, conjure hope, anger, frustration, joy, and contemplation about the future of our planet in the impending climate crisis.

“Whether built on abundance or adaptation, reform or a new understanding of survival, these stories provide flickers of hope, even joy, and serve as a springboard for exploring how fiction can help create a better reality,” writes Tory Stephens, who works at Fix and spearheaded the contest. Join us in reading and discussing these stories on Thursday, Jan. 6, from 7 to 8 pm, at HCLS Miller Branch. Register here. The stories, and a terrific glossary of cli-fi terms, including afrofuturism (looking at you Octavia Butler), solar punk, and ecotopia, are available here.

Susan Thornton Hobby is the HoCoPoLitSo recording secretary as well as co-leader of the Inconvenient Book Club at HCLS Miller Branch.

The Other Black Girl

Photo of Zakiya Dalila Harris, with the book cover in the bottom right hand corner. Book features a black woman in profile, with her hair up in complex braids. The "I" in "Girl" is an afro hair-pick.

By Rohini G.

This book defies genre. Is it a sly satire or a hard-hitting social commentary? Is it a sharp page-turning thriller or contemporary literature at its best? A witty and playful debut or a manual for code-switching? I could not slot it into just one category. It is the book you will be discussing with your friends and neighbors. Right, Linda?

In blue round italics, "What was she going to do? Who was she going to be?"

Zakiyah Dalila Harris’s novel debuted as a Most Anticipated Book of 2021 by Time, The Washington Post, Harper’s Bazaar, Entertainment Weekly, Marie Claire, Bustle, BuzzFeed, Parade, Goodreads, Fortune, and the BBC. Deservedly so. The Other Black Girl is an electric debut about the tension that unfurls when two young Black women meet against the starkly white backdrop of New York City book publishing.

Written with wit and incisive humor, this book delves into the modern corporate atmosphere with its microaggressions, isolation, and manipulations. Working at Wagner Books as the only black editorial assistant, Nella Rogers is very excited when one morning, she looks through a small crack in a cubicle and sees what she calls “the flash of a brown hand.” Enter Hazel-May McCall. Nella finds a confidante in Hazel and someone who finally gets it. But it doesn’t take long for Nella to realize there’s something off about Hazel, even if she can’t quite put her finger on it. And then, shortly after Hazel’s arrival, the first anonymous note arrives on Nella’s desk: “Leave Wagner Now.” Hazel? And if not Hazel, then who? Nella begins searching for answers—and in the process, finds herself at the center of a dangerous conspiracy that runs far deeper than she ever could have known 

I thoroughly enjoyed Zakiyah’s sparkling style of writing and her ability to paint office dynamics in nuanced shades of privilege and discrimination, while juggling an un-put-down-able mystery: a mystery that leaves your insides twisted at the end. In her review in The Washington Post, Naomi Jackson says, “One of the pleasures of “The Other Black Girl” is its unapologetic appeal to Black female readers. From references to 90s Black culture to ample servings of hair-related angst, conversations and plot points, Black girls will appreciate how their experiences, perspectives and quirks are centered in this novel.”

We are excited to host Zakiyah on June 23 at 7 pm. Listen to Zakiyah Harris and bring your questions. Register here

Rohini is the Adult Curriculum Specialist with HCLS. She loves literature and rainy days.

Introducing… Reads of Acceptance!

Horizontal rainbow stripes with an inset of triangle of white,

by Ash and Angie

C.S. Lewis once said that we read to know we are not alone, which is why many of us look to literature as a source of comfort. Years ago at the library, Angie helped a teen find young adult novels on coming out. The teen quietly said thank you, and afterwards, Angie could not help but notice that she went over to a woman whom she called “mom.” As she showed her the books, the woman hugged her and told her it was going to be okay.

One of the most rewarding opportunities while working in a library is being able to connect customers with reading materials that can make a profound impact in their lives. This holds especially true when dealing with potentially sensitive subject matter such as LGBTQ+ issues, which often come with fear of judgment. In Teri Gross’s All I Did Was Ask: Conversations with Writers, Actors, Musicians, and Artists, she interviews Ann Bannon, one of the first writers of lesbian pulp fiction. In answer to Gross’s question about what it was like to be gay in the 1950s or to write lesbian fiction, Bannon responds:

The big thing was ‘Thank God, I’m not the only one.’
That’s how isolated people were then.
But also that it’s okay to open up a little bit. It can be healthy. It can be a warm, generous, wonderful way to spend your life.
It is scary to walk up to a drugstore counter with your arms full of lesbian paperbacks and survive the stare from the clerk,
pull yourself together, buy them, and walk out with your head held high.

Having your voice heard and knowing there are others out there, both through the books you read and the people you meet and sometimes befriend, can go a long, long way to helping you survive in a world not always friendly to LGBTQ+ people. No matter your age, your background, your outness or your in-ness, you can find comfort in the universality of knowing “you’re not the only one.” That is one reason, among many, it can be so good to find a sense of community.

Howard County Library System’s new LGBTQ+ book club, Reads of Acceptance, holds its first meeting on Monday, April 19 at 7 pm. This monthly book club aims at fostering social support, personal growth, and intergenerational learning for LGBTQ+ adults and our allies. Reads of Acceptance will encourage education, reflection, and respect for LGBTQ+ identities by hosting group discussions that connect literature with our lived experiences.

Pale blue color with the title at the bottom shows a man in a blue suit falling. He is busy writing and papers surround him.

At Reads of Acceptance’s first meeting, we will discuss the Pulitzer Prize-winning Less by Andrew Sean Greer (also available in eBook and eAudiobook format). Funny yet also sad, the novel follows writer Arthur Less while he travels the world on a literary tour to try and get over the loss of the man he loves. Turning 50, Less finds himself struggling with life, including his career as a writer not going where he had hoped it would. Even so, he could handle being a bad writer, but being considered “a bad gay”?

That is so much harder to grapple with. It also speaks to a constant fear for queer people: that your community will reject you on top of everything else. (Source: https://ew.com/books/2018/07/24/less-summer-breakout-essay/) Greer’s writing speaks to an experience so many of us, queer or not, can relate to in a way that says, “Yes, I have been there.”

Relating to media in a manner that resonates with and reassures one’s identity is part of what makes seeing ourselves reflected in art and literature so affirming and powerful. Being able to relate to real-life people can be even more so. Both older and younger people in the LGBTQ+ community have often suffered in silence or experienced ostracism, looking for safe outlets to share their feelings, thoughts, and what they have been through. Reads of Acceptance can be one of those safe outlets. We hope to see you there! Register here.

For a special preview of Reads of Acceptance and an opportunity to meet Ash and Angie, join Book Corner on Friday April 16th @ 11am. Register here.

Angie is an Instructor & Research Specialist at the Central Branch of HCLS.

Ash is an Online Instructor & Research Specialist, also at Central Branch. Their favorite reads often involve magic, nature, queer and trans joy, coming of age, cultural traditions, romance, and cute illustrations.

What next? Books for Discussion @ Book Corner

Rows of book carts fully piled with books.
Central Branch BTS

By PIyali. C.

As our doors at Howard County Library closed at the beginning of the pandemic, we understood the need of the community to stay connected virtually despite the fact that we had to stay apart physically. Many of our library sponsored book discussion groups, along with other library classes, pivoted to meet online right away. Several of our community book clubs also started meeting and discussing books online. At the start of the pandemic when the library was closed, our community book club members made use of our eBooks or eAudiobooks through Overdrive, Cloudlibrary and Hoopla for their discussions. Now, they are able to pick up books in print through the contactless pickup service.

We are lucky to be part of a community who loves to read. However, there always comes a time when members of book clubs start looking for suggestions for their next titles to discuss.

Join us on October 16 at 11 am by registering for Book Corner: Books for Discussion 2021 where some of our Adult Instructors introduce the sure-to-be-in-demand HCLS Books for Discussion 2021 list, which suggests recent adult fiction and nonfiction titles that we all want to talk about. HCLS Instructors will promote some of their favorite new “discussables.” Participants will have the opportunity to share theirs as well in our most anticipated class for book clubs or even for your own personal reads.

See you in our Corner!

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.