Hearing from our Fellows: Layla Hendow
“It’s coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so. It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde. Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us, and the natural world is doing it for us right now.”
Above is a quote from David Attenborough, who is a household name nowadays. Attenborough is a globally recognised figure of environmental activism. His most recent televised series, Blue Planet 2, has a highly political agenda. It focuses on the damage that climate change has done to the world’s oceans. His work aims to communicate climate change to a wide audience, provoking emotions of shock, sadness and action. What is interesting about the quote above is that Attenborough, in warning the world about climate change and our effect on the natural world, signals a power within the natural world that is unusual. By giving the natural (and often feminised) world agency, Attenborough shifts the usual power dynamics of the explorer entering Mother Nature in order to conquer and control it. This figurehead of masculinity, who leads an expedition in the same celebrated vigour as Christopher Columbus, is suddenly silenced by nature herself. Nature has fought back by allowing us to run it dry – mimicking the boxer who waits until his opponent has worn himself out before he strikes the fatal blow.
My name is Layla Hendow and I am a writer and an academicresearcher. For the last three years I have been undertaking a PhD in English Literature at the University of Hull studying eco and waste fiction. Now, I am a Young Curator and an “Under Her Eye” Fellow with Invisible Dust, helping take steps to achieving a greater understanding of communicating climate change through the mouths of women. And so far, it’s been quite a journey!
My relationship to the environment and the arts began when I read Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road. I found the book terrifying because it was not at all an unrealistic vision of the world. The landscape is grey; nature has all but been diminished with only a few trees left standing. McCarthy had simply imagined a world where we had finally run out of the resources that we rely on so heavily in our late-capitalist economy. Resources such as oil are, after all, finite. Much post-apocalyptic fiction deals with imaginary events or catastrophes that cause the collapse of civilisation. It is a 200 year old trend that has covered supernatural events, zombie and alien invasions. These are highly sensationalised in the media and understate the very real future of humanity. We are unlikely to have Martians invade the London like in Well’s War of the Worlds, or, like in Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, witness the world taken over by unpleasant Vogons, or the blinding superhuman Triffid plants in John Wyndham’s famous novel. The Road is a unique book as it explores the real environmental crisis, including natural resources, climate change and the human destruction of the earth. It became obvious to me that the most dangerous thing for the planet is not alien invasion, or natural disasters, as Hollywood would like us to believe with the trend of post-apocalypse movies. It is humankind itself.
All these thoughts occurred to me while I was reading The Road. What was it about the novel’s form, this piece of art, which made me interested in something that had only been presented to be previously from the mouths of politicians, scientists, news broadcasters? How could it be that fiction was a more powerful vehicle for such environmental messages than those normally considered “proper”, “legitimate”, and “official”? After reading the novel, I wanted to learn more about the implications of our human actions on the natural environment. I became obsessed with the environment, oil and natural resources, and climate change. How does it affect our future? How does it affect our present?
I continued to explore apocalyptic petrofiction throughout my university years, taking them as an opportunity to broaden my knowledge on oil and the environment. Following this, I became particularly interested in the role of waste in our society and how waste speaks about a multitude of things in our society: our affluence, consumption, production, poverty, environmental concerns. I found it fascinating how we can learn a lot about a person, a family, a society, if we look at the garbage the produce. My current PhD research examines the presentation of waste as history in postmodern literature. It examines contemporary novels by Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace and Margaret Atwood. I examine the role of waste in society, from individual objects to waste on landfill. Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy has been incredibly influential for my work. The trilogy is an exercise in speculative fiction where almost all of humanity has been wiped out and a new race of humans have taken its place, created by the same man who destroyed humankind in the first place. The climate of humanity has changed: it had to. Like The Road, the novel’s message about the way that humankind is injuring the planet spoke to me.
From my own experiences, I know that the combination of artistic form and environmental concerns is at once challenging but incredibly effective. Invisible Dust are an organisation that take on this challenge. I joined the fellowship because I felt like I had something to add to this conversation, but also because I wanted to listen and learn from the conversations that were already being had and were going to be had by current and future cohorts. My aim for the intensive training weekend was to learn from scientists and practicing artists and explore how my research and writing skills could fit into the aims and objectives of Invisible Dust. Although I have studied the environment and the arts for a while, I have had little opportunity to discuss my ideas with others. I have felt like the PhD experience can at times be incredibly isolating. Any discussions I had about my interests took place at academic conferences. As much as I enjoyed this type of interaction, there was much that could not be achieved from it. The formal setting did not allow friendly debate and inquisitiveness – you are expected to know what you are talking about. I also found that at these conferences, I was very much in the minority as a female speaker. My voice as an academic and as an expert in my field was weak.
I was the first of the fellows to arrive at the venue on Thursday 19th April. I waited nervously for the other fellows to arrive. Soon, the small conference room was full of talented, unique and driven women, already discussing topics in a way that I had not experienced before. We fifteen fellows started the day trying to navigate all our very different backgrounds, but as the day progressed, I realised that we all had similar thoughts and ideas about many things: the relationship between art and science, collaboration, climate change, and, most importantly, the role of women in climate change. Butour journey was only just beginning – over the next threedays, we were to learn more, shape our own ideas and our collective ideas around climate change and the role of women. Reflecting after this first day, I pondered on how the differences we face in our own disciplines and backgrounds would manifest themselves when we attempted to collaborate. As the weekend went on, I realised that these differences only acted to strengthen our objectives, and it is through the differences that these unique ideas emerge.
Figure 1 Picture taken by myself on Day 1, showing the arrival of the fellows
For me, this first day was very special, it was very affirming to meet like-minded female academics and practitioners who have an interest in the environment. I’m passionate about this work – and so are these amazing women!
The next three days were filled with workshops to help us develop our own ideas but also learn from amazing speakers. The session I found particularly ground breaking for me was the session on communication and presenting by Sarah Cartwright. I have always found public speaking nerve wracking. My nerves seemed like an uncontrollable reaction: despite how many times I tell myself to be calm and that it will be fine, panic sets in and I feel like I am battling with myself to stay calm at the same time as presenting to a group of people. Sarah gave us practical, tangible advice around posture, breathing, structure of speeches and storytelling. We then had to put this advice and education into action by drafting a 5-minute talk in 15 minutes. It was not easy, but I felt exhilarated afterwards. I tried to incorporate as many of Sarah’s tips in my talk as possible and saw how effective they could be. By the end of the day, I really felt like I had gained something powerful; a tool I could use when going out into the world and talking about climate change and the environment.
Figure 2 Word Cloud showing important ideas from the weekend
Finding a space for women in climate change in my practice has been difficult. After the ‘Under Her Eye’ training weekend, I have discovered how finding a voice for women in climatechange is equally as difficult, but it is something we are making steps to change. I hope that the skills I have learnt and the relationships I have formed with the other fellows will bring Invisible Dust one step closer to giving women the power to affect change.