Watch Your Head: Writers and Artists Respond to the Climate Crisis. Coach House Books
The problem of representing the climate crisis in literature and art is a famously vexing one, and there has been much wringing of hands about whether literary texts are capable of adequately reflecting the realities of climate change, let alone of provoking people into doing something about it. Among the most notable recent commentary on the supposed failure of literature in this regard is Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement, in which Ghosh declares that because the English tradition of literary novels has always been centred on the notion of the individual protagonist, the novel form is poorly suited to represent the large-scale problems of climate change and the Anthropocene. This failure of the dominant literary imagination, Ghosh says, “will have to be counted as an aspect of the broader imaginative and cultural failure that lies at the heart of the climate crisis” (8).
Ghosh’s complaint has turned out to be useful largely because it is so irritating; it calls out for rebuttals. One way to respond to his critique is to step around it by remembering that the novel is not the only game in town. If a key problem with climate change is that certain voices are being silenced, certain experiences disregarded, then what better way to address the issue than with an anthology comprised of works in multiple forms and genres from a strikingly diverse set of contributors? Watch Your Head: Writers and Artists Respond to the Climate Crisis takes up this challenge.
Poet and writing professor Kathryn Mockler, who organized a live reading event in 2019 that inspired the larger Watch Your Head project, is named as the primary editor of the volume, alongside an additional fourteen co-editors. At my count, the volume includes selected work from a whopping eighty-two contributors. These selections include fiction, non-fiction, poetry, photography, and visual art, from contributors who are variously Indigenous, Black, people of colour, immigrants, and settlers—most, but not all, of whom are living in Canada. The introduction by Stephen Collis, Madhur Anand, and Kathryn Mockler notes that the book and its companion website emerge from an ethic of climate change protest; the title Watch Your Head “comes from the language of caution signs” (9), reflecting the aim of taking action to avoid catastrophe. In an interview with the CBC, Mockler elaborates that the phrase “watch your head” also asks readers to rethink their own mentalities, inviting a “critique of self-interest” (“Western”).
Watch Your Head prioritizes the matter of climate justice, through which the climate crisis is understood to be inextricably linked to colonization, racism, and other forms of oppression. Collis, Anand, and Mockler write that the contributors to the volume
give voice to widely shared fears and the enveloping sense of the uncanniness of our times; they attempt to imagine the unimaginable; they remind us what we can and must attend to, and what we are unavoidably attached to; they explore the limits and possibilities of language in the face of catastrophe, loss, and grief; and, of course, they name names and take numbers, looking for payback. (13)
As a result of this diversity of genre, form, approach, and perspective, the volume rebukes the all-too-common universalizing environmentalist rhetoric that glosses over climate injustice by speaking of “our shared future.” Likewise, the ethic of the book is largely compatible with Kathryn Yusoff’s important volume A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, in which she argues that the notion of the Anthropocene must be challenged in its universalizing function and must be understood in the context of racism, colonization, and slavery. While Yusoff painstakingly worries at the Anthropocene, Watch Your Head challenges the notion largely through the canny tactic of pointedly avoiding it.
Poetry is a central feature of Watch Your Head, and the poetic contributions reflect a variety of forms and intentions. While the publisher pitches the book as “a call to climate-justice action,” this is a reductive account, and some of the best poetry prompts a more nuanced engagement with specific forms of experience, witnessing, and reshaping. Chris Bailey, a poet and commercial fisherman from Prince Edward Island, notes that the “good oak” (73) suitable for repairing lobster traps has instead been used to build homes for part-time residents. The wood is “gone for the floors of large houses that sit / empty three quarters of the year,” while the part-timers raise a fuss about the island’s tax policies and the “windmills that churn // Island air their lungs seldom breathe” (73). Jane Shi’s poetry expands the geographical perspective of the volume; reflecting on the phrase jia you, a Chinese expression that means “add oil” but is used in social situations to mean “good luck,” Shi connects the persistence of oil within this phrase to the drive to build pipelines from Russia to China and across Turtle Island. Her audience will see their taro bubble tea differently after reading: “drink oil-flavoured bbt with the thick straw of a gun barrel. / brush your teeth with bitumen paste” (241). Certain poems take on a more direct activist stance, as with Sâkihitowin Awâsis’ “to cope”:
this is natural law renaissance
embodying ancestors’ excellence
bringing land back
on ready when RCMP attack[.] (198)
Some of the strongest writing in the volume comes in the form of personal essays. Waubgeshig Rice, known for his apocalyptic novel Moon of the Crusted Snow, writes memorably about how Canadian authorities had erased his great-great-grandfather’s surname, Menominee—an Anishinaabe term for wild rice—and forced him to adopt the Anglophone name “Rice,” so that “[o]ur wild-rice heritage was thus erased in name, and would only be passed down in story” (57). The poignancy of this is heightened because the English name Rice is still attached to Waubgeshig himself, and the full power of the essay, in its embodiment of value through narrative, takes form through the decision of Waubgeshig and his wife Sarah to give their son the last name Manoominii, a contemporary spelling of the term for wild rice that serves as a reclamation of identity.
Another highlight is Carleigh Baker’s story “Grey Water,” whose narrator describes staying alone at a house on one of BC’s Gulf Islands whose owner has allowed her only a three-minute shower four times a week to conserve water, but has also, infuriatingly, asked her to keep the dahlias in the garden properly watered. “Don’t worry about yourself,” the narrator grumbles, “but make sure a bunch of decorative plants in the front yard look their best. . . . The dahlias are more important than you” (86). As the narrator decides, scandalously, to take a bath, the story is coloured by terrible guilt over the wasted water as well as fury at the indignity of having to care so much about the miserly use of toilets and showers. I won’t spoil the ending, but it astonishes.
There is too much I can’t get into here: the photography, the paintings, Sarah Pereux’s disturbing sketch of an impossibly broken Canada goose. Kazim Ali writes of returning to his childhood home in a forgotten company town built for the construction of the Jenpeg Generating Station in Manitoba, where the dam has devastated the shorelines, the Pimicikamak community is overrun with suicide, and “[t]he lake is an adversary now” (114). In her “Lessons from Prison,” Rita Wong describes being arrested in 2018 for sitting and praying in front of the Trans Mountain pipeline terminal in Burnaby. Wong observes that despite the hardship of being sentenced to twenty-eight days in prison, she was more prepared for prison than she is for the climate crisis.
With so many contributions, there is plenty of opportunity for a generous-reader approach: linger on the selections that speak to you, and you won’t have to worry overmuch about the pieces that don’t. Some readers might have preferred for the editors to include fewer, more rigorously vetted contributions, but the overflowing nature of this anthology is part of the point. Cultural visions of climate change have been hampered by universalizing narratives, and to the extent that Ghosh is right about the imaginative failure driving the climate crisis, literature needs to go further in reflecting the large, complex, diverse conditions of the present age of ecological trouble. This makes Watch Your Head bigger than the sum of its parts. By assembling so many voices, the book shows what an ethic of climate justice needs to look like: a place where multiple perspectives are bound together and share some common needs, but raise distinct concerns that will not be reduced to a singular vision.
Ghosh, Amitav. The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. U of Chicago P, 2016.
“Western University Professor Compiling an Anthology about Climate Change.” Afternoon Drive with Chris dela Torre, CBC Radio, 21 Jan. 2020.
Yusoff, Kathryn. A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. U of Minnesota P, 2018.