A Conversation with David Huebert, Author of “Chemical Valley”

David Huebert has won The Walrus Poetry Prize, the CBC Short Story Prize, and his fiction debut, Peninsula Sinking, won the Jim Connors Dartmouth Book Award. David’s poems have been published in magazines such as Prairie Fire, Event, and The Walrus. He lives, writes, and teaches in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in Mi’kma’ki

 

Thought-provoking, smart, and frighteningly surreal, David Huebert’s Chemical Valley is a brilliantly crafted collection of short stories that confront the violence of human nature in the natural world. When we read a work of fiction so close to our own contemporary truth, we like to label it as “dystopian.” Why not just call reality a different genre, trap it in a jar, and watch chaos unfold from a safe distance? But we can’t, and we shouldn’t, because the current climate crisis is a much more personal disaster than most people care to admit. It affects all of us to different degrees.

Instead of catering to readers blind optimism that our planet isn’t so broken it can’t be fixed, Huebert reconciles truth with justified anger, and this collection serves as a necessary human call to action in a world where, as the narrator of “Oligarchs” says, “We are sodden with sadness, beleaguered with elegy, sick with the thesaurus of useless hope. Change, emergency, crisis. Technology does not change death. Does not change gas, c02 levels, methane and benzene and hydrogen sulfide in our water, our brains, our air, our bones. Carbon taxes as if we might tithe ourselves free. We know that it’s not just us, not just here.” The characters in these complex stories invite us to ask ourselves a simple yet unrelenting question: “We know that everyone lives in Chemical Valley. . . Where are our furies?”

 

Although most literary works about nature focus on the inherent beauty of the great outdoors-such as those by naturalist Henry David Thoreau or poet Mary Oliver, Chemical Valley has been self-described as “dirty nature writing”, a term you coined with environmental activist and writer Tom Cull to describe the chaotic, disordered side of wildlife. What inspired you to explore this unique perspective in short fiction?

Nonhuman life has been my most enduring subject. I find a particular attraction in the way nonhuman life both compels human interest and withdraws from it, refuses it. We think the natural world is hostile, that we are witnessing its revenge. In fact, its beautiful feint is that it is just magnificently indifferent. There is also something deeply uncanny in wild spaces—in the woods, things become strange, we lose our way, a tree trunk becomes a bear, we see messages in the shape of a root. My work delves into ways the nonhuman world is irrevocably stained by human presence. A lot of this is contamination, but there are also traces of us in the gardens we have tended, the pets we have fed.

Dirty nature writing wants to work against the dangerous belief (still powerful) that we can dichotomize nature and civilization. Drawing on Donna Haraway’s idea of the “natureculture,” Dirty nature writing wants to always be vigilant about upholding the entanglement of human and nonhuman life. It wants to think about landfills, to map the poetics of pipelines, to sing the song of the plastic in the guts of whales. This is not flippant. Dirty nature writing is not all doom and gloom, it insists that we can—we must—find joy and levity in this diminished world.

 

In “Oilgarchs” and throughout the collection, characters must reconcile their privilege within society in order to enact change even if they feel powerless. I particularly loved the quote: “‘We all live in Chemical Valley.’ That sounds like a Sapphire line.” “Well. Is she wrong?” “There are degrees, Deedee. There’s privilege, proximity. There’s living next to the golf course and there’s having the plants in your fucking backyard, on your burial ground.” Where did your interest in environmental justice first start?

One of the follies of Western environmentalism was for a long time that it was the product of privileged white minds. This is another big thing that dirty nature writing wants to address. It’s actually untenable and nonsensical to think a thing called “nature” on Turtle Island without thinking of the settler-colonial violence that enables the fantasy we call “nature.” For me, thinking environmentally in any serious way demands an honest look at materiality. What is money made of? What is my house made of? Where did that material come from? Trace the money back and you get to exploitation very fast. So ecological thinking and social justice are, for me, forever entangled.

I got involved with environmental justice when I was living in London, Ontario, during my PhD. I went to marches and protests and took part in a “Toxic Tour” organized by Vanessa Grey of Aamjiwnaang Solidarity Against Pipelines. I also became dear friends with Tom Cull, co-founder of the river clean-up group Antler River Rally, which is doing vital community work in London Ontario. It’s an ongoing journey for me, and one of my goals now is to work towards the decolonization of the university and my community. For me, teaching can be a form of ecological and social justice too.

 

As an American, I notice that many people here have an almost utopian image of Canada. But Chemical Valley interrogates this Western fantasy with a harsh reality littered by oil pipes, environmental racism, and pollution. How do you hope readers will respond to these issues? Did you intend to challenge Canada’s romanticization while writing the book?

Admittedly, it’s not something I thought too much about—living in Canada many of us are daily bombarded with evidence about the historical and contemporary evils perpetrated by our state. To name but a few: the legacy of our residential schools, the Indian Act, slavery, and ongoing racism, xenophobia, environmental racism, criminally negligent environmental policies, police violence against people of colour, systemic racism against Indigenous communities, and our staggering record of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

I did want to bring to light certain histories and presences that I felt had been overlooked in our national discourse and the international image of Canada. First and foremost, I wanted to draw attention to Sarnia as a troubled and fascinating place, full of leaks and pipelines, flares and relics. I also wanted to illuminate the fascinating and little-known history of the Lambton County oil boom of the 1860s and 70s. Oil, by nature, is buried history, and it was the lesser-known histories of regional petrocultures that I wanted to excavate and expose.

 

What’s your writing process like for a short story?

It’s different for every story, but the best ones usually start with a voice. The voice becomes a scene, then a cluster of images. With “Leviathan,” the impulse started here: a man would crawl into a horse’s body to avoid freezing to death, then he would freeze inside. Then man and horse would be burned together in an oil fire. Meanwhile loved ones would gather, fret, mourn.

I can usually see an image at the end, like a kind of beacon. And I need to add some conflict and escalation and get there in a kind of deeply unhealthy frenzy. I’m describing the fun part. After that it’s the agony of revision and more revision and second-guessing and line edits, the pain you need to go through to get it right. Eventually, this becomes a kind of twisted pleasure.

A guest once told my class that writing is like long-distance running: you do it and you hate it and your body spasms and goes irate and you keep doing it until it hurts more to not run. Writing is like that. It’s the strange productive pain of discipline.

 

Besides being an award-winning author, you also teach writing, literature, and environmental humanities. Any advice for young writers hoping to improve their craft?

You can’t rush it. I know you want to—I want to—but rushing will never produce anything worthwhile. So don’t rush to write, or publish. You have to love the editing, more than anything. You have to dwell in it and cherish it. It is the best form of discipline, and it gives so much back.

Also: know that reading and writing are radical ecological acts. To withdraw from the world is to slow it down. That’s something our world needs badly in this moment. You slow readers, lazy writers, anti-influencers: you are my heroes.

 

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