INTERVIEW: Elizabeth Rush

Interview conducted by Kathy M. Bates and Garrett Long

Transcribed by Savannah Moix-Rogers and Melanie Wilson

In February, the University of Central Arkansas’s Spring 2022 artist-in-residence, Pulitzer Prize finalist, and acclaimed writer Elizabeth Rush sat down with Arkana editors to discuss literary journalism, environmental writing, and communities affected by climate change. 

Arkana: Arkana hopes to explore marginalized, overlooked, or silenced identities and experiences, giving a voice to vulnerable populations. In Rising, you let a diverse selection of community members’ stories carry the weight. How did you approach regional diversity? 

Elizabeth Rush: Those are two really different questions, but I will start with the sources because I think it will spiral into the regional diversity question. I researched and wrote from nine different coastal communities all around the country, some of which I lived near or was a part of, as was the case with Staten Island. I used to teach at the College of Staten Island. With other places, like Pensacola, Florida, or the South Bay in San Francisco, I really didn’t know anything. For those, I would write some kind of grant or magazine pitch to get the basic research covered so that I could get a plane ticket and go. 

Usually, the biggest line item would just be time, in the form of a cheap Airbnb somewhere nearby or even a campsite. More traditional journalists might spend a week somewhere to write a story, or just a couple of days. Every chapter in that book is somewhere between a month and a half, to two months on the ground, to two years on the ground, and that amount of time means that I don’t have to rely on a fixer or someone who knows the community to create sources for me and in-points for me. I did all that leg work myself, and I would usually do it by identifying places that looked like they were flood-prone from their proximity to coastal marshlands or, in the case of Pensacola, Florida, obtaining data on where people are filing flood insurance claims. Then I would just go door-to-door, literally door-to-door for days and days on end, and knock, and ask if people would let me in and share with me their flood stories. 

By doing that, I wasn’t always immediately in touch with the community leaders or with people who had been seen as spokespeople for their community. Often those community leaders are people who have the wealth and resources to rise up inside the community, and they have a good education. I feel like that door-to-door approach got me a much more democratic swathe of people who lived in that place and called it home. 

I was treated so kindly throughout the research. People would invite me in and cook me dinner. Their regional identity came through those more intimate relationships I made with people on the ground. For the most part, I walked everywhere instead of driving. If I was going back to a community, I’d bring gifts for people who had spent a lot of time with me. I treated each place as an opportunity to get to know the place and the people, and time really let me do that.  

AR: Were you writing grants to certain foundations, or mostly magazines?

ER: Great question. For instance, there is the chapter on Miami. I wrote a small grant for the Society for Environmental Journalism, and I was awarded something like $2,500 or $2,700 to do the reporting. That essentially bought my plane ticket, got me grocery money for a month, and got me a short-term rental for three weeks. In the first Louisiana chapter, I did a piece for what would become Emergence Magazine, and they paid me $500. I used that to camp and rent a little house 15 miles from the island, and I was there for about a month.  For the Staten Island chapter, I wrote a three-part series for a magazine called Urban Omnibus, by the New York Architectural League, on how the city was adapting to sea-level rise. I wrote a small couple thousand dollar grant to be sent to Pensacola, which the university where I was working at the time, Bates College, covered. I served as the H. J. Andrews experimental writer in residence for a month, so that is how that got me there. I know that I wrote some kind of grant to go to California. 

So each chapter is definitely taking shape around small funding pools to get my feet on the ground. I sold the book once I had written and researched two-thirds of it for $10,000, with $5,000 upfront and then $5,000 after completion. It took me eight years to write.    

AR: Rising recognizes that climate change is often discussed in a polarized context. How did you work to capture the science while also avoiding sensationalizing it? 

ER: I take my cues from the people who are sharing their stories with me. You can just listen to the very small, everyday details of the ways in which flooding is causing individual people’s lives to shift. It seems so small, but it’s really profound, this sort of morphing of our homeplaces. You don’t need to sensationalize. You don’t need to talk about the apocalypse and end of days. I think those little details speak so much more loudly than a lot of the sort of pre-packaged narratives that we already have. 

AR: The content in Rising, of course, already speaks to an audience of climate change activists and others. Who was your intended audience? What was your motivation, and how present was the audience when you started the drafting process? 

ER: As I was writing it, I figured I could guarantee that a lot of Orion Magazine readers would read the book. If the book was going to have a readership, that was going to be the readership. I wanted to imagine a bigger readership than that. I wanted it to be a book that could hang in contemporary literary creative nonfiction conversations. So, I wanted it to hang with Eula Biss, Maggie Nelson, and John D’Agata and be read not just as an environmental book, but as just a work of creative nonfiction. If I was going to make the conversation bigger, that’s the kind of move that I hoped it could achieve. 

I wanted the book to cast a spell. I wanted the language to make it to where you couldn’t put it down. And one of the best compliments I got was when someone told me, “Oh, I read your book in two days.” And was like, “Yes!” Most climate change reading, you can’t read in two days. It’s so dry. It’s so dense. So I think the poetry is what hopefully carried it across that threshold. 

AR: You wrote Rising after Hurricane Sandy, which felt very personal and urgent. How did you navigate your motivations and personal intentions during the research and writing process? How difficult was it to take a step back, and did you ever find yourself questioning your initial motivations?

ER: I think anyone who’s worth their salt is going to question their motivations at some point. And because it’s kind of a first-person perspective, there’s space inside the book for some of that, most explicitly in “Risk.” That was the hardest chapter to write, and for the longest time. It takes my personal experience with being sexually harassed and weaves it alongside the ways in which race shapes vulnerability in Pensacola and how Black and brown people bear the brunt of rising seas – not just in Pensacola, but all around the country. It ultimately says, we talk about climate change often in financial terms, but for people who live in that situation, peril is felt in the body first. 

For the longest time, my sexual harassment wasn’t in that chapter. My own racial prejudice wasn’t in that chapter either. It was just a chapter about Black and brown people fully having to abandon their homeplaces as they’re flooded again and again and again. It wasn’t until a student of mine came to me and started talking to me about her own experience with sexual harassment and conducting fieldwork that I even started to consider bringing in that personal story of mine. 

Once I did that, I started to re-remember what the whole research experience was like. It reminded me how I had sat in this elderly, ailing Black man’s trailer and had been fearful, physically, for my safety, and how I knew that that was prejudice at work. There was this older white male researcher with me, who I never thought twice about, but he turned out to be the source of the sexual harassment, rather than the man that  I initially feared because of racism. 

As soon as that story started to make its way into the book, I had to talk about what it means to be a person who can enter into these communities and leave. There’s a lot of what people call “disaster porn,” or “climate change porn,” where you’re seeking out the worst-case scenario and the people suffering most, and usually extracting those stories from those communities and putting them in a completely different context. People have made their livings doing that. I knew throughout the writing of this book that I wanted to be responsible to and honor the people whose stories were in the book. But I’d be lying if I said that it was ever very clear how to do that, or how to not do the things that I was afraid of doing. 

Coming back to that question of time, investing time in places, and then building human relationships that I carry to this day, I am in touch with literally everyone who has a testimony in the book except Richard Santos. Chris was in Hurricane Ida, so I sent him a check recently and was like, “Chris, Rising makes money. Take some of that money and fix the bucket elevator that you have to get to your house because you’re in a wheelchair.” 

I donate a percentage of all my speaking fees to this amazing organization called the Anthropocene Alliance, which is the largest flood survivor network in the country. It helps people get heard and achieve the solutions they want in their communities. It’s not about top-down climate change adaptation. 

At first, it seemed simple: “Oh, I was just going to honor people’s stories.” It just got more and more complicated as time went on. I feel like I continually have to reimagine and reinvent what that chain of responsibility looks like. But it begins with time and place and real human relationships. And then, once you have those basic building blocks, you can listen to those relationships to try and keep reinventing what responsibility looks like. 

AR: While writing and sharing the personal narratives of others, how difficult is it to minimize bias in your literary journalism? 

ER: To be honest, I don’t try to eliminate bias in my journalism, and in many ways I think of myself as a writer and not a journalist because I don’t feel like my task is to inform public opinion. I often feel like my responsibility lies more with the communities whose stories I am like a caretaker of. For instance, in Rising, every chapter opens with a testimony in the present tense from someone from one of these communities impacted by sea-level rise, and a lot of times those people are Black and brown people, or working-class people, who don’t traditionally hold power in a larger sense, or even within our interactions with one another. With those testimonies, I would always give them the chance to review it, make changes, and collaborate. Traditionally, that would be very against the rules of journalism. 

So, coming back to your initial question and query, I put myself in my stories in part so that the reader knows that they are subjective. Rising is told from a first-person point of view. That’s my point of view. By doing that, I am presenting my lived experience as just that, and not as the universal truth. By doing that, I can create a space for other lived experiences within the text. Collectively, those challenge some of the dominant narratives we have around climate change. 

AR: So you’re saying you sort of sidestep that without being out-and-out journalism. You get to sort of put yourself into that story and you honor the truth, their truth, more so than that universal unbiased whatever.        

ER: Yeah, I honor their truth.     

AR: Have you ever come across a conflict of interest? 

ER: The most difficult situation or conflict of interest occurred when I was working on the Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana, which, oh it’s complicated, but it is a spit of land on the southern fringes of Louisiana that a bunch of different Indigenous groups converged on as they fled colonial violence in different parts of the country. In the present day, that land is not recognized as a Native American reservation because of the confluence of all the different groups who are there. It’s not just Biloxi land or Chitamacha land, and different factions have arisen who talk about who that land belongs to in really different ways. In writing that chapter, I had to figure out how I was going to try to talk about that particular piece of land without honoring one version of the story over another one, because I didn’t want it to sound like, “Oh, I’m siding with this group of residents or that group of residents.” At the same time, it’s hard to create space for that whole complicated history in a narrative book that doesn’t have any sections that are four or five paragraphs of history, one right after the other.    

AR: How did you handle that issue?

ER: I ended up creating a really long hyphen to hold all the different names of all the different people who claim that land as their own, and, for the most part, I think that that worked to avoid taking a kind of side. I have heard pushback once in 10 years from one person who didn’t like my solution, who lived out there. But I’ll take that, all things considered.   

When I look back I can see that it is the people with whom I developed the closest relationships that felt most comfortable asking me to make changes to their testimonies. So I think I would think about developing friends around this kind of writing not as incidental or nice when it happens but as part of the work. 

AR: Rising, and projects of that magnitude, take an enormous amount of time and resources. Since its release in 2018, what have you been working on and what’s on the horizon? 

ER: I am working on a book about motherhood and Antarctica forthcoming with Milkweed Editions towards the end of 2023. If you want to get an idea of what it will be like check out my recent essay in Orion titled “First Passage.”

AR: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

Elizabeth Rush is the author of Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction, and Still Lifes from a Vanishing City: Essays and Photographs from Yangon, Myanmar. Her work explores how humans adapt to changes enacted upon them by forces seemingly beyond their control, from ecological transformation to political revolution. Read more at her website.  

Image Credit: “Drawing #24” by Tim Fitts