Everything Looks at Everything

Katie da Cunha Lewin reviews Rebecca Tamás’ Strangers

Rebecca Tamás, Strangers.
Makina Books, £12.99.
Buy direct from the publisher.

In a recent trip to the Forest of Dean, my only holiday of the last few months, I found myself attuned to the world around me in a new way: I was paying attention to the trees, the shapes they made as their branches interwove with other plants and bushes; I listened carefully to the call of a variety of birds; and I watched out for the Dor beetles, a kind of dung beetle with a shiny blue-black carapace, as they ambled along the pathways. I wanted to be more careful in observing what was around me without necessarily aiming to understand it all, and was careful to find new ways into this experience of being in the forest that didn’t adhere to simple descriptors like ‘finding peace’ through the natural world or ‘using’ nature solely for my own ends. Instead I found myself loosening, becoming more expansive, with my days enhanced by the abundance of life around me and my awareness of my small place within it.

I owe this attention to poet and writer Rebecca Tamás’ new collection of essays, published by Makina Books. Entitled Strangers: Essays on the Human and Nonhuman, these concise but wide-ranging pieces circle around human relationships to the nonhuman world, and the profound ethical questions that confront us daily as we live through ever more visible climate change. Throughout the book, Tamás forms a surprising and eclectic reading list, drawing from the prose of Clarice Lispector, the artworks of Ana Mendieta, or the poetry of Ariana Reines, as well as folklore and historical figures from the medieval period to the seventeenth century. Her nonhuman world is rich and rough — there is earth, there are cockroaches, there are plants and birds — and she emphasises the need to avoid romanticising nature as some discrete category that makes human life its opposite.

Tamás uses her opening essay, ‘On Watermelon’, to suggest that the “climate crisis” we suddenly find ourselves is “only a new manifestation of the crisis of equality that is, as [Walter] Benjamin says, ‘the rule’.” Inequality has taken on many guises throughout human history, but Tamás shows that there have always been those who have spoken out against it, or acted to transform dominant ways of living. She finds an early example of such people in The Diggers, a group of radicals from 1649 who sought to withdraw from a governing system in which labourers were exploited and land was privatised. They sought instead to work and farm in a new, communal way that was also in harmony with nature, and they saw their call for a profound reimagining of life as one interwoven with larger problems of inequality and humankind’s relationship to the natural environment. Tamás finds other kindred spirits throughout history, notably in the writing of Frantz Fanon, the indigenous peoples of Standing Rock in the US, and the protestors behind Black Lives Matter in the UK, all of whom demonstrate that the destruction of the planet exposes the faultlines on which their societies are based. As BLM UK so succinctly puts it, “the climate crisis is a racist crisis”.

Yet it is the image of a watermelon that knits together Tamás’ discussion in a surprising way. Created as a derogatory term for eco-socialists by Warren T. Brookes, a conservative journalist, Tamás find the description both tantalising and politically apposite: “Well, what could be better? Rather than separating them out into different factions and parts, this beautiful image gives us a vision of equality from all sides — human, nonhuman and delicious.” Here we find a crucial idea to which Tamás returns throughout the collection — that racism, misogyny, inequality, and the destruction of the planet can never be envisioned apart from one another. In one essay, she considers how the narrator of Lispector’s unsettling The Passion According to G.H reveals a radical form of hospitality to the nonhuman world; in ‘On Greenness’, the work of Mendieta allows Tamás to explore the potential to dissolve the boundary between the human body and the natural world in a “green flourishing”; and in the closing essay, ‘On Mystery’, Tamás looks to what lies beyond our immediate comprehension. These essays are imaginative, eccentric, and gracefully composed; everything in this collection, as in the world, is in contact with everything else.

There is also another connective tissue running through Tamás’ essays, in the form of her attention to emotion: Tamás’ interest is also in human affect, in how the world produces affect through our being part of it. The most successful of these essays, and to my mind the most beautiful in the collection, is ‘On Panpsychism’, a lyrical piece of writing about the mind of the world. Here Tamás describes “the theory that everything in nature has a mind, or at least mind-like qualities” which can and do affect our being. She argues that where we might be most preoccupied with the physical acts of destruction ravaged on the world through capitalism, our capacities of thought are also damaged and limited: “With the death of different spaces, different environments, different histories and different bodily forms of moving through them”, she writes, “forms of thought die too.” And she illustrates these moments of transformation — “jolts”, she calls them — to craft a delicately textured assortment of moments in which her interior world has been suddenly altered by external phenomena. The essay opens, for example, with a particularly moving account of a swim in the sea, when she suddenly saw a skylark flying above her. This small bird affects her deeply: “The grooves of my mind resettle, without being fixed — soda bubble brightness, wailing and rubbing song of liveliness and being alive. The bird has no interest in me, but his deliberate song is changing the font of my thought, taking my inwardness and flinging it open to the fizzing sea light. Nothing has changed, but, of course, it has.” Moving through the world, we are affected by the things around us in ways we can only barely acknowledge and cannot fully articulate.

For me, this entrancing essay revealed both a need for multiplicity and variety in life, physically and psychically, as well as the negative image of this need — just how much a life, particularly in a city, can feel repetitive, borne from sameness. Not only has there been, and will continue to be, a profound psychic impact on our newly limited life in lockdown, which comes with its own distinct problems, but the spaces that define our day-to-day lives — buildings, offices, shops, buses and trains — are becoming identical. Through the actions of city and town planning, regeneration programmes, and the wider issue of gentrification, more and more of these places are envisioned, designed, and constructed in the same way — often by a roster of the same companies. In London, where I am from and still live, many new housing developments are made in pale brick and glass, and fashioned through contrastingly coloured interlocking sections, as if to suggest that each piece of a house or flat has its own function. Many of these are built with attached green spaces, promising some form of ‘nature’ without any real wildness, but little spots of rewilding or small manicured patches of grass are not enough to counter all that reflective glass. What’s more, these green spaces are often private, though they may seem public: in the enormous development around the relocated site of Central St. Martins, for example, security guards pace the grounds to dispel groups of teenagers or dislodge rough sleepers. Not only do these regeneration projects attempt to privatise public spaces, often cutting off access to outdoor areas for those on lower incomes, but they produce an unnervingly uniform experience as we move through them. There is something uniquely eerie to a town centre in one part of the country that looks and feels exactly like another, and even more so when these trends are replicated in other countries. We desire difference but time and again we are given sameness, and, as Tamás illustrates, this sameness has a profound impact on our internal lives.

Thankfully, Tamás’ essays are deeply felt, at odds with anodyne modernity: she is open with her tears, and her experience of depression as a child and its legacy as an adult, and the ways in which she is affected by the world around her. These difficulties are important to acknowledge, particularly given the scale and sheer volume of environmental catastrophes taking place right now. Earlier this year, I reviewed Jenny Offill’s novel Weather, which thinks about what we could term “climate anxiety”, but Tamás handles this topic with much greater sensitivity. In ‘On Grief’, she includes a quote by journalist Ellie Mae O’Hagan about climate grief, but is keen to make distinctions between grief and depression. We could also here make another distinction between grief, depression, and anxiety, all too often elided into one category which means to simply feel sad about the direction in which our world is moving. But there is much more to each of these affective states, and the ways in which they relate to each other and the climate crisis: we can fall into a depression about the climate change, but to grieve can be “the fuel to try and change the conditions in which we find ourselves”, Tamás writes. We love the world, and “grief is the price of love”.

Nor does Tamás simply allow her emotions to swirl amongst her analysis and her thoughts. She also shows how emotions are “catching”, not individualised, shared between us, made through us, and given to us from outside. Her work is most powerful and unique in its sensitivity to the emotions wrought from our present conditions, and her attention to nonhuman feeling as well as the human variety. In effect, she meditates at length on the question posed by the poet Ariana Reines — “What happens to the air that carries the screams of what is under/slaughter” — and she wonders what happens to us when that air is the air we breathe.

Through Tamás’ work I began to consider with new urgency the question of how to pay attention, respectfully, to that which is around us but not us. How is it that this distinct opposition, human versus nature, persists? The nonhuman world is not silent and does not shy from imposing itself on our supposedly separate lives. Foxes screech, geese call, bats fly in a whisper, and plants slowly creep up our walls. Nature may reveal itself unevenly, it surrounds us whether we acknowledge it or not — and because it is not outside of our experience, the nonhuman world cannot be a salve or a balm. As I walked in the forest, I wondered at the shift within myself, how it reoriented this relationship between human and nonhuman — that humans are not and never have been ‘saviours’ of the planet, but one node in a network that is comprised of things we can and can’t see, and things we don’t and can’t know. These essays open up space for that mystery, and ask us to cultivate ways of thinking that redraw our ethical, emotional, psychic boundaries. In doing so, we may find a richer way of being in the world.

About Katie da Cunha Lewin

Katie Da Cunha Lewin is a researcher, tutor, and writer based in London. She has a PhD in the work of Don DeLillo and J.M. Coetzee from the University of Sussex and was the co-editor of Don DeLillo: Contemporary Critical Perspectives, published by Bloomsbury in 2018. Her writing has appeared in The London Magazine, the Times Literary Supplement, the Irish Times, The White Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books.