As part of our Lost Species Day 2018 programme, ONCA trustee Imani Robinson and activist Ama Josephine Budge explored the intersections of racial justice, ecological justice and biodiversity.
Iman Robinsoni: Hi Ama!
Ama Josephine Budge: Hi Imani!
Imani: Thank you so much for coming. I guess the first thing is who are you, and what do you do? And why do you think that I’ve asked you to be here today?
Ama: Because we get on well!
Imani: We do. That’s true.
Ama: Which I think is really important. I’ve been thinking about working with people that I like working with. And how as a strange, queer black woman artist I often have to work with people in order to advance my career and pay my bills. And I’m trying really hard to get to a place where I don’t have to work with people…
Imani: To find the other strange people.
Ama: Yeah! You know, or their strange works with my strange you know or whatever, and like it’s a pleasurable experience working together, and that’s something that’s become rare and a luxury especially for those of us who don’t walk the line. So I’m demanding. I’m demanding that, and one of the reasons I’m demanding that is because I identify as a pleasure activist, which is a term I came across through adrienne maree brown’s work, who is an amazing – many things – pleasure activist, science fiction writer, speculative kind of gatherer of many, many different conversations and peoples and species that have and probably will exist.
I feel like she is herself a kind of archive or librarian in this beautiful non-temporally bound space of love and pleasure-driven activism and survival. And I kind of came to looking at pleasure through my work on climate change, and more specifically climate colonialism, which essentially means the way that climate change is a legacy and a result of European colonisation on the global south and many parts of the world through extraction, trade, the transatlantic slave trade and massive kind of deforestation. The creation of what I’m looking at at the moment is quite interesting – the creation of conservation laws across, kind of a lot of them began in India and then developed across different colonies and then later came to Africa, and how those conservation laws were used to co-opt sacred lands or lands that had been deliberately not fished or not hunted for different spiritual reasons which were environmentalist reasons and then they were kind of taken by the colonial state. And it was very much used as a way of occupying land, and continues to be. The green movement continues to be in many different spaces a colonially driven, white supremacist movement.
So I was doing a lot of that work and got into that work through performance and through a post-colonial MA which I did at Goldsmiths. And also through my family is Ghanaian, and I grew up between Ghana and the UK, and all the beaches I used to go to when I was a kid, a lot of them aren’t there any more or a lot of them only half of them are there. So it was really a personal ‘What the hell happened to this beach?’, and following that conversation through and connecting the intellectual history and the intellectual present with the literal materiality of losing parts of my home. And needing to understand why and how that was happening, and needing to have conversations with people all the time in Ghana about, that this is a political issue, this is a colonial issue. The beach is not just gone because it’s gone. There’s like a reason, there’s a ‘how’, and there’s someone who is benefiting, and somebody who is not benefiting. Those people are often black and brown people, often women, often queer and trans communities, often children. Almost entirely first and foremost in the global south.
So I got into pleasure because that work was destroying my mental health, basically. Doing that research, learning more and more, coming to the realisation that climate change is like knowing all the intricate ins and outs, and having endless reports on the atrocities of the transatlantic slave trade, kind of tenfold in advance. And knowing that’s all going to happen, and how it’s going to happen, and who’s going to die, and how, and how many people, and how many generations, and how many pieces of land, and how many species, and having endless reports and knowing they’re predominantly black, brown and indigenous. And everybody knowing, and life carrying on.
So that kind of destroyed my mental health but I really felt like I needed to keep doing this work. So I got interested in pleasure as a kind of mode of survival, whilst navigating climate change research and conversation. And also going to Johannesburg and presenting a paper on climate change in South Africa and realising how violent it was for me to be there as a British citizen, as a light-skinned person, as a non-South African and present a paper full of the death of their families, essentially, in numbers, even though that was exactly what I was talking against doing, that is totally what I did.
It was the first paper I’d ever presented at a conference, and I came away and I was thinking ‘That was really fucked up that that happened.’ And I don’t know if I could’ve realised that before doing it, but it’s something I’ve tried to never ever do again. I realised it’s a conversation I need to find a way to have in a way that is empowering and is full of potential as opposed to full stops. Which most conversations around climate change are full of full stops. And it’s been researched, written up and disseminated in that way, kind of on purpose. And in order to present something which we cannot change, which we cannot do anything about, because it’s all going to happen. So we might as well continue and have three cars and fours kids and you know go on holiday every two months on a plane. And also because a lot of the scientists who got funding and get funding to do that work, are white, cis, North American or western European or Scandinavian men whose entire epistemology, their entire way of understanding what knowledge is, how knowledge is made and how to communicate knowledge is through an incredibly narrow patriarchal non-emotionally engaged lens. Which means that they don’t actually have any tools to present a thing which isn’t full of full stops and facts which make us feel like we can’t do anything about it.
So I try to present that knowledge and do that learning in a different way, and the main way that I do that is through science fiction and speculative work, because it’s what I love, what I’ve always read and been fascinated by. Because I always wanted to write science fiction with fat black queer girls in it, which I never read and never knew could happen, and I always wanted to, well not always not when I was little, but now wanted to write science fiction with really great queer sex scenes in it, and super like hot, poly, baby-conceiving treeborgian species, creations and lots of tentacular fucking that happens. It’s really hot. I try and write really hot climate change fiction, because we could all do… I genuinely like that and that’s at the core of my political belief – all forms of pleasure, and that’s how we survive. And that’s how we survive with a remnant of something which is not just complete despair. Because right now, what we’re leaving is violence and despair. Often, not always. And plenty of people are doing phenomenal work all over the world, but often. Yeah, so that’s who I am. I guess that’s why you invited me.
Imani: I have a question which is, so we’re encouraged specifically in a neo-liberal period of time, to, I guess, silo our issues. Right? And so you have like pleasure activism and environmental justice and racial justice as like separate areas through which you can understand the world. But what you’re showing me and what is in the tradition of black feminist organising and thinking and pedagogy is this kind of intersectionality. And I don’t want to have a conversation about intersectionality per se, because I think we have a lot of conversations about that word. We can actually have a conversation about your practice and the ways that you’re thinking about all of those things, and the ways that this residency has been structured, without using that specific word. Because I think then it becomes this sort of checklist, is it intersectional? I think there are multiple ways to do that practice, right? So when I say racial justice is environmental justice, you understand what I mean because you have that understanding of all the ways they overlap. So can you speak a little bit more, before you do your reading, about how speculative fiction and pleasure activism and racial justice and environmental justice are not these siloed things that you can choose which one you dedicate your life to, but intimately and always and already linked to each other?
Ama: I will talk about it as much as I can. I think that articulating that concisely is a really hard thing to do. It’s something I’m still trying to do, because it’s something that I feel. I actually, really find the word intersectionality problematic for lots of reasons but also because it’s the idea that there are sections that need to be entered. And actually they’re not sections, they were never sections. So even intersectional is almost like a, like a post-colonial decolonizing. So I kind of want to rather than, I want to give you more of a pre-intersectional pot.
Imani: I think the word intersectional comes from a critique of the fact that those things are siloed and those things are sectioned. But it also maybe falls into that category.
Ama:And lots of love for Kimberlé Crenshaw. But yeah I just needed to say that.
Imani:Yeah, I think it’s important to continue to be critical and continue to also notice the ways in which we are falling into the traps that we’re trying to avoid.
Ama: Yeah, totally. So I’ve just started a PhD, and the PhD is on inherently environmentalist pleasure practices in Ghana and Kenya and how they might produce sensual strategies for climate colonialism resistance. That is something that very few people I’ve said it to go ‘Oh yeah’. Which is partly because of the words, but it’s also because…Wait, pleasure, Africa, climate change, colonialism… Really? You know, happens in the western brain. There are a few people I’ve said that to, one of whom is an amazing artist called Ahilapalapa Rands, who’s an indigenous Pacific Island artist and Hawaiian, who was like ‘ Oh! Yeah, obviously’. And I think that is the way that I’m gonna answer your question because I think the whole point of my PhD now has become: How do I find a way to articulate this, so that people go ‘ Oh! Yeah, obviously.’ Because, obviously the way that I relate to my environment has got to be a sensual one. And obviously an attack on the environment is an attack on my body in the same way that it would be an attack on my sister or of my lover or of my child. And obviously that’s a sensual, physically wounding relationship for my body. And obviously that’s linked to colonialism. And obviously the only way we can think about talking about that (or one of the only ways), is to imagine the futures that have been erased by colonialism, by de-colonisation an the structural adjustment programmes, by neo-liberalism and globalisation. So maybe I’m going so say that. And then I’m gonna say that the story tries to do, all of my fiction tries to do that. Without me articulating to you in loads of jargon, it tries to give you the feeling that I feel.
Imani: So just quickly before – thank you for that response. Before we move on to your reading, I came across a statement or somebody’s response to a statement which has stuck with me and I’m not sure where it came from. And then I did some research to try and figure out where it came from, and I think it’s around the intersection of pleasure activism, feminism and ecological, environmental justice. But it’s this idea that nature is not your mother, nature is your lover.
Ama: Oh I know where that came from.
Imani: And so I wanted to ask you if you did. And also, what does that mean to you, or does it mean anything to you?
Ama: The statement or where it came from?
Imani: Well if you could tell me where it came from then we could talk about it together. Is this something that I shouldn’t be dwelling on?
Ama: No, I think it’s something that’s interesting to dwell on.
Imani: I think for me it changed, I mean we’re taught to relate to nature as a provider, that’s something that provides something for us so that we can live –
Ama: And something that dies, after it has given us what we need as well, right?
Imani: Yeah, but something like its main purpose is in our kind of inner core survival mode, is to give us what we need. And, all of those things destroying the environment, you know, we shouldn’t be doing this because mother nature will provide for us, and we’re stopping that happening, right? But if you conceive of, or think about nature as your lover, then, I mean how do you treat your lover? What is the relationship that you have? It is much more reciprocal, there is a kind of requirement that you care for each other, which is a new way of relating. And I wondered, if or how that feeds into your work.
Ama: I think with lots of these catch phrases, they are re-articulations of indigenous knowledge.
Imani: Of course. Because when I tried to research it, it was white women. And I was like, ‘Really though?’ Is that where it first came from? Or where else is that core idea come from?
Ama: But I think there’s a usefulness to those two particular white women.
Imani: Can’t remember their names.
Ama: No I know their names, I’m just checking that both people identify as women. I think there might have been a change. So that white woman and her partner, who I will name in a minute but I’m gonna not name them yet because those names have a – if you know who they are they have a reputation. There’s a role that those people have played in putting that catchphrase on the map, and getting people to think differently about the environment because they have a platform, because of the nature of their privilege. And also because of the specific art spaces they come out of, which is really interesting, and academic spaces they now inhabit, interestingly. But they’ve also monetised that statement, and it has become kind of a brand. And they sell it by doing workshops and they move around doing those workshops. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that because they’re sharing this interesting thing. But it’s within a system of capitalism, and that’s important to kind of know. And as far as I know there is no attributing to any indigenous cultures that that comes from, which is a problem.
For me it’s completely obvious, I guess. And I never really thought of the environment as my mother. I thought of it as a, like, quite a brutal teacher, you know. I really thought of it as a harsh, a harsh like loving harsh, like my Ghanaian aunties kind of thing. But not aunties like maternal, but aunties with the weight of years, aunties like as in experience, I guess, and respect for my elders. So there was very much like a respect kind of relationship. So I never thought of us as being on par, but I definitely kind of never thought of it as a maternal relationship. So I think as lover, that makes a lot more sense to me.