In 2011, shortly after the start of the new year, an unusual creature appeared in the waters around my island. Unlike the legendarily vast boars my father claimed he had hunted with his father in the previous century in the primeval reaches of Dominica’s mountains, or the witch-women we called soucouyant who were said to abandon their skins at night and fly across the skies as balls of firefly flame in search of children’s blood to drink, this little creature was undeniably real. A specimen had been caught by Dominica’s Fisheries Department.
The fish’s slim bronze-and-white-striped body was barbed on the top and sides with venomous, striated spines; its eyes were wide and gloomy—the kind of unnerving yet elegant entity one might expect to find in the aquarium of a conniving Bond villain. It was a red lionfish, the first of its kind recorded in Dominica, as striking and strange as a waterfall in a desert.
At first, it was just a curiosity, if not a conspiracy, for those Bible-quoting Dominicans who imagined that all new things were the result of Satanic forces gripping the planet. I was intrigued by its peculiar, perilous beauty. While scuba-diving, I loved floating just beyond the sea’s extraordinary creatures, even the ones I knew might hurt me if I got too close: the blue morays that poked their heads out of rocks with mouths open, the purple and black sea urchins with their spines jiggling in the current, the brown stingrays that glided like great magic carpets over the sand. The lionfish would simply be yet another marvel of nature to admire from a distance.
The lionfishes began showing up more and more, filling the excited stories of grinning snorkelers and the nets of flummoxed fishermen, who scratched their heads as they pulled their blue and red dinghies ashore to the beaches. Chefs began speculating that they had a new delicacy on their hands. Dominica’s food was delicious, but we were not well-known for culinary innovation; a new fish on menus seemed exciting.
But soon, people stopped smiling. The lionfish was everywhere. Turn on the radio or TV news, and people were talking about the spiny creature. It had quietly begun to colonize our reefs, disrupting the ecosystems through the voracity of its appetite. As it spread, other creatures left, or died off, for it had few predators. As the lionfishes’ numbers swelled, the coral reefs we once expected to be there forever for us to explore, our bodies surrounded by shimmering clouds of fish, were slowly emptying of other marine life, evanescing away. An atmosphere, it seemed, had shifted in Dominica, like a party whose soundtrack had gradually moved from soca to the blues.
It was strange, this invasion happening in a country that had already been colonized multiple times. But unlike the French and the British, the lionfish represented a slower, more serpentine takeover. It was an altering of our world, not through brute force, but by the erosion of its ecosystems.
And it wasn’t just in Dominica. Across the Caribbean, reports abounded of lionfish invading our reefs in troubling numbers. In North America, scientists began speculating that as climate change caused colder waters to gradually become warmer, invasive tropical species like the lionfish might expand their reach further still.
We became accustomed to the new situation. People were advised to catch and kill them on sight; they were now less a novelty than a staple on certain restaurants’ menus. Diving companies began focusing their scuba locations on where they could find the most lionfish to hunt, even if it meant taking customers to the same sites over and over. Over time, the invaders’ numbers dwindled, even as they remained a threat.
But why they had come in the first place was a mystery few people, myself included, wondered too deeply about at the time. It was just a thing that had happened, a ripple on the often-still lake of life in a small island. And when you feel too accustomed to stillness, you yearn for those ripples, big or small.
I didn’t realize until years later that it was the kind of strange thing that would accumulate in a long line of other curious events, all related, ultimately, to our planet’s fluctuating climate norms. The kind of strange that, over time, we would acclimatize to and tell ourselves was actually the way things had always been, even if such rationalizations were indisputably untrue. It was as if a star’s brightness in our sky had slowly shifted, night after night, until we came to believe, astronomy notwithstanding, that it had always been that intense, and we were just wrong before.
But then again, humans are stunningly resilient. Even after trauma, we keep going, though the climates of our world and of our selves have changed. Perhaps we are better at noticing changes in ourselves—the sudden snowfalls in the hallways of our hearts, the ghostly gusts in our corridors from old pains reasserting themselves, chilling us, stiffening our limbs, making us panic in public—than we are at seeing those in the climate of our planet.
What is the era of the human, the Anthropocene, if not an era where our telescopes are sharper than ever, but we choose not to see?
Like the townspeople in Camus’s The Plague, it was clear some change was afoot, yet many of us in Dominica turned our heads the other way. As in much Anglophone Caribbean literature, we had an ingrained, if not always voiced, pessimism about change in our island, a so-it-goes sense that things would always more or less remain the same, rather than changing for the better. We believed that, like the ever-reappearing potholes in our roads, this issue with a new fish would just work itself out somehow, and soon we would return to our eternal gripes about the corruption of our prime minister and the seemingly unending fall from grace of our region’s once-great cricket team.
Regardless of one’s position, the lionfish had become a symbol. Our world was transforming—and it was getting harder and harder to ignore those changes. Something subtle about the fabric of our day-to-day reality, our expectations, had shifted, and, through a small hole in that contorted fabric, something small but bright had swum into a place it had not been before.
Perhaps, in retrospect, it was the presaging of the great storm that would come, years later, when too many of us still had our eyes closed.
In 1969, the Martinican writer Aimé Césaire released a striking adaptation of—or, really, response to—The Tempest, perhaps the most racially charged of Shakespeare’s plays besides Othello. Césaire’s version, Une Tempête, followed the basic premise of Shakespeare’s play, leaving much of the world the same—the setting and characters are “as in Shakespeare”—yet this world is also irrevocably different, partly because Césaire specifies in an addendum that the spirit Ariel is “a mulatto slave” and Caliban is “a black slave.” By implication, Prospero, the Milanese duke-magician shipwrecked off an island that appears to be in the Caribbean, is a white slavemaster.
These choices reflected Césaire’s desires for Une Tempête to exist as a blunt example of Négritude, a far-reaching literary-political movement adopted by black Francophone artists and intellectuals, which sought to critique and condemn colonialism and to lionize blackness rather than whiteness.
In the Bard’s drama, Prospero, shipwrecked on an island with a motley crew, decides to enslave a nonwhite resident of the island, Caliban, who he treats as a piece of despised property. In Prospero’s eyes, Caliban, the child of the infamous witch Sycorax, is simply a monstrosity, a “freckled whelp hag-born—not honour’d with / A human shape.” The other white characters react similarly to Caliban, dehumanizing him at every turn. Trinculo, the jester of the King of Naples, is stunned when he comes across Caliban’s sleeping form, asking himself in alarm whether Caliban is “a man or a fish,” and frequently describes him, as does Stephano, the king’s butler, as a “monster.” Caliban is cursed and spat upon; he and Ariel become the symbols of the colonized being demeaned and demonized by their European colonizers.
Caliban sometimes speaks back to Prospero—“you taught me language,” he says to Prospero, “and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse”—and Césaire amplifies this, giving Caliban many mocking, indignant lines. “With that big hooked nose, you look just like some vulture,” he insults Prospero soon after his first entrance. Caliban’s speech, both angry and intentionally humorous, makes it clearer that he may be of African descent; for instance, when he appears in a scene midway through the play, he announces his presence by saying “Uhuru!,” a Swahili term for “freedom,” which was well-known amongst Pan-Africanists as an exclamation evincing one’s right to liberty as a black person. Through the power of a voice allowed to burst forth with mad, mocking force, the atmosphere of Shakespeare’s imagined island changes utterly in this adaptation.
A voice, Césaire knew, can conjure a storm, a reweaving of a land. In his surreal masterwork, the long poem Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, Césaire describes the process of learning to invoke nature through language. Speaking the right way, he suggests, is a kind of magic, an incantation that brings word and world together:
I would rediscover the secret of great communications and great combustions.
I would say storm. I would say river. I would say tornado.
I would say leaf. I would say tree.
I would be drenched by all rains, moistened by all dews.
I would roll like frenetic blood on the slow current of the eye of words
turned into mad horses into fresh children into clots into curfew
into vestiges of temples into precious stones remote enough
to discourage miners. Whoever would not understand me
would not understand any better the roaring of a tiger…
I would have words vast enough to contain you and
you earth taut earth drunk
The right language, he says, alchemizes sounds into the things itself. I can make storms with words, words from storms.
I pause as I write this and wonder, frowning, about tempests. Tempests are natural, a destructive part of an ecosystem, like wildfires in California. Yet our tempests in the Caribbean, like California’s wildfires, have become fiercer, wilder, and less predictable, blind, sudden pummelings of rage.
I have become nervous, I realize, to write the word “tempest,” the word “hurricane” most of all, because these words have come to signify something so much worse than they did when I was growing up.
When I put pen to paper, I see Hurricane Maria again before me, the tempest that almost took my parents’ lives, the whirling arms of wind flinging rooftops and bodies alike through the air, drunk, without tasting either, on blood and water, a blind cyclopean fury destroying the island I once called home. When I write this, I see a thing at once diablerie and dull nature, a monster made more monstrous by the chaotic shifting gears of our planet.
We live now on a planet in which once-in-a-lifetime storms happen over and over.
I do not know how to write about climate, I have learned, without writing about death.
I like lists.
Like long sentences, sometimes a list is the only way to record the feel of something.
To live in a place where the rules have changed, lists help. These are the things that have changed for me, climate-wise, since I was a child:
- In Dominica, our home had no AC. In New York, my current home, I do not know how to live without it
- Make jokes more often about the apocalypse
- Realize dimly that there might actually be an apocalypse
- Try to finish book before apocalypse, when publishers will still be around
- It is now normal (very normal) to feel the temperature shoot up or down, to see a blizzard just days after a balmy beginning to spring
- Consider being a mother and raising a child in places where, even in nature, you hear fewer insects, where you hear, instead, a blue absence that quietly unsettles you
- Consider raising a child and telling them about your favorite creatures that no longer exist except in zoos and legends and old movies
- Wonder how one gets hormone replacement therapy medication for transitioning during an apocalypse
- Realize you will be a woman who has avoided personal apocalypse, even when the climate apocalypse comes, for you have come out, blossomed into the rude flower of yourself, and you would not be alive to consider such futures at all if you had not come out because the cramped pain of living in a closet was too much to bear and you almost attempted to kill yourself with poison and also you almost jumped in front a train because even after coming out your mother put you through so much guilt and pain that you felt hideous and alone and in need of help. Then, finally, you got that help. You realize only then that you have come close to taking Death’s hand for that final ballroom dance too many times, and now, ultimately, you are okay. Even though the world is not okay, you are, sort of, now, and that is good.
- Despise politicians who still, like the President, think climate change is a hoax
- The hurricane shutters on our home in Dominica have to be bigger and thicker
- Start saving money now for all the trips, when you can still dive here or explore there or see this animal in the wild here
- Each hurricane season, think more seriously about what happens if family members die
- Love my partner and besties and future child more, and don’t wait too long to let them know you love them
From childhood, my mother told me the signs that signaled the birth of great storms in the Atlantic. The clearest was the Sahara dust, a thin coating of desert brown that blanketed our veranda and outdoor chairs. It was a gift from the sirocco winds that blew, vast and enormous, through the deserts of West Africa and into the Mediterranean, then across the Atlantic.
The sirocco carries more than dust. Like all the great winds around the world—the ghibli, xlokk, harmattan, sharav, simoon, föhn, the Trade Winds, and many others—there is a long history of believing that the sirocco brings with it shifts in personality, gains in fortune, loss of fortune, a sense of sultriness and wildness, a sense of ennui and enervation, diseases, and madness. It carries life and death.
We expected those supernatural winds each year; hurricane season was simply an annual cycle, like autumn or winter in America’s cooler states. Dominica had been hit in 1979 by a great tempest, Hurricane David, which left three-quarters of the island’s population homeless; a reminder of that torrential storm still exists in the Botanic Gardens, where you can find a yellow bus crushed under a fallen tree. Dominica was also grazed by the outer bands of Hurricane Dean one year, the only hurricane I experienced while in Dominica.
Still, despite our preparations, the vast majority of hurricanes missed our island. For most of my life, I believed that the odds of a hurricane hitting us were low, never wondering if the very nature of those storms could change, so that they would hit harder, more often, more chaotically.
Even if the storms did not often hit us directly, we respected them, acknowledged their unsettling grandeur in the way Noah accepted the deluging vengeance of his deity.
A hurricane always reminded us, even before it arrived, that it had once been a god, the whirling, seething, howling deity with a single unseeing eye that, in its furies, the Caribs had called Huracan, and you knew it was divine, somehow, even centuries after the Caribs had named this unappeasable god of wind and sea, because you could simply feel it in the air, the dread and supplication and simply primal fear that preceded its arrival; the way the sky would sicken, then harden into a yellow-gray; the way the sugarcanes and grasses would be stilled; the way the raucousness of the birds and rustling lizards would disappear into an uncomfortable silence; the way the air was sharp with a quiet tension; the way the little villages lost in the mountains that I only knew of from the soca their radios blared on the winds would become tomb-quiet; and then the way the hair on the coconuts would rise and the palms would begin to bow and the lines at the gas stations would flare and everyone would yell at the frazzled attendants filling the tanks of cars, and the IGA supermarket would be packed as never before with people stocking up and in other corners the old men who had been playing dominoes for half a century on the side of the road would scoff and say what all you worrying about so, nuh, no storm coming, and then the thunder would growl with the deep throat of some underworld hound and our power companies, already prone to outages, would warn us to unplug everything and it was usually too late because the lights were already flickering and we would pull in the furniture from outside in a frenzy and enclose our home in the darkness of our windows being shielded by hurricane shutters and we would find the hurricane lamps and candles and matches and flashlights and then just wait, wait, orbiting the stars of flames in our damp, dark homes, speaking until the fury of the rain began upon our roofs and drowned out all other sounds, and we would wait and hope for the best, knowing the hurricane would tug at the phone lines and would fling roofs and rocks in its razing rage and would uproot trees and would punch at our glass windows and feeble shutters, and if we were lucky, after it had left there would only be a few blown-off rooftops dotting the hills and fields, and only a few landslides blocking the roads, and just some branches and small trees on the grass, and soon, we could return to our normal lives, with that deep, antediluvian fear faded to a dim pulse in the back of our heads.
Hurricanes, in other words, were a part of life—but from a distance. Even if the hurricanes always had the chance of hitting us, we generally had a sense of what to expect in terms of how severe and frequent the storms would be.
But by 2017, when Hurricane Maria destroyed Dominica, something had shifted. The hurricanes seemed fiercer, more unpredictable in their numbers and trajectories. The rhythms of the world had shifted, and, with them, our expectations.
I had not returned to Dominica since I came out. When my grandmother died, a sea away, I felt guilty about not feeling able to go to her funeral, even as my parents made it clear I was not to even think about traveling home, lest I cause them and myself ridicule or put us all in danger. Not long later, when Hurricane Maria ripped the island apart, I felt not only guilt over how far away I was, but also rage, and terror.
Earlier in the afternoon before the storm hit, my father was still insisting, according to my mum’s disapproving texts, that no storm was coming. My mother was frantically preparing as we always did for a leviathan storm, but my father, phlegmatic in his contrarian calmness, kept saying she was overreacting to the reports. We always worried too much, he said, and this storm would just veer away like they all did.
By nightfall, it was clear he was wrong. From New York, I watched, in the dull shock of someone not knowing what to do, as the weather radar sites showed a massive, fully formed hurricane go straight over Dominica. My texts stopped going through. On Twitter, I connected with other horrified Dominicans who could not reach their loved ones. I felt numb when I saw the prime minister himself announce, in a brief blip of news from the island, these chilling words: Please tell the world that Dominica has been devastated…In the morning we will know how many dead there are.
For days, we could not reach our family members, and I wondered, crying in my apartment, why I had not told my parents I loved them before our texts stopped, why I had assumed the storm would just pass. I wondered if my parents would die a sea away and whether my having come out had changed my fate so that I was not in the island to die with them. That the storm had my mother’s first name only deepened my dread, because I could never say the hurricane’s name without also saying her own.
Then, we reconnected. My mother told me that the island had been devastated beyond all belief. They had survived, but not without something like irony: they had only escaped alive, my mother told me, the queer daughter she had rejected, by hiding in a closet.
I blinked and chuckled, not knowing how to react to such inexplicable symbolism. To how close I’d come to losing them.
Later, amidst the wreckage, my father nearly died again. His health was failing. My half-siblings and I put out a call for the American soldiers who had gone to the island to search for him, and despite not answering us, they must have heard our pleas, though the soldiers later revealed that it was largely a fluke they found my parents’ home at all, buried as it was amidst broken things. My father was medevacked to safety, first in Martinique, then in Florida, where he had multiple surgeries. As I write this, he is still sick, and my mother, always frail, has become a wraith.
The storm has passed, but it has not left them—and there are more storms still coming, still seething.
Storms like Maria never truly dissipate. They hit again and again, the trauma they have left in their wake reshaping our bodies and dreams.
(add to earlier list)
- Make memories you can cling to, and channel the strange way that, as Walcott said of the Caribbean itself in his Nobel lecture, love can put back together the fragments of a place or person after a disaster breaks them. Remember the love. A hurricane brings death; in its wake, somehow, there is also love, because it reminds us how close we were to losing the ones we care for. Live your life as much as you can, even as you fight with your choices, votes, speech, and actions, because it is easy to forget you can be deserving of love when the world is a slowly cracking vase
- Buy more panties
- Relax, sometimes, and remember that you deserve to care for yourself, too, no matter how much the world has broken around you
Earlier this year, I am in the Senegalese desert with my partner, a soft night wind tugging at our curls and clothes as we sneak off together to look up at the stars. The constellations are bright, sky-filling; behind us, a few dots of light glow from lanterns and torchlights near a row of large white tents that constitute the lodge we have decided on for the night. The tents have vanished in the black; all I can hear is the wind’s low whistle.
We are trudging up a dune in Lompoul, holding a blue blanket and phones set to flashlight mode. The sand, earlier white-hot beneath my feet when we sand-boarded down the desert’s frozen waves on an old white surfboard, has become a cool graininess. It clings to my feet. I pause two times to catch my breath as we ascend.
We have come here for a day and a night as part of a week-long trip to Senegal to visit my partner’s sister, who lives in Dakar. It is my first time in Africa, the world I have always felt both part of and distant from. It is woven, in blood-colored cords, by my ancestry through the transatlantic slave trade. It is where the soft brown of my skin and my tight black curls come from. West Africa, too, is the origin of some of my home’s traditions, like obeah, the magic certain slaves brought with them and practiced in the Americas. Yet it is also a world that is not mine, for I have never set foot in it before now. It is familiar yet foreign, like this desert.
The night over the dunes of Lompoul is thick black, like oil, but when we look up it is like a great shawl, the wind rippling its stars. We lie on our blanket and stare at this shahtoosh of night. We hold hands, squeeze fingers, point out the majesty of the sky. We undress, begin to kiss under the stars, two bodies lost in the black. The air is cool but her breasts and chest are warm, then hot, and as she touches me I feel that strange thing they talk about in cheesy novels, where two become something that seems like one. We become one warm thing, fox-fire, djinn smoke, queer girl magic in a country, like the one I came from, where queerness is not openly accepted. When we stop, breathing against each other and smiling and whispering that we love each other, we realize, again, that sand is everywhere, even in crevices it seems impossible for the sand to have reached. When we reach again for our pants, they release sand in little whooshes as we turn them upside down.
We walk back, wrapped in the night’s dark too much to see each other, and quiet because we do not want a patrolman—if there are any—to find us, girls scandalous in love on the shipless waves of a desert. I cannot see her, except if I turn back with my flashlight, but I feel her pinky wrapped in mine. And I feel her smile, and, I hope, she feels mine.
It is like coming back from a brief dream, a moment in time when we got to escape from everything and just be, under the Milky Way. A moment when the climate of a world felt perfect. To make this trip work, we have largely had to pretend to be friends rather than partners, only touching each other when we are at her sister’s home or away from anyone else’s eyes. I hated that; I felt distant from someone I loved, even when I was sitting beside her. Here, under the stars, it’s different. Here, we got to feel open, indulgent—a time to be alone together, and to breathe deeply, and, for at least a moment, forget the horrors, and just exist in each other’s embrace.
There are many moments I remember on this trip, like the sudden rise you feel when you sit on the back of a camel; the funny beauty of hearing tinny recordings each morning from a mosque as regular as cockcrow; a man who carried around birds in a cage and released them if tourists paid; the way many signs are in the colonizer’s language, French, rather than in Wolof, the language most Senegalese people speak, because that is what colonialism does to a place.
But it is this moment, under the stars, when we got to vanish and burn bright all at once for a bit, that I remember most.
I think often of the small and Brobdingnagian ways my world has changed, but no matter what, I still want to live my life and feel love and be happy.
I still want to ride the wild seas like a mermaid, want to smile in my warm moments of solitude when I can rely on things being still and calm, want to dream of walking on the bottom of the ocean and the top of the moon alike.
I still want to sail the deserts and walk on the dunes of the sea.
I still want the stelliferous beauty of dreaming of what the night sky can hold.
I still want to settle down somewhere and be the woman I have always wanted to be, in love with another woman, and helping to raise a child.
I still want to dream of all the things the color blue can mean, without fearing these dreams are luxuries in a slow-burning, slow-erupting, slow-cracking world.
I want to still believe, as I have for decades, that I am just a collection of shifting particles on a planet that came into existence by chance and physics, and not because of some theistic determinism. I want to believe that, even if there is no grand meaning for our lives and our planet has a finite lifespan—as do our art and dreams—that art is worth making and love is worth finding. That it’s worth fighting to preserve a world where dreams are still possible. I want to be able to sit for a moment and forget the Lovecraftian horrors of planetary devastation, and just enjoy life and love, for a bit, because caring for ourselves, others, and our planet goes together.
I want to remember what Audre Lorde wrote in “Man Child,” her seminal 1979 essay on being a black lesbian mother, where she reflected that “[w]hen I envision the future, I think of the world I crave for my daughters and sons. It is thinking for survival of the species—thinking for life.” I want my daughter or son or beautiful binary-defying child to have the world I did. A better world than I did.
Because without those dreams, I do not know how to live. I want to help keep this world going as long as I can, so that the next generation can live in it, too, and so they, too, can face fear and sea-dream and find love under the night’s shifting shawl of stars.