It’s Not My Job to Give You Hope: A Conversation Between Emily Raboteau and Manjula Martin

By Manjula MartinJune 3, 2024

It’s Not My Job to Give You Hope: A Conversation Between Emily Raboteau and Manjula Martin

Lessons for Survival: Mothering Against “the Apocalypse” by Emily Raboteau

WHEN I FIRST heard about Emily Raboteau’s new essay collection Lessons for Survival: Mothering Against “the Apocalypse,” I was wary. As the child-free author of a memoir that is also concerned with the intimate experience of climate change, I perhaps judged the book by its subtitle—motherhood, apocalypse, those scare quotes. I assumed it would be an advice book masquerading as an essay collection, filled with the usual platitudes and exhortations to have hope about the climate crisis despite glaring evidence to the contrary. Upon reading it, however, I was proven wrong. The mothering is certainly present, as is “the apocalypse” (whose scare quotes are insisted upon by Raboteau for reasons the book makes brilliantly clear). But through 20 essays that stitch together first-person experience and reporting about the climate crisis, Lessons for Survival reveals itself as a project concerned with subtler, far more destabilizing inquiries.

Raboteau has compared the collection’s structure to a quilt: it’s not a patchwork but an intentional, yet infinitely malleable, pattern. Images and ideas are mirrored and juxtaposed, backed and repeated, weaving together an inquisitive exploration of what it’s like to be alive right now, and to be very worried about the people you love. Throughout the book, Raboteau roams her environment and spots signs of trouble. She writes of the shifting ecosystem of New York City, so vulnerable to flooding. She becomes an avid birdwatcher thanks to a series of bird murals, portraits of threatened species put up by street artists in Washington Heights, which she photographs in stark snapshots reproduced in the book. There are also literal signs—in one set piece, Raboteau is captivated by a public art installation that uses the city’s ubiquitous electronic traffic-diversion, construction, and caution signs to challenge viewers to consider the presence of climate change in their daily lives. She tours the installation across the five boroughs in the company of a fellow enthusiast, Mikael Awake, and the two become comrades in art and climate anxiety.

Then there are the deeper, more painful markers of a world out of balance, signs written on the body: chronic pain that a dysfunctional healthcare system doesn’t know what to do with; the visible and invisible aftereffects of abuse and sexual harassment; and the ever-present threat of violence, both literal and environmental, against Black people in the United States. Raboteau’s climate anxiety finds fast company in her constant worry as the mother of two Black boys. This is certainly a book about motherhood; it’s also a book about art, (in)justice, community, and the impossible balancing act of managing multiple levels of grief while seeking a life for her family in which, as Raboteau writes, “somebody loves you enough to try to keep you safe.” Everywhere Raboteau goes, she finds acts of care—not only within family structures but also in city streets, art, her garden, and the friendships she cultivates with a worldwide circle of women whose generosity and concern for each other and the earth drive the reader to want better things for all of us, everywhere.

Raboteau, who previously wrote a novel and a memoir, lives with her writer husband and their two sons in New York, where she teaches at City College and gardens next to an ever-shifting runoff pond that is slowly reclaiming their Bronx street for the wetland it used to be. I was curious to talk shop with her, as our books have much in common, despite the fact that we occupy very different locales and identities. We met on a video call on a bright May day to discuss climate change narratives, grief rituals, our gardens, and the usefulness of anger in confronting polycrisis. Fittingly, the conversation was sprinkled with the sounds of our respective domestic environments: Raboteau apologized for the intrusion of childhood noise from a day care facility next door, while in my rural Northern California neighborhood, the sounds of nearby tree work cut in and out. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.


MANJULA MARTIN: I have to admit, as a person who never wanted children and who has had a hysterectomy, I get kind of grumpy around discussions of motherhood and climate change. There’s often weird gender stuff involved. And in a lot of the discourse around this topic, there seems to be an implication that mothers care about the world in a way that other people don’t, like you have to have kids in order to give a fuck about other people. Which is definitely not the message of your book! So I guess I want to start there. Did it feel like you were writing a “motherhood book”? Or was that not at all the idea?

EMILY RABOTEAU: No, I think what wound up happening is that, over the course of the last decade, I’ve been increasingly writing essays about social and environmental justice, and the ways those things are linked. That led me to writing about climate change. The turn to climate specifically happened in 2018. I think that was a watershed year in terms of the way the media shifted its tone to becoming more appropriately alarmist, if that’s the word, or stark, or …


That’s a good way to put it. There was a shift. I read David Wallace-Wells—he had a pair of essays in New York Magazine, and I had just read the first one when I encountered that climate sign [art installation] in St. Nicholas Park in Harlem on my walk to work. I think it was because I had just read his essay that I even noticed the sign, or understood that I should really stand in front of it and pay attention and be confronted by it. It was so shocking to me, that sign, so compelling and beguiling, that I ended up writing a rather lengthy essay where I toured New York and visited all the signs. What I liked about writing that essay—what made it easier for me—was that I was undertaking that tour of New York with another New Yorker who became my friend. It was ironically a pleasure to write, because we were playing hooky every week. We were like, “Let’s go to Staten Island!”

Art dates!

Yeah, art dates with a stranger. It was radical, actually, for me. Motherhood has created new community in some ways, but also it has restricted me to certain spaces where I’m expected to be exclusively in kinship with other parents, specifically mothers. On the one hand, that essay was a way of forging a new community and making a new friendship that was based on care and being citizens of this city. On the other hand, part of my gaze or my concern is maternal, and it need not have only been that way. Mik, my friend who went on that journey, was just as concerned, right? Just as caring.

In these essays, there is often a perspective that’s driving the journey, which is the concern of a mother who wants her children to be able to thrive and they are threatened by multiple forces. And yet, when I think of mothering as an animating metaphor for the book, I totally understand your concern and the ickiness, and I’ve had a lot of conversations around that also with queer people. I really don’t mean it in any kind of biological sense, even though I have two Black sons that I’m very fearful for.

There is a bit of a cohort of hybrid, first-person, reported works about climate change written by women and nonbinary people right now. You wrote a piece for The New York Review of Books about Elizabeth Rush’s and Camille Dungy’s books, in which you connected the authors as mothers writing about the environment. I love that you also brought in Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s work on mothering. I always try to defer to what Gumbs wrote, which is that there’s a difference between “motherING” and “motherHOOD.”

Absolutely. She brings another element that I love thinking about. There are a couple of “kid and climate” books out right now—Jade Sasser has a book called Climate Anxiety and the Kid Question: Deciding Whether to Have Children in an Uncertain Future. And The Conceivable Future: Planning Families and Taking Action in the Age of Climate Change is by a pair of women, one of whom is a politician and neither of whom are mothers or parents. I don’t know if Sasser is a parent, but as a Black woman, like Gumbs, she is interested in thinking through what mothering specifically has meant for Black women, in some cases as a form of resistance or resilience. I guess it does feel a bit strange to me that, when it comes to the pragmatics of parenthood and the question of whether or not to have a child, my book has been written about with those two books. It’s not inappropriate, but it’s … I think it just has to do with the subtitles.

What about you? One of the points of connection I felt between our two memoirs was writing about physical pain, chronic pain. It makes so much sense to me that you wrote about your body in the context of the climate and in the context of your home, and the way that it’s threatened and the way that your body is threatened, and the ways you find healing and solace in your garden. I was just gardening before we came on; it’s peak beauty time in my garden.

Oh, that’s exciting! What’s growing?

I probably have a lot less space than you, so every inch of it is packed. I have a lot of native pollinating things back there. I have one bed that’s just coral bells that I planted like two years ago and kind of forgot about, but suddenly they’ve exploded and they’re all really big. And then there are the plants I feel a lot of affinity for: cuttings or seedlings that other people gave me.

I wrote about my dad’s death in the book in order to think through personal and planetary grief. One thing that pained me was not really having rituals that felt appropriate to grief. Or even externalized from my body. A friend, another writer from Sri Lanka, said, “I planted a tree when each of my parents died, and it’s been enough years that they’ve grown, and their growth reminds me of the way that I’ve moved through the grief, but I’ll also still carry it on.”

So I planted a shadblow, also called a serviceberry tree, which is an understory tree. It’s still so tiny. I don’t know if it’ll make it, but I have a lawn chair next to it and I just love it. I’ve put some stones around it and it’s reaching for the west, for the sun.

The garden of Emily Raboteau. Courtesy of Emily Raboteau.

Everything in our yard does that too, because we’re surrounded by trees. Your question was about body and writing the body into this climate or “nature” narrative, and it’s actually super appropriate that we’ve ended up talking about our gardens. Because of what you just said about your dad: the need for rituals that are outside of your body to mark either grief or connection … or both, since that’s what grief is. For me that ritual is gardening, so my garden was the key to including the body storyline in my book. Honestly, I wasn’t sure about it. I was like, I don’t know, man, some people are really going to be turned off by this!

Have readers responded? Because I loved it. I don’t even know if I could articulate how and why it worked.

Thank you. I think there may have been some marketing concerns that men wouldn’t read it, which I don’t care about. I mean, I want men to read it, but I’m not going to change the book’s structure because of that. I find that people have either primarily connected to the body storyline or just totally ignored it and talked about wildfire and disaster and climate change—which I guess is fine too.

Choose your own adventure.

I just did an interview with two male authors, Obi Kaufmann and Greg Sarris. They invited me on their podcast, Place and Purpose, and I was secretly afraid it was going to be pretty bro. But that was the first thing they wanted to talk about.

The body part?

Yeah, connecting your body to the place that you live.

Did that surprise you?

It kind of did. I thought they would be squeamish about all the uterus stuff, but they were into it. In part, I think they were just curious, as people who have never had uteruses. But they really connected with the larger idea that we do live in animal bodies, and there are various ways we remember that, and various ways that that remembrance interacts with our environment. For me, in the book and in my life, gardening was that link between the larger crisis—wildfire, climate—and this very bodily, literally internal crisis. All of that connection for me happened in the garden.

That was a crucial part of your book for me, because it allowed me to understand the narrative stance through which I was learning about the place in which you live, through a body that’s injured and struggling. I thought you did a lot of work to connect that to injured landscape, and in thinking about healing and what that means and how it feels.

One of the things I ended up really loving about your book is that it’s also very much a New York book. Another “place” book. And you are placing your body within it. There’s a lot of walking around in the habitat where you live and interacting physically with the landscape and with public art, which is part of the landscape. I think there’s often a perception that you don’t really interact with nature when you live in a city, and that’s not true. In your book, the landscape of New York is its own ecosystem, and it’s also threatened in various ways by climate change, as well as other systemic harms. So that was a really delightful surprise for me as a reader (and former New Yorker). Was that something that came as you were putting the book together later, or was it always an intentional thread?

I read an essay that was really meaningful to me, by Camille Dungy, called “Is All Writing Environmental Writing?” It’s all there, in that question. That was a very radical idea—that I could consider myself an environmental writer because I live in an environment. The environment that I live in doesn’t have as much green—it’s not without green space, but it’s not a space we think of as “natural.”

There’s this conflation between environmental writing and the natural world that is false. I wanted to be able to write about the ecosystem of the city and the social systems of the city and the systematic problems of the city. I credit Dungy’s essay with starting to make me think that I could describe myself as or think of myself as an “environmental writer” as much as somebody like Barry Lopez. And I can do it while focusing mainly on the urban landscape, and its green spaces, and its nongreen spaces. And I can observe its birds, which are murals and not birds, and still be a birder.

As a person who lived in big cities all my adult life and moved to a rural place in my forties, people ask me, “Are you a Nature Person now?” And I’m like, “Yes.” But I have always been. I’ve always looked at my environment in close ways. It’s just been different environments. One of the things I loved about living in New York, and I love about cities in general, is the constant act of attention, of noticing. I think it’s a through line no matter where you live. And maybe also a writer thing? I don’t know.

I had a lot of insecurity, when writing my book, about not being an expert in botany or climate change—the harder, science aspect of it. I was talking to a friend and he was like, “You are an expert. You’re an expert in your environment. You look at and interact with these things every day.” I intentionally made the language in my book less sciencey for that reason, or tried to, because I frequently read nature writing and think, This is awesome, but, like, I don’t know the difference between an igneous rock and a whatever rock. As a reader, it starts to make you feel insecure when there’s all this lingo thrown at you. It takes you out of the story too.

I love the accessibility of your memoir, but also the specificity of place. Because of the degree of noticing. Even though those trees are foreign to me, your intimacy with them comes through because of your attention to the personal and the domestic. Not that the scientific isn’t there, but we’re really aware of who’s narrating the book.

I think there’s this disaster narrative that happens when people write about extreme weather events, whether it’s a hurricane or a fire. There’s a place for those kinds of books and they can be great. But that’s definitely not the book I was trying to write. We’re used to this journalistic, tick-tock way of chronicling climate change, which is entertaining and scary and also coded very masculine. But there’s something about those narratives that makes me … Well, I wonder if they’re working. I guess that’s my question: are those climate stories working?

It’s a valid question. Like, what kind of narrative is functioning to help wake people up? I guess it depends on what one is trying to achieve. And I’ve come around to feel that some of it works for some people and other kinds of writing work for other people. I mentioned David Wallace-Wells earlier. I felt a kind of way about that; it’s a jeremiad, a kind of screed. But it made me pay attention. And later, when my older son started having some climate anxiety, I had him interview David Wallace-Wells for Orion magazine, where I’m a contributing editor. I was really interested to see how he would recalibrate his language for a seven-year-old. I wanted, a little bit, to force him to have to do that. Because I know he’s not an unkind person. I know he’s a sensitive person if he’s writing about this, but I also know that he can’t use that language with my kid. And he did, he recalibrated—which was a lesson for me, too, in thinking about different registers, different syntax, and different diction that we can employ in different ways, for different reasons, with different people. Depending on the function and purpose of the conversation.

I don’t know that it’s my intent to wake people up with my book; I think part of my exercise is the awareness that climate change is the thing that is happening to everyone on the planet, and we all know it. And so it’s going to weave its way into every cultural representation that we have.

As we were shopping my book, some editors were like, “Oh, well, we already did a Fire Book.” One.


And I was like, okay, but in the future, there’s going to be an entire fire section in every bookstore. In fact, there already is in some bookstores in California. I think we have to acknowledge that commonality—anyone who’s writing right now is writing and engaging with climate change, whether they admit it or not. And so I wanted to write a book that was literary and poetic and, from my viewpoint, also engaged with climate change.

I noticed in the marketing copy for both our books that they used Joan Didion as a comparison, and I think that was a way of signaling. If you’re trying to write about what it feels like to live now, to live in your own times, she’s a shorthand for that. If you want to pick the person who captured the 1960s … it’s her. And if you’re going to be writing about what it feels to live now, you’re going to be writing about climate change.

I mean, hopefully.

That’s why I’m teaching it. I can’t really be a creative writing professor and feel like I’m serving young people without introducing this as a theme that we need to figure out how to address.

I’m looking at my notes and I just wrote down these huge themes: Body! Place! Identity! Anger! Art! Because those are all things I think we’re both engaging with. But I want to talk specifically about anger.

I have this “Climate Emotions Wheel” on my bulletin board. It was made by the Climate Mental Health Network and given to me by the writer Anya Kamenetz. I made copies to give out at readings. It’s divided into different quadrants and spaces for different feelings. The Anger space is one I’m often in, and the emotions coming off of that quadrant are Indignation, Outrage, Frustration, Betrayal, and Disappointment. But what I like about the wheel is that it has three other quadrants. One is Positivity.


The positive emotions are Interest, Transparency [alternatively, Empowerment], Inspiration, Empathy, Gratitude, and Hope. And as a writer, I would add Curiosity.

I don’t know about you, but since my book has come out, the main question I’m asked is, “Do you have hope? Where is there hope? Where can I find hope?” I feel really irritated by it.

I’m so tired of hope.

But I can’t be a wet blanket or an asshole to people who’ve actually read my book and are asking that question. My husband helped me figure out how to pivot. He said, “You might instead say, ‘Here’s what gives me hope.’ Or, ‘I’d rather talk about resilience; here are examples of resilience.’” Because I’m so angry, it makes me feel good to talk to resilient people who haven’t been destroyed by their anger. I wish people were asking about anger—thank you for asking about anger. For me, hope doesn’t lead to action. In fact, it makes me think of inaction. I feel more animated by the experience of anger.

Anger has been a primary animating force in social movements since forever.

Right. And despair is often talked about as, “Oh, we can’t despair.” But I think that’s okay too.

I’m all about the despair, and the pain.

As long as my anger gets me out of that and into another space, right? As long as I don’t wallow in it, it’s okay. This moment is worthy of despair.

As a therapist would say, despair is an appropriate reaction to the situation.

What about you? What are your feelings about anger as part of your narrative?

There’s a whole chapter in my book about my discomfort with the concept of hope, sort of a preemptive move on my part, maybe. And yet that’s also the number one question I get: how do we have hope, etc.

How do you handle that question?

I like what the visual artist Chris Jordan did. I wrote about this in my book—he was asked how people could find hope in his work, and he was like, “That isn’t my job. I’m an artist.” So I’ve stolen that line: It’s not actually my job to give you hope. But, as you say, it depends on the context. If someone’s in tears, asking me how to have hope, I’m not gonna say, “Welp, that’s not my job!” But I do think it isn’t. The job of a writer is not necessarily to provide solutions—it’s to draw attention and seek truth, which is kind of a different thing than a solution.

The way I figured out how to pivot that question is to say that the hope is in the messiness, the process of accepting what’s happening—what we did—and allowing our terrible feelings about it, and then figuring out how to care for each other as it continues to happen. That act of care is the thing I feel most hopeful about. But I don’t feel very hopeful about the climate, and I think it’s okay to say that.

I actually didn’t think about anger as a presence in my book until I was doing the audiobook. The director, Christina Rooney, was clearly trained in somatics—she helped me through reading aloud some of the more difficult passages by leading me through breath work. She’s amazing. She paused me at one moment when I was narrating a scene about my chronic pain, and she was like, “It’s good to have anger. But I always ask actors, ‘What is behind the anger? What is the motivating feeling?’ Anger is often a secondary emotion.” And so she gives me therapy right there in the booth! And I’m like, well, I think, in this case, it’s a very pure feeling of being injured, and wrongfully so.

She could hear anger in my voice that I wasn’t aware of, and she didn’t want it to come off as strident. She wanted it to be deeper. That was a lesson for me.

The angriest portion of my book is also a body section, the essay/chapter called “Caution.” In it, I’m roaming the city looking for doctors who will help and not finding them because of a broken medical system. And then I find the birds instead, as a way of finding some degree of a salve. That’s a chapter in which what’s driving the injury is anger—anger turned inward in ways that attack the body and can look like chronic illness that nobody knows how to diagnose or cure.

Or even what it is. There’s such a fine line, in my experience, with knowing. Say, for example, you’ve identified that the anger turned inward is affecting your body. Okay. But then, often I’m listening to very hippie-dippie, sanctimonious health practitioners say that, and I’m like, “No, it’s not.” I am not the cause of my pain.

Exactly. Actually, something is wrong. It’s structural. The problem is real.

To me, that’s a main through line of your book, more so than simply “motherhood.” You’re really looking at structures and connecting struggles around survival and land. The trip to Palestine that you write about was really powerful for me because you’re doing the thing that I love, which is connecting very intimate, bodily micro-attention with a larger sense of justice and action. In your book, Black anger specifically is an incredibly important and present force in connecting systemic wrongs—whether it’s climate, environmental racism, or police abuse.

This is largely a New York book because that’s where I live, teach, and parent. But there are two sections where I leave the city. One of them is the Palestine part and one is in the Arctic, in coastal Alaska. In both those places, I was really interested in talking to Indigenous peoples about what they do with their anger. Out of recognition of it, really. And I also wanted to think beyond Black pain, the way it’s part of the body politic of our nation. How can that connect to thinking about liberation struggles and tactics of survival in other places where people have survived, and are surviving, existential threats?

It was important for me, the more that I became interested in writing about climate and the environment, to be able to talk to people who are experts in survival. By the time I get to the Arctic toward the end of the book, I’m talking to the elders there and asking, “What do you do?” Because I do not know. I genuinely need help working through this. It’s not a literary question. It’s almost a question about health, how to be healthy … How do I not let my anger kill me?


The answer of that Yup’ik elder, who clearly hadn’t let it kill him, was so simple and powerful: “We take care of each other.” And I just knew it to be true. Because it’s something I already knew, right? And I don’t always practice it, or I don’t always see it being practiced. But it made me feel so good to hear him say it, to offer an answer to my very real question.

I love how you point out in the essay that his answer could be seen as a clichéd response. But in this context, from that viewpoint, it was not. Something that I was working on a lot in my memoir was the idea that there’s a huge difference between knowing something and understanding and embodying something.

To cycle back to the garden—that’s a space in which that idea is very obvious. I guess it’s a simpler relationship.

The garden of Manjula Martin. Courtesy of Manjula Martin.

But it’s not all love and roses either. There’s harm, disappointment, failure.

So much failure! And so much delight and surprise. I’m at the third year in this garden, maybe the fourth? Or fifth! Yeah, it’s our fifth spring. It’s interesting how long it takes to even understand how much light we get—it involves spending so much time out there. I’ve only just started to understand why the rosebush never blew up; it just doesn’t get enough light. It’s taken time to understand that.

I mean, that is the thing about gardening: it’s a different timescale. I think that’s why it pairs so well with the concept of large-scale planetary changes. This is happening on a different timescale than we’re used to.

I feel like we should wrap up. But I want to send you some seeds.

Yeah, you want to? I’ll send you some too!

I have to think about what’ll grow there—I don’t want to introduce any invasive species to the Bronx.


Featured image: Photo courtesy of Emily Raboteau.

LARB Contributor

Manjula Martin is author of the national bestseller The Last Fire Season: A Personal and Pyronatural History (2024). She is a co-author of Fruit Trees for Every Garden: An Organic Approach to Growing Apples, Pears, Peaches, Plums, Citrus, and More (2019), which won the 2020 American Horticultural Society Book Award. Martin edited the anthology Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living (2017), and she was managing editor of the National Magazine Award–winning literary journal Zoetrope: All-Story. She lives in California.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!