Our Future Is Not Foreclosed: A Conversation with Emily Raboteau

By Scott BurtonMay 22, 2024

Our Future Is Not Foreclosed: A Conversation with Emily Raboteau

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

LESSONS FOR SURVIVAL: Mothering Against “the Apocalypse” (2024) by Emily Raboteau presents a series of essays that defy characterization. They deal with topics like the climate crisis, street and protest art, street photography, climate injustice, racism, and motherhood. The essays are both personal and global in scope. They are about New York but also about those most impacted by the climate crisis globally and those finding ways to be resilient in dire circumstances. In the collection, Raboteau masterfully examines issues of climate injustice while making the essays intimate and accessible to the reader. The book is at once realistic in the face of daunting social and ecological crises, cautiously hopeful, and deeply humane. I interviewed Raboteau via email.


SCOTT BURTON: Emily, in preparing for Lessons for Survival, you traveled all over New York City, observing and documenting the effects of climate change on the city. What compelled you to go on this journey?

EMILY RABOTEAU: I was intrigued by a road sign that appeared in St. Nicholas Park in Harlem. It was a work of public art by climate artist Justin Brice Guariglia, flashing messages about the climate crisis. It was one of 10 such signs sited in particularly threatened areas of the city and an invitation to confront that threat. I felt invited to go on this journey by Justin’s work and other public artworks appearing in my neighborhood that comment on social and environmental justice.

Through evocative photography, the book memorializes murals of endangered birds on the shutters of local shops. These murals were commissioned by the National Audubon Society Mural Project to generate awareness about impending extinctions. You write that through encounters with these murals, you searched for ways to speak with your young children about the racism they will inevitably face in the United States. Can you tell me about why these murals moved you?

I find the bird murals to be very beautiful. They represent the species of North American birds expected to be extinct by 2080 owing to the climate crisis. So far, 155 species have been painted in my neighborhood, and when the project is complete, there will be closer to 400. I am a street photographer as well as a writer, so I’ve been documenting the murals with my camera and included dozens of those pictures in the book as an act of memorialization. I also documented the Know Your Rights mural series, which is about police brutality and how citizens in threatened communities like ours can protect themselves from the police. These public artworks have helped me think through tough issues on the page and as I’m walking through and living in the city, raising Black sons.

How might parents talk to their children about climate change today?

That depends on how old their children are. I think we need to calibrate our language depending on the age of the child. No matter their age, I think it’s good practice to listen to their questions and anxieties and to point to local actions and solutions underway. Mary Annaïse Heglar has a new children’s book out called The World Is Ours to Cherish, and I appreciate its message, which is that the planet looks very different for children from how it did for us parents, and though so much is dying, there is still so much worth protecting. Intergenerational justice means we will figure out how to protect the world together and not leave the burden to our kids alone.

Justin Brice Guariglia’s Climate Signals series, Governor’s Island, New York. Photo by Emily Raboteau.

Along your journey documenting the impacts of climate change on New York and the human responses to these changes, you make some new friends, like Mik and Luz. Can you elaborate on what you learned about your city through the eyes of these two people?

Mik was my traveling companion across the five boroughs to visit Justin Brice Guariglia’s climate signs. I intuited that confronting the threat posed to the city by the climate emergency would be easier in company than alone. Plus, he served as an accountability partner. I might have stopped at sign three or four instead of hitting all 10 if I hadn’t committed to the journey with Mik. Luz is a friend of mine who has lived in a van since losing everything to Hurricane Sandy. She describes herself as a climate refugee. I’ve learned a lot from her about downsizing and survival.

How has your view of New York changed, having worked on this book? What gives a city vitality? What makes it moribund?

I see New York as vulnerable and awesome. Its vitality comes from its art, its immigrants, its children, its architecture, its public transportation, its edges, and its food. I feel most alive in its parks. What makes a city moribund is disinvestment in public housing, public education, mental health, and drug addiction care. To me, New York feels ill when folks are afraid to ride the subway.

You use the term “climate apartheid” in the book. Can you talk about this concept?

I like how my CUNY colleague Ashley Dawson describes it: “‘[C]limate apartheid’ alludes to the retreat of global elites (who are responsible for the lion’s share of carbon emissions) into various forms of lifeboats, while the global poor are left to sink or swim.” “Climate catastrophe” doesn’t land evenly. It’s racialized. We saw that with Hurricane Katrina. Rising seas, failing crops, and intensifying weather events (wildfires, hurricanes, floods) are hurting the global poor more and forcing migration. Some project a billion climate refugees by 2050. The systems mobilized to execute climate apartheid include policing, prisons, and borders.

How have your views on climate change evolved since writing this book?

I don’t refer to it as climate change anymore. I refer to it as the climate crisis. It’s much worse than I understood when I started writing this book.

Is the climate movement too white? If so, what is to be done?

In an existential crisis, it’s wise to look for expertise from historically resilient communities that have survived existential crises before. In this book, I looked for wisdom from Indigenous people and Black people.

How does one write in the face of widespread, multigenerational ecological grief?

How does one not write in the face of widespread, multigenerational ecological grief? I started teaching a climate writing class at the City College of New York, where I’m a creative writing professor, so that I wouldn’t be accused by future generations of being blindly deranged.

Could you tell us more about the title of your book?

Well, the subtitle is Mothering Against “the Apocalypse”: I put quotes around “the Apocalypse” because even though these times feel very uncertain and scary, our future is not foreclosed. I also like using “mother” as a verb, in the way feminists Gloria Steinem and Alexis Pauline Gumbs have used it as a proxy for radical care.

Why a series of essays rather than, say, a novel? What do you want this book/style to do?

The writer Brian Dillon has described essays as a natural form for depressed writers. As a depressive, that accorded with me. It’s a mode of writing that allows me to wander. I want the reader to feel that they are walking and thinking with me through big problems but also through my neighborhood. I want the reader to feel less alone, as Mik made me feel less alone when I walked the city with him.

Early in the book, you write, “As much as we may worry about our kids’ future, it’s already here.” While eulogizing your father you quote Birago Diop, “Those who are dead are never gone: / they are there in the thickening shadow … they are in the hut, they are in the crowd, / the dead are not dead.” Lessons for Survival unfolds as a powerful meditation on time. It tackles trauma, memory and forgetting, care and survival. In this book, how do you grapple with received wisdom on the passage of time?

I grapple with it by talking to my ancestors. When my dad died, he became an ancestor. I inherited from him a wall of photographs of our ancestors, who survived unspeakable trauma. He asked them for help when he needed it. Now I do the same. Someone just asked me at a reading what my ancestors tell me when I ask them for intercession. I said, “They tell me to keep going.”


Stay tuned next month for another illuminating LARB conversation, this time between Emily and fellow environmental memoirist Manjula Martin!


Emily Raboteau is the author of Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora (2013), winner of an American Book Award and finalist for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and the novel The Professor’s Daughter (2005). She teaches at the City University of New York.

LARB Contributor

Scott Burton is a librarian and literary interviewer based in San Diego. Feel free to email him at [email protected].


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