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On nature writing & diversity, By Anita Sethi.png

On nature, nature writing & diversity, my guest editorial for NB Magazine (Autumn 2018 issue).

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I write this as the heatwave of mid-Summer has cooled and a welcome breeze rustles through the trees. Some leaves are already losing their greenness and turning into a burnished copper hinting at the coming Autumn. But I’ll move now from the leaves of trees, to leafing my way through books – and there are many great books covered in the latest issue of NB Magazine.

This issue focuses on Nature Writing and Diversity in Publishing and it’s interesting to consider those two topics between the same covers of a magazine, for although nature writing has been a flourishing field in the past few years with some exciting new voices, it is still woefully lacking in diversity.

There have been some calls to change that and introduce a new lease of life into the genre of nature writing with an energetic crowdfunding campaign this year raising enough funds for Women on Nature, a new anthology published next year edited by Katharine Norbury to which I’ll be contributing.  Another contributor will be author Melissa Harrison and I’m delighted to have interviewed her for a Q&A for this issue of NB Magazine about her excellent new novel All Among the Barley, which has also received a glowing 5* review in the magazine.  Harrison also edited a series of four anthologies, Seasons, to which I contributed a piece, and she has written the foreword to a new book, Waymaking (published this Autumn), an anthology which includes women of colour and First Nations women and is definitely one to watch out for.

The shortlist for the Wainwright Golden Beer Book Prize for UK Nature and Travel Writing  is also covered in the magazine and includes one of my personal favourite books from the past year, The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, a glorious ‘spell-book’ bringing to life words associated with nature but which were deleted from the Oxford Junior Dictionary and replaced by technological words (“For ‘blackberry’, read “Blackberry”, writes Macfarlane in his book Landmarks, in a section exploring this crisis). The lost words here recovered include acorn, adder, bluebell, bramble, conker,  dandelion, fern, goldfinch, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, magpie, newt, otter, raven, starling, weasel, willow, wren. With magnificent illustrations from Jackie Morris and magical spells from Robert Macfarlane, the book shows how that which has been lost or overlooked can be powerfully brought back to life, if we care enough to do so.

It’s important to consider the word ‘diversity’ in all its meanings: the diversity of diversity, as it were.  The Lost Words shows why linguistic diversity is important and indeed why biodiversity is.  Our planet needs biodiversity for its very existence but humans are threatening that. There are millions of different species of plants and animals on the planet. But extinction rates are soaring.

Nature writing at its finest reminds us of just how we are not separate from but a part of nature; how trees, for example, produce oxygen that sustains our very existence.  I was once lucky enough to go birdwatching with Margaret Atwood in one of the UK’s oldest nature reserves, Wicken Fen, as the setting for an interview and she pointed out that the awareness of the relationship between humans and nature is crucial. “Nature is inside you. You just breathed some of it in.”  For Atwood, loving one’s neighbour means loving the air in their lungs: “You have to love their oxygen, therefore you have to love what makes their oxygen. The natural world isn’t apart from us.”  (On the topic of birdwatching, there’s also a piece in the magazine from Eva Meijer, a Dutch artist, writer, philosopher and singer-songwriter).

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We need to have a basic respect for nature and for all human beings, wherever in the world they might come from. The need for regional diversity, that is, diversity of place, has been recognised in Hometown Tales (published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson), a collection of books which is featured in the magazine, and a series which “aims to celebrate regional diversity” and pairs new voices with established authors.  In an industry which has for far too long been London-centric, it’s refreshing to find this initiative.  Areas covered by Hometown Tales include Lancashire, Yorkshire, Birmingham, Midlands, Glasgow, and Highlands and Hebrides.

It was disappointing that not one writer of colour is on the Wainwright prize list, showing how lacking in diversity the genre still is.  Heartening moves to address this include a recently founded online journal The Willhowherb Review edited by Jessica J Lee dedicated to providing a platform to celebrate and bolster nature writing by emerging and established writers of colour.

Diversity covers an intersection of issues including race, class, gender, geography, and other aspects which might lead to marginalisation.  On the topic of class, keep your eyes peeled for a new anthology published next year edited by Kit de Waal to which I’m delighted to be a contributor: Common People will feature new voices alongside established writers from working class backgrounds including Malorie Blackman, Damian Barr, and Cathy Rentzenbrink.  Diversity in publishing is very much in the spotlight, and initiatives to increase it include a new imprint at mainstream publisher, Little Brown – Dialogue Books is run by Sharmaine Lovegrove who features in this issue of NB.

We are living in a time in which people are forced to flee their homes in heartbreaking numbers, and this issue of NB Magazine also features the moving Shatila Stories, written by nine Syrian and Palestinian refugee writers. 

This NB issue also includes interviews with Preti Taneja who won this year’s Desmond Elliot Prize, Amer Anwar whose work has been acclaimed by Ann Cleeves, Ami Rao who co-wrote with Declan Murphy the book Centaur, winner of General Outstanding Book of the Year at the Sports Book Awards 2018. There’s also a retrospective on the great Zadie Smith whose excellent collection of essays published this year, Feel Free, I’d highly recommend reading.

“People exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love, and to defend what we love we need a particularising language, for we love what we particularly know”, wrote essayist and farmer Wendell Berry (a quote I first learned from Robert Macfarlane when I interviewed him in Wandlebury Woods, Cambridgeshire).  I think that applies to people as well as places, and history shows us how people of colour as well as other marginalised people have been exploited and still continue to be so.  Through enabling more voices to be heard, we can come to know and love all of humanity.

Here’s hoping that the coming year will bring greater understanding of the urgency and necessity of celebrating diversity in all its forms – from biodiversity to human diversity to linguistic diversity – and how this stands to enrich each and everyone of our lives.

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