Interview with Zakiya McZenkie (@ZakiyaMedia) on nature writing and inclusivity in the eco-movement

Last week, CEM core group member Pooja Kishinani interviewed Zakiya McKenzie, a writer, journalist, PhD candidate in Literature and climate activist who is based in Bristol. Zakiya was appointed as a writer-in-residence by Forestry England last year, and has been an ambassador for the  Black and Green project in Bristol. In this interview, Zakiya shares the themes she explores in her writing, and the ways in which her work has engaged diverse communities on issues of environmental sustainability. She also reflects on the writers that have influenced her work, and what gives her hope for the future.  

Zakiya McKenzie (left) in conversation with core group member Pooja Kishinani (right)

PK:

Hi Zakiya! Thank you for joining me today. Please could you tell us a little more about yourself – who you are, what you do, and if there are any exciting projects you are currently working on.

ZM:

Hi, I am Zakiya McKenzie. I live in Bristol, and I’ve been here for about five years. I was born in London, but I grew up in Jamaica. I returned to England about five years ago. In the scheme of things, England is pretty new to me. Since coming here, I think one of the big differences is that I recognise some disparities – life was nice growing up in Jamaica, mainly because it’s a tropical country, so we did a lot of things outdoors. We also access to things just because it was just the setting. But I when I came back to England as an adult – I left when I was two – I realised that actually the kids that grow up in a city here don’t have the kind of experiences that children in the islands or tropical countries grow up with.

That’s partly because of the climate, but it’s also because in the concentrated urban spaces in England, everything – shops, supermarkets, post offices – tends to be just an arm’s length away. Quite often you don’t see a need to go much further. So I think the work that I’ve done since returning to England, especially with the Black and Green project in Bristol, has been about taking young people, families, children, and saying, look, there’s more than just a city here. It’s because we want people to love nature and the environment so that they are invested in protecting it. I want people to love nature and appreciate it, because it’s lovely to appreciate, but when I do my work I’m also thinking, “how do I get more people to be climate fighters for the rest of society too?”  I do hope I’m inspiring the next generation of environmental justice advocates.

I’m also a writer. Last year, I was a writer-in-residence for Forestry England, that’s where I recognised that I have to do more than just love nature; I have to advocate for it too. We see what’s happening all over the world – we see the wildfires in California and Australia, we see water shortages and also areas where sea levels are rising. My aim is to use the skill that I have – writing – to talk about nature and the climate, and use it for creative inspiration because I cannot simply sit back and watch.

PK:

I agree, and I’m sure that your words will influence the next wave of climate activists. I also think that it’s really important that you raised the point of finding a creative outline to channel your energy in a constructive manner. It reminds me of a project we completed at Climate Emergency Manchester last month – the Student Climate Handbook – where we stressed the importance of acknowledging climate grief and eco anxiety. I was wondering if you also explore similar climate emotions in your writings as well?

ZM:

I don’t think my writing borders on dystopian yet – at least not anything that’s been published so far. The funny thing is I have just finished writing something today that probably will put me in that kind of genre. But I’ve run several writing workshops last year titled ‘Nature Writing Through the Climate Crisis.’ Once again, I must say that this was my first year in the countryside in the rural areas of England. So I was very happy. I think you’ll know that you probably go through a process where you’re very happy and you love it. And then you recognize all the problems, and you become an advocate. It’s kind of a cycle, right? So I was in the very first stage of just being wowed and loving where I was. It wasn’t until I started getting into those workshops that the students and I began to experience eco-anxiety. And we began talking about real physical stress – people were worried about their grandchildren, and not being able to see certain animals or plants because they would be extinct. So  I definitely have those ideas about eco-anxiety and grief, and I think about them a lot too.

Until this point, my work reflects on the pretty things in nature and also on the historical, economic and sociopolitical factors, such as the history of colonialism and the environment in the UK, which is a discussion that needs to be had anyway. In fact, the piece I just finished writing today is about a tree that’s endangered, and almost on the brink of extinction. It was exploited during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Every European country used this tree because it was what they’d build slave ships from. It was just a coveted wood to own. And so in a way, I’m starting to think about these dystopian ideas, because what is the world without this tree, when it has basically built the commerce of this part of the world, and yet we would not even remember it. Nobody even speaks about this tree lignum vitae. So I think in those ways, my work is also looking at the eco anxieties of losing something, and  losing it from a particular place, since this tree is also native to the Caribbean and South America. So it’s losing something from a place that hasn’t even reaped the benefits of it. I think that’s what’s going to start coming through in my work a lot more. 

PK:

Yes I agree, and I also think that in this pivotal moment, the environmental movement has been rightly accused of being dominated by white, middle-class voices. I know that the Black Lives Matter movement has a much longer history, but the recent protests have also highlighted the need for more voices from black and working-class communities in the environment movement, because these are often the groups who have contributed the least to the problem and yet bear the biggest burdens of climate change. Based on this, I was wondering if you could share a little more about your experience as a Black and Green Ambassador. What was the process of building inclusive spaces for marginalised communities to get involved in the climate justice movement?

ZM:

I think first of all, my premise is always that our communities – my community, your community, working class people, poor people – these communities more likely than not have practices that are eco-friendly and sustainable because of an economic need to do so. So you’d wear hand me downs because you have a big sister, who doesn’t need them anymore, right? Well, this is now becoming a trend these days, especially with young people who go thrifting and then create Instagram pages of the stuff that they thrifted. And that is a very privileged way of doing it, although there is nothing wrong with it either. But I think the way we talk about this is what needs to be a bit different, because just because someone posted on Instagram that they went thrifting, is it more eco-friendly than the person who does that because they don’t have the money to buy new clothes? Is the person who does it out of necessity any less recognizable than the person who does it because it’s a conscious effort to be green or more sustainable? So I think that the conversation needs to change because when we did the Black and Green project, we recognised that we cannot go to the Jamaican, Pakistani or Chinese community and be like, oh, we want to get you involved in this eco-movement that you are not involved in. They’re going to be like – “Excuse me, I grow my herbs that they don’t sell in Tesco!” 

So one important thing is we broached the conversation with a different language because when you use terms such as ‘biodiversity’ or ‘sustainability’, quite often people don’t relate to it. We often tell them or remind them that the kitchen or herb garden that they have is the type of thing that someone in the eco-movement would perceive as friendly or sustainable. I think when we approach communities, we have to give them their respect and see them as experts on the things that they know and practice within their culture. One of the ways we do this is by saying, “We believe that you are the expert, and so we want to learn from you and we believe that institutions should be learning from you too.” But we also recgonise the need to talk about climate change, biodiversity and ecology. If anything, we introduce our young people to those terms, which are becoming more popular in the news. We explain to them that we want to stay ahead of the curve so that if they hear these terms again, even though they might not know what it exactly means, they will associate it with what they learnt at the Black and Green project.

PK:

I think that’s a fantastic way to run a project. Some projects still tend to be structured in a top-down approach, where you have people coming in and telling you what to do. But I think bottom-up approaches are more helpful, because it’s a brilliant opportunity for everyone to learn from each other. I really hope we have a project similar to Black and Green implemented in Manchester soon!

ZM:

I hope so too. We spoke to some people at Oxford, but then the lockdown began. I think it’s a good model that should be replicated and funded in other parts of the country too.

PK:

Definitely. I also wanted to ask you if there are any writers that have had a profound influence on you or have changed the way you look at the world? I know this is a difficult question!

ZM:

This is a hard question that I get asked all the time. I should just have a list in my head and then I always think of them when it’s done. t I think lately I’ve been reading a lot of Bernardine Evaristo who won the Booker Prize last year.

PK:

Me too! I just finished reading Girl, Woman, Other last week. I loved it.

ZM:

She is so good! I like Bernadine’s stories and her style of writing because it plays with time and culture. Every single book of hers that I’ve read so far always twists time. The narrative jumps back and forth, and the characters often go way back in time. Yesterday, I finished one of her earlier books – it’s crazy that I can’t seem to remember the title. Anyway, it was about a girl who becomes the mistress of the King of Rome. It goes all the way back to the Roman times, and it transplants a Roman lifestyle into London. It’s set in this place called Londinium, where the top person is a black woman – a girl from Africa, in those times.

Another book by Bernadine that I like is called Blonde Roots. It’s a weird story to read because it’s about the enslavement of African people, but the rules are switched. There’s no way to read that without the middle passage of slavery with white people on the ship, and to my brain it just didn’t make sense because it was so weird to read it! It was also slightly funny when the book describes the Africans going to Europe to hunt for slaves, and they arrive wearing African clothes and are surprised to see snow! I think Bernadine’s writing and the way she plays with time and cultures has influenced me in the last year since I’ve been writing about my position in England.

I would also say the same about Luke Turner who has written a book called Out Of The Woods. He is an English writer, and his book is about grappling with his personality, sexuality, history, and family life. I think, again, I like the books that turn what you expect on their head. I like books that are on the fringes and outside of regular view. So I would say those two writers have influenced me. I also recently read The Color Purple by Alice Walker again. I also remember watching the movie with my mother when I was younger. 

PK:

Oh yes. That’s such a good book. I think the best book I read during the lockdown was Parable of The Sower by Octavia Butler. In fact, she just made it to the New York times Bestseller list too, which was one of her lifelong dreams. 

ZM:

Yeah? I haven’t read that yet! Somebody actually recommended it to me too – I’m going to see if I can get a copy this weekend.

PK:

I have one last question for you, Zakiya. The news in 2020 has been terrifying. We’re witnessing multiple crises, and the pandemic has only exacerbated pre-existing inequalities. What, if anything, has sustained your hope for the future during this time?

ZM:

I recognize that I am a millennial, and I think that the next generation, Gen Z, will be the ones that put in the right work. I think I am finding hope in watching people like you, and other young people and kids putting up a better fight that we did. I know that we don’t want to put everything on younger people, but I think there’s definitely some motivation when I see younger people who have their whole lives ahead of them pushing for climate justice. Then I say, well, you know, I can do it as well.

I’ve also found hope in watching the Colston Statue fall, you know, things that no one asks permission for. I’m a rebel, so I like things that no one is asking permission for. And we know how Gen Z operates and how they use social media. So I think resistance and rebellion is what has politically, culturally and socially motivated people to get better. So for me, lockdown has made me really, really respect the younger generation.

PK:

Thank you so much for answering these questions, Zakiya! It’s been amazing to speak to you tonight. 

ZM: 

Thank you for the questions!

 

 

Check out more of Zakiya’s work on her website and on the Forestry England website too.

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