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Reading the Signs

Emily Raboteau, interviewed by Mia Mikki

Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Emily Raboteau

Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Emily Raboteau

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.

In our February 22, 2024, issue, Emily Raboteau reviews Camille T. Dungy’s Soil and Elizabeth Rush’s The Quickening, two books that argue that confronting the climate catastrophe will require embracing values like “stewardship, nurture, and conservation,” concerns that, Raboteau points out, “often stem from motherhood.” Weaving in her own experiences of parenting and climate activism, she joins Dungy and Rush in a feminist reappraisal of “the literary canon of nature writing.”

Raboteau is a regular contributor to the Review, where she has written about subjects ranging from public art to the history of the South Bronx. Her work often combines Black feminist thinking and literary criticism with an abiding concern for communities that bear the brunt of environmental degradation. Her newest book is Lessons for Survival: Mothering Against “the Apocalypse, a collection of essays and photographs knitting together stories of resilience against the varied brutalities of our current climate.

We e-mailed this week about photography, climate action Venn diagrams, and discovering how to survive in the era of the “polycrisis.”


Mia Mikki: In your essay, you quote a line from Camille Dungy’s Soil: “Something in the environmental canon I was trained in did not admit children or the women who raise them.” As someone who writes about her own experiences of motherhood, do you think your approach to your work changed when you had children? And has it changed as your children have gotten older?

Emily Raboteau: My approach to my writing since having kids has changed in at least two big ways. First, I have a lot less time to work, so I have to be more focused and diligent. Sometimes I feel nostalgic about my twenties, back when I was single, when I lived in Sugar Hill, Harlem. Dinner might have been a single artichoke and a glass of red wine out on the fire escape before pulling an all-nighter to make a deadline. Now I try not to pull all-nighters if I can help it! Ironically, I’m more productive than I was back then. I was a binge-writer before I had kids. These days I’m methodical; I write in the mornings. Additionally, my area of interest has shifted to include parenting. My concern for my kids’ welfare is at the heart of most of what I write about now, even though, out of respect for their privacy, I seldom write about them directly.

Both Dungy and Elizabeth Rush emphasize the importance of community for engaging in “radical ecological thought.” Who do you consider your community in the climate fight? How do you conceive of such a community?

I think about community on a local level. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson has a useful TED talk about creating a climate action Venn diagram. The three overlapping circles are “What are you good at?” “What brings you joy?” and “What work needs doing?” At the intersection of those circles is your climate action. I’m good at teaching and writing, and my kids bring me joy. A lot of work needs to be done in the climate fight, and that includes talking about it. The people I already engage with—my colleagues, my neighbors, my students, my family—make up my community in that work. I’m part of my union’s environmental justice working group. I teach climate writing. I cover the climate’s effect on my local habitat and what’s being done about it. Before the pandemic dissolved it, I was part of a neighborhood chapter of the group Extinction Rebellion, but now I’m in a climate reading group with other environmental writers. And I’m educating my kids about the climate crisis and sustainability, as well as advocating for climate curriculum in public schools.

For the Review and elsewhere, you have written about the aesthetics and semiotics of posters and signs. Have you always noticed signs? What about them fascinates you?

I like the wit, brashness, and occasional poetry of signs. There is a tradition of their aesthetic representation—Walker Evans photographed a lot of commercial signage—but I’m more into the substance of messages that people write for one another outside of the marketplace, whether through graffiti, public art, or protest signs made of cardboard. I also like the ripped or disintegrating advertisements you find in the subway, because they evoke time and grit and the work of many anonymous people tearing, performing décollage to create something abstract, often beautiful. 

Sometimes the signs people write are heartbreaking. They cut through the language of the state. At the height of the pandemic, somebody in my neighborhood spraypainted PROTECT BLACK PEOPLE, COVID-19 on a mailbox. It was so tender and desperate, like a prayer. There was another message that proliferated after George Floyd’s murder: ALL MOTHERS WERE SUMMONED WHEN HE CALLED OUT TO HIS MAMA. I saw that sign spraypainted on a boarded-up window during the uprising summer, and I also saw it all over social media, and in different handwriting on the streets of other cities. That message was a blow to the heart. Signs fascinate me because I seldom know who’s written them, even when they speak directly to me. Sometimes, they are poetry. 

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Your second book, Searching for Zion, recounted the ongoing pursuit of a promised land for the Black diaspora alongside your personal struggle to find a place where you might feel at home. At the same time, some of your essays for the Review have evinced a distinct feeling of rootedness, because they often return to the same places—St. Nicholas Park in Harlem, for example. In the ten years since Searching for Zion was published, have you found a physical or spiritual space that you consider home?

Searching for Zion was a book of travel writing driven by curiosity and wanderlust, financed by research grants from my university. I spent a decade exploring Black utopian communities of folks who’d left home—be that the United States or Jamaica or Ethiopia —out of feelings of disenfranchisement and dispossession to seek the promised land. The book’s question was a young person’s question: Where do I belong? In the decade since its publication, I’ve been raising my kids in New York City. Parenthood has certainly rooted me more firmly in place. I consider New York City my physical home and my family to be my spiritual home. I’m no longer young. Now I find the more interesting question to be: What can I do to help?

How does your photography practice inform your writing? Do you consider photography integral or supplemental to your work?

I used to think of it as more supplemental, like notetaking. I’ve always taken visual notes with my camera to record details. When I published Searching for Zion, many readers asked me why I hadn’t included photos. It is obvious from the text that I move through the world with a camera. When Teju Cole published Open City, I wrote to ask him what kind of camera he used while walking New York because he’s such a visual writer. Like Teju, I was also influenced by W. G. Sebald’s habit of punctuating his writing with pictures. Now I think of my photography as more integral to the work. I appreciate the editors who’ve allowed me to use my own photos. Not everyone is open to it.

Your most recent book, Lessons for Survival, grapples with living in a time of “polycrisis,” when there are a number of overlapping social, environmental, and political upheavals. Can you distill the most important lessons you learned from this project?

The lessons I learned were from people in frontline communities—people in my neighborhood, indigenous communities, and my family. One lesson was fugitivity: when something is going to kill you, you run, and it’s better to run when there’s a clear path forward. Another lesson felt like the opposite: when something is trying to kill you, you stay and fight. In both cases, the lesson is that you act in community and take care of others. I used to tell my kids that the most important thing in life is to be kind. Then the pandemic happened, and I thought, no, maybe the most important thing is to be brave. Now I think the lesson is a combination of those two impulses. The lesson is to practice radical care.

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