godwit and sandpipers

In Conversation: Christopher Muscato and Hiria Dunning

Extras are bonus content to supplement the work in our issues. In Issue 20, ‘Love in the Time of Te Rāhuinui’ and ‘Birds of a Feather’ have a common thread: birds. While they differ in some ways, in others they speak almost in conversation with one another. To explore that conversation, Hiria and Chris have joined Headland to discuss the interactions within and between their pieces on what form the future of conservation may take, the personal sacrifices made, and how people can be united through caring for nature more than themselves, albeit in different ways. 


Nastasha: What inspired you to use birds—or bairds—in particular as the animal-heart of your story-telling?

Chris: When I first started thinking about ‘Birds of a Feather, even before I had a title or many details worked out, I knew that migration would be the central theme. The story is set in the migration lands, during migration season. The mobility of nature was always central to the story I wanted to tell (and the place of humanity within these cycles of mobility) so birds became a natural point of focus. There seems to be a near-universal psychological connection between avian migration and human attitudes about freedom of movement. That’s a theme I think ‘Love in the Time of Te Rāhuinui’ touched on beautifully as well. Both Claire and I use avian mobility to explore concepts of human mobility in relationship to nature and the climate crisis, and I think it’s really fun how our similar focuses yielded different approaches. 

Claire Hiria: Ever since I first learned about the kuaka I've been fascinated by their biannual journey. It's so extreme, and takes them to such remote places. You know how when you have a crush on someone, you pay more attention to things about them? It was like that for me with the godwits. I'd notice when they came up in the news, or if I learned a new whakataukī that mentioned them it would feel more meaningful than any other given proverb. This was all happening for me around the time of the lockdowns, so like Chris is saying, I think there was a strong link for me between human constrainment versus avian movement. 

Nastasha: Have you worked with birds yourself? Are you involved with conservation in any form (even if it’s just using a recycling bin at home)?

Chris: I wouldn’t say I’ve ever worked with birds, but I have been a hobbyist birder and illustrator since childhood. I’ve always loved birds. As for conservation efforts, I’m currently working with an Italian team of conservation biologists (whose work actually inspired parts of ‘Birds of a Feather’) to implement a form of solarpunk nomadism in their country. They’ve been building prototype solar-powered vans and electric bicycles to promote mobility as a form of climate resilience. Their ultimate plan is to establish communities of nomads who can move into Central/ Southern Italy during the cooler winter months, and move north in summer to escape the heat/humidity (the heat index in Southern Italy reached lethal levels this last year). We’ll be testing some of these technologies on a journey through the Alps later this summer. 

Claire Hiria: Um … wow! Chris, that sounds so amazing! I'm afraid any conservation work from me has been pretty restricted to standard recycling programmes here in Tāmaki Makaurau, very sporadic attendance at local cleanups and tree plantings, and the occasional donation here and there mostly to national or local conservation projects and reserves. But once my kids are a bit more grown up, and now that I've had surgery which has addressed a major mobility issue I had since my teen years, I'm hoping I'll be able to get out there and be more physically helpful with local efforts. I work in tech too, but nothing nearly so cool as what you've just told us about. Maybe there's an opportunity for me to look into a career shift!

Nastasha: I might shift careers too—that sounds incredible. Speaking of personal changes, personal and societal sacrifice or selflessness are strong themes through both of your works. Are you hopeful that society is capable of banding together in the ways explored in ‘Love in the Time of Te Rāhuinui’ and ‘Birds of a Feather’, either in New Zealand or globally?   

Claire Hiria: I have to admit, a lot of what I've seen in the world over the last few years has dented my optimism! I threw a little of that scepticism into the character of Ingrid in the hopes that people wouldn't accuse me of lacking nuance...but I try to rise above the beaten-down feelings and hold to my belief that most of us are fundamentally on the side of 'good'—and by good I mean valuing life and dignity, hopefully not just of humans but of animals, plants, the whenua and moana. But rather than just hoping in an empty sense, I see it as my job as a writer to be...not exactly didactic about it, but to strongly present my arguments and my beliefs out there in fictional form so that others can either learn a new way of thinking, or have their own similar way of thinking reinforced. 'Ah, someone feels the same as me', or 'I didn't see it that way before, but now I'm considering it.' 

Chris: I think that hope is central to most climate fiction. Most of us don’t write with the intent to convince the reader that the end is both nigh and inevitable. Both of our stories focus on interpersonal relationships forged amidst changing circumstances, and I think that will be the bedrock of our ability to come together and adapt to the challenges ahead. 

Claire Hiria: We have a difficult time ahead of us, but—as Chris says, interpersonal relationships are the bedrock—so that we don't feel so alone going into the challenges of the future. Fiction, to me, is a part of that. 

Actually, Chris, the topic we were just on before makes me wonder about your thoughts on 'human nature'. I feel like we're so often told what human nature is, but it's the speakers' unexamined bias that's being presented, rather than a universal truth. It's always that humans are so selfish and competitive, and ignoring the ways that we can and do come together to co-operate and strive. (Look, I'll be honest, I'm a huge Star Trek nerd, so my tastes tend towards the hopeful). My biggest hope is that we surely do have the capacity to change. Like so many other animals, the godwits have these rituals they've been performing for—honestly, I have no idea how long, thousands of years? Tens, hundreds of thousands? Then we come in, with our clumsiness as a powerfully inventive species (trying to phrase it as positively as I can!), and we've thrown a lot of them into disarray. Just before writing ‘Te Rāhuinui’, my life was in disarray too, navigating being a mother to a toddler and working full time remotely during a pandemic. Coming out of that time, it just made me think, what would it take for us to change? Some places in the world, the value was placed more on money, and people were thrown into the meat grinder of a pandemic in the name of business-as-usual. Here in Aotearoa, for a time, there was an attempt to value human life. It wasn't perfect, but to me it mattered that we tried. I still haven't fully unpacked what any of this means to me about 'human nature'. But I continue to explore it, through ‘Te Rāhuinui’ and other pieces I've worked on/am working on. This is our job, as writers, right?

Chris: Great questions, Claire! I absolutely agree that this is our role as writers. We’ve all had that experience of reading something that was able to help you better understand your own perspective, philosophy, or way of seeing. There’s a truth that comes from writing (and one of the reasons I admire poets so much is their ability to do this in the most distilled manner). As for the questions of human nature, I do believe it is inherent within us to function as part of natural ecosystems. Scientific studies support the idea of our mental and physical health benefiting from being among trees, watching the water, making contact with soil, etc. However, the Industrial Revolution severed many of our cultures from traditions and customs that supported those ways of knowing and being (in my opinion). It still exists, but it’s harder to access. For example, here in the US we are surrounded by Native communities that maintain generations of traditional ecological knowledge, but we continue to silence those voices. All around the world, I think that prioritising TEK as part of our ecological sciences will be crucial to restoring a sense of balance between people, land, and life. I’d love to know more about how Aotearoa is engaging with these ideas. Even in ‘Love in the Time of Te Rāhuinui’, this idea emerges about learning from the natural behaviours of the godwits, and using these to connect with each other. Loved that. Loved how the story got me thinking about the fact that, once upon a time, two cultures thousands of miles apart were both observing this phenomenon of godwit migration, each seeing only part of the story and knowing that the rest was unfolding somewhere else. And those cultures managed to observe and coexist alongside the godwits for thousands of years prior to colonialism without disrupting them. We can too, if we make that our priority. 

Claire Hiria: And another question/topic from me: I'm curious about a lot of the scientific content in ‘Birds of a Feather’, in that I'm not a highly technical person myself, but your level of detail is very convincing. Since you're working in or adjacent to a lot of these concepts in your industry, I wonder, how much of what you've written in ‘Birds of a Feather’ is science fiction right now, and how much is science fact, even if just in sort of prototype stages? (And on a side note, I absolutely adore the idea of software update via birdsong). Oh and before you ask me the same question back, it's all just hand-wavey sci-fi tech in mine. I guess datapegs could work with Bluetooth, but how they'd keep an electrical charge to retain that data and not just die … no idea! Maybe solar, or kinetic … again, I'm woefully non-technical, despite working in tech.

Chris: Here, you’ve called my bluff! Ironic to say this since you work in tech, but I’m a bit of a luddite. My Italian friends are designing their solarpunk nomadism technologies, I’m just helping them test it (and of course, I’ll be writing about it). I’m actually a historian by trade. For my writing, I read articles on scientific and technological breakthroughs related to the climate crisis, and I try to be diligent in my research, but I personally am not very good with tech. My approach is that of a writer, real enough to seem feasible but speculative enough to provoke imagination and inspire hope for a better future. But I found the tech in your story also very believable and thoughtful, and I think that as science fiction writers, that is our goal more often than not. When stories get too technical it stifles the imagination, and I think leaving that question of ‘how could this be accomplished’ somewhat open-ended is crucial to generating the awe, wonder, and inspiration that science fiction can offer. 

Claire Hiria: I want bairds to exist. I really want them to! And I just loved that final note of your piece, where sure, the bairds are something that has been created, but there is that hint that they will become more. They will, in their own way, evolve. But unlike how introduced pests adapt to new places and change them for the worst, this time we're going in with better foreknowledge of consequences, so it's so hopeful about what's to come. I loved that. 

Chris: I want them to exist too! Part of the fun of being a writer, right? I was recently working with a Diné sensitivity reader who told me that technology which helps people is like medicine, and I loved that sentiment. Technology is integral to both of our stories, but it is never separate from either nature or our own humanity. 

Claire, if I could ask: what do you see for the future of climate fiction? The genre is becoming more recognised, so where do we as writers go from here? I’d love to know your approach to writing climate fiction. How do you start? What makes for good climate fiction in your eyes? What are your goals when writing? What boundaries should we, as writers, be pushing next? The climate fiction community is so diverse and imaginative, I love getting to know writers and their perspectives. 

Claire Hiria: It's such an interesting question, because it feels like there are two major avenues that imagining climate futures can go down. There's a terrible instinct (and I think this ties back to my thoughts on human nature) to go down this dark path of eco-fascism, of Malthusian philosophy, where there's a drive to punish humanity for being so wasteful, a need to curtail our population by authoritarian means because the masses are perceived as too selfish and stupid to do it without draconian guidance. I think it's no surprise that philosophers started to really bring this stuff up around the start of the Industrial Revolution, this idea that there are too many people. The ideas go hand in hand with that disconnect you mentioned earlier between many humans and nature as we became more urban. We start to perceive other human beings as pests, much like how we've utterly discarded the humble pigeon now as a kind of flying rat, when there was a time that we encouraged them, used them, worked with them. So to bring it back to the question: I think that's a boundary we ought to get past, that climate fiction ought not to be grim-dark and edgelordy. I think it's important to the human spirit that we go down that other avenue, the one where we uplift and acknowledge humanity as a part of nature, and prepare to assume a role of custodian and participant in nature, rather than willful and ignorant destroyer (though I think we ought to acknowledge our crimes against nature too, but it's important not to be weighed down by them to the point of apathy!). I'm not always writing climate fiction, but I find that the themes can come out when I least expect them even in other fictions. That makes sense to me, because it's so in the zeitgeist right now, it's constantly weighing on me—especially as someone who has chosen to bring children into the world, to be part of that chain of reproduction, to whakapapa all the way back to the primordial forms of life—it makes sense that in the times we live in, themes of climate destruction and protection come through. When purposefully writing climate fiction, I don't go in trying to be didactic, but I search for the story first, the emotional core of it, and then after that I try to make sure that the morals or lessons resonate properly with my ethics. I was never going to leave Ingrid embittered by the world keeping her and Noah apart. She was always going to have to learn and accept—in different ways, which I explored over various drafts—that the continuity of life was not only more valuable to her personally, but that upholding it was actually the best way to express her aroha to Noah, to the godwits, and to the world. How about yourself?

Chris: That was beautifully said! I think you pulled off that balance wonderfully in your story, moving from love to loss to acceptance to purpose to hope as seamlessly as if each were a stage in a migration. And then, returning to hope feels like the migration back to the original nesting grounds where something new can be born (I love that we can couch this entire conversation in bird metaphors). I agree with the need for that ultimate bend towards optimism, and in fact it was a large part of why I moved into climate fiction. I started by writing a broad range of speculative genres. I really enjoyed reading climate fiction, but I was concerned by how many stories I encountered that presented eco-fascism, authoritarianism, and Malthusian logic uncritically, as if these outcomes were simply a natural byproduct of the climate crisis. So, I started writing stories that didn’t rely on those tropes, and in fact both personal liberty and collective goodness are themes that are central to all my climate writing. This has led me to a distinct focus on mobility as part of climate resilience, and many of my stories revolve around migration (this one, obviously, being among them). I’m calling this style nomadpunk (basically solarpunk built around nomadism) although I by no means expect anyone else to!

Nastasha: Well, I for one hope to be reading more nomadpunk in the future! Thank you both so much for giving us a peek behind the curtains of your writing. 

Photo credit: John Wijsman

Nastasha Rau

Nastasha Rau has recently completed her undergraduate in Creative Writing and Biological Science at Massey University.  She enjoys existing in the space between science and art, and drinking copious amounts of tea. 

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