Assistant professor of creative writing Allegra Hyde has published her first novel Eleutheria last Tuesday. Struggling with issues of political activism, systemic corruption and climate change, the novel follows 22-year-old Willa Marks as she flies to the Bahamian island of Eleutheria to escape heartbreak and join a group of eco-warriors. Much of Hyde’s earlier work, including his collection of short stories Of this new world, discusses the magnitude of climate change and themes of utopianism. Hyde’s writings have been featured in anthologies like America’s Best Travel Writing, Best Travel Writing for Women, The best of the Weband The best short fiction and his work has also appeared in tin house, American short fiction, The Kenyan Review, New England Review, and The Threepenny Review.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was your initial goal when you started working on Eleutheria?
When I started thinking about writing a novel, I knew I wanted to write about climate change. I believe that each person has a sphere of influence, a skill to which they can contribute. And ever since I’ve been a writer, I’ve been like, ‘Okay, what I can contribute to the movement for a sustainable future is to write about it.’ I wanted to use fiction as a space to imagine what it would be like to try to solve climate change instead of ignoring it or doing nothing. I wanted to use fiction as a space to make connections between groups of people over time. It’s something that I think fiction is uniquely suited to do. This is the challenge I set myself at the start of the project.
How was the process of writing this novel?
Well my collection of stories Of this new world was all about utopian imagination, and the stories were written in a variety of genres. There were science fiction stories about a colony on Mars. There was historical fiction about a Shaker village. Each story explored different types of relationships: imagining a better world, losing a better world, trying to make a better world. It’s just been an ongoing fascination for me. I think the real intentional communities that exist in the world, where people step away from the mainstream to try to live differently, to try to solve problems – I admire the courage it takes to do that. I also recognize that these intentional communities often come up against many challenges – humans are imperfect and it’s really hard to live up to any ideal. So I’ve always been really fascinated by that, and that showed up in my first book. There was one story in particular in this collection called “Shark Fishing”, also located in the Bahamas. It was the longest story in the collection, but I felt like there was more to tell. So I used this short story as a springboard to also move forward with a novel. The novel isn’t an exact extension of that story, but it grew out of that initial effort to talk about what I wanted to talk about.
It took me more than five years to write this book. It was a long trip. Being a writer is also a constant struggle to figure out how I can make time for myself to write while making sure I have a place to live and something to eat. I moved around a lot during this period, looking for opportunities. I lived in Bulgaria at one time. I lived in Houston for a while. But the writing process was all about extensive research, reading about climate change — and people’s projections of climate change — reading about utopian communities, and researching the legacy of colonialism in the Bahamas. Also, learn about the patterns of idealism and exploitation that unfolded in the Americas. It was like 1,000 drafts. It took a long time to figure out the shape of the book, to figure out how to best position the material.
What do you want your readers to take away from the novel and your work as a whole?
I want readers to leave the book with an idea of the complicated legacy that has brought us to this moment. Climate change is vast and linked to so many other forces that have manifested themselves throughout history: white supremacy, colonialism, extractivist mentality and misogyny. They all play a role in getting us to where the world is right now. This legacy must be taken into account and taken into consideration as we plan how we will resolve the future, so I want readers to understand this story. But at the same time, I also hope people leave the book with a sense of agency and optimism. This book aimed to balance that reckoning with a sense of hope. That’s what I was trying to leave for readers. I don’t think you can just have one or the other; you need both. That’s where I was trying to go.
What were your biggest influences while writing this book?
At Amitav Ghosh The great inconvenience was really helpful. He was talking about how literature could do a better job talking about climate change and imagining alternative scenarios for the future. I really took the criticisms Ghosh was making to heart and used them as a touchstone. Another book that had a big influence on me is that of Dr. Micah White. The end of the dispute, which is a book about activism and how it needs to evolve to effectively deal with today’s crises. I found it really inspiring, and my novel speaks in many ways about social movements, activism and the ethics of activism.