Ada M. Patterson, an Imagine 2200 finalist, crafts a morbidly beautiful fate for her home country of Barbados.
An interview with Brianna Baker for Grist.
Imagine 2200, Fix’s climate-fiction contest, recognizes stories that envision the next 180 years of equitable climate progress, imagining intersectional worlds of abundance, adaptation, reform, and hope. Read all 12 stories here.
Spoiler alert: This interview discusses Ada M. Patterson’s short story Broken From the Colony. If you haven’t read it yet, go do that now.
Ada M. Patterson has a complicated relationship with water. It reminds her of her home country, Barbados, and calls to mind the coral, the mangroves, and the fish that give the Caribbean Sea its vibrant color and life.
It also threatens to take all that life away. Rising seas and ever-stronger hurricanes driven by climate change threaten the very existence of islands around the world. The danger is particularly potent for Caribbean nations already routinely wracked by devastating storms. “The hurricane season is a regional roulette,” says Patterson, who is currently living in The Netherlands, where she recently finished her master’s in art. “We just don’t know which island is going to get hit the worst or disappear.”
Water also symbolizes fluidity and change — a quality that resonates with Patterson, a trans femme person in the midst of transition. Her powerful short story, Broken From the Colony, a finalist in Fix’s climate-fiction contest, captures that turbulence in stark detail. In it, a hurricane sinks Barbados. The only survivors are trans girls who are taking estrogen, which, it turns out, allows them to breathe underwater. They emerge from the destruction as human-coral hybrids, giving new life to a species facing extinction.
It’s a dark form of optimism, but one shaped by Patterson’s experiences as a trans person in a world that isn’t always understanding, let alone welcoming, of folks like her. “There’s not a lot of support for queer practices in Barbados, because of homophobia and conservatism,” she says. “As a queer person, that experience complicates safety. When safety is a scarce thing, especially in light of seasonal disasters, how do we talk about that?”
But if there’s one thing Patterson is hopeful about, it’s that life will persist after climate-induced disaster — even if survival takes shape in unexpected ways. Fix talked to Patterson about her winning story, as well as the transformative power of a crisis, the colonial legacy that plagues her country, and why connection is key to survival. Her comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Q. How long have you been interested in climate fiction? What drew you to the genre and to this contest?
A. My relationship to writing climate fiction is new. I’m a writer, but I’m also an artist. A lot of my work has responded to experiences of climate crises, specifically intensifying hurricane seasons in the Caribbean. It takes the form of short films, performances, and poetry interwoven into film. I don’t usually write prose.
A lot was going on. I was in my first few months of taking hormones. I was having conversations with queer and trans friends about this experience and trying to find the language to give words to it, and to the grief we’ve all been feeling in light of climate-intensified hurricanes. How do you account for a hurricane not only being a threat, but a promise?
I’m trying to imagine what comes after the grief. Once the island is lost, then what? I appreciate the prompt of the contest: trying to imagine a future that has a sense of hope to it. That was difficult for me. I wanted to approach it in a way that honored the truth of what’s probably going to happen while thinking that there could still be life afterwards, even if it’s not human life.
Q. Your story is far from utopic, but it does hint at what a just and sustainable world could look like.
A. If I’m thinking about a just future, I want to think about a world where trans girls can breathe easier. Because of COVID-related manufacturing and supply chain problems, there has been a hormone drought on the island. I was affected by that, and there were many other trans girls who I know and don’t know who were affected. I wanted to speak to that in the moment. I don’t want this drought, I want the abundance, I want the access, I want everything for us. I want the water to be literally hormone-ized. I want it to be as abundant as oxygen.
I don’t think the character is entirely unhappy with the way things have turned out. She’s on the cusp of getting accustomed to a different world, one that has its own problems. But what’s utopian about it is, her gender doesn’t matter anymore. It’s not going to complicate her capacity for survival. A utopia where there is no gender-specific violence … I don’t have a lot of hope for that. My way of bringing out a world without violence along lines of gender variance was to introduce an incredibly devastating hurricane.
I killed an entire population. That’s a really heavy toll, and I’m not happy about that. I don’t think I could imagine people getting better about trans issues by 2200. It speaks to the kind of violence that people experience on a daily basis and the world that we currently live in. It begs a lot of interesting questions. What will it cost for utopia? Utopia for whom? What will it take? It will take a lot.
Q. Why is it important to bring trans rights and trans safety into the conversation around climate change?
A. On a very basic level, it’s always going to be the most vulnerable parts of society that will feel the worst effects. And that includes trans people of color. In terms of responding to a world that is changing in a very violent way, I think it’s worth speaking to trans people about that. We live in the crux of change and instability at a localized, bodily level. This shit is sometimes hard, and confusing, and complicated, and exciting, and turbulent, and joyful, and terrifying.
It’s useful for me to think of transness in relation to crisis. It’s a very destabilizing force for myself, and also for the structures that I navigate on a daily basis. It makes questions arise. It makes everything slippery and uncertain. It teeters between endangerment and transformation. There’s a lot being risked there, but it could be so worth it.
There’s a lot that you say goodbye to, when you start taking hormones, which mimics the grief that the climate crisis brings on a personal level. Those conversations are very close. And there’s a lot that cis people won’t have experience dealing with.
Q. Community is a big theme in the Broken From the Colony, especially at the end. Would you say community is a climate solution?
A. There is a line [in the story] about crisis pushing people together and how these lines of difference that were drawn didn’t actually matter. What mattered was staying alive, surviving together. That was written from a point of responding to the strange connections, not only human-to-human, that I’d seen happening during Hurricane Dorian in 2019. There were stories of this woman in the Bahamas housing hundreds of stray dogs so that they wouldn’t drown in the rising waters and a fisherman who survived by going out into a mangrove. The mangrove was safer than his own home.
Crisis pushes people to consider other kinds of connections that they wouldn’t usually consider.
As a queer trans person, I see hope in that, because a lot of connections are immediately denied to me because of the body I inhabit. Once things start destabilizing, the values that predetermine my place in society start to slip as well. Therefore connection feels a lot more possible.
Crisis pushes people to consider other kinds of connections that they wouldn’t usually consider. As a queer trans person, I see hope in that.— Ada M. Patterson
Q. Another theme I see is that a crisis can be generative and lead to transformation. How does that apply to climate change, especially in the Caribbean?
A. With hurricanes this intense, it doesn’t matter to the rest of the world if we live or die. If we live, disaster capitalists from the Global North will profit off of our survival. If we die, it’s not really a loss to the empowered world. That’s difficult to parse, thinking about the contracts that our region has been caught up in as it relates to tourism. We have to try so hard to build ourselves back up after a season of disaster, to uphold certain images for other people, other nations, other regions. And these contracts are not beneficial to us in the long term.
The water is already here. For me, it feels like a moment to see what matters when everything you know and love is ready to disappear. It makes you question: Does it really matter if we honor these contracts that we’ve been forced into, that are only there because of our colonial history? Can we imagine different kinds of connection? I haven’t seen the change that I thought I would see from my local government. I was hoping this fear of the climate crisis would push us to move away from what we’ve gotten comfortable with. But it feels like there is no payoff because the crisis came and it’s still coming, and we haven’t changed. For me, that just calls for more crisis. It’s a breakdown rather than a breakthrough.
In relation to the story, I couldn’t imagine a Barbados that had survived above water. Thinking about a population that survives underwater felt like a way of escaping the residues of colonial history on land. At the end, the island is slightly resurfaced, but was washed away, baptized, of everything that has happened there. Looking above, through the rippling ceiling, at the island’s form changing constantly — that, for me, was a different kind of justice for the island itself, where it got another chance. In a future where the island submerges and resurfaces, does its colonial history still exist if it’s a different island? I didn’t want for it to disappear, to be completely forgotten. But I wanted to let the water take it. If the flood was to be apocalyptic, it would end the world that really needed to be ended.
Q. Water takes on a lot of different meanings in your story, including the transformative, cleansing power you were just talking about. What else does water represent to you in the story, and in your other art?
A. It’s this strange place where it feels like you’re nowhere and everywhere at the same time. All the history is there, all the violence, and all the joy, as well. It’s all there, but it’s not rooted. It’s not fixed in any place. On land, you can go to a certain site and know who lived and died there. With the sea, it’s a lot more ambiguous. There’s no sense of a footprint, and there’s something comforting about that. If I look at myself in water, I’m changing, visually speaking, through the ripple. And everything else is changing as well.
I was writing a few different things while writing this story, and I was thinking about the Igbo Crossing, where an enslaved group of Igbo people commandeered the ship and then they envisioned what was ahead of them on this shore, the perils of slavery, and decided to turn back to the water. The mythical side of that story is that they walked all the way back to West Africa. Some versions of the story say they flew there. Others say they walked into the water because they knew that that was a better future than staying on land.
The water will take you where you need to be. Where you need to be might not be the life that you are familiar with. But it might still be better than what the land offers you.