Climate Fiction for a Change

A Q&A with Top Grad Jumana Esau

Woman at park table behind stacks of books
Jumana Esau is an English major and 2020 University Medalist. She and some of her favorite books are photographed here in the UC Davis Arboretum in June 2020. (Karin Higgins, UC Davis)


UC Davis’ top graduating senior, Jumana Esau, has long been drawn to imagined stories. Her studies at the university have focused on Palestinian injustices, African futuristic works, and the struggles of climate refugees from developing countries. She hopes to use climate fiction to expose inequities and change the world, a goal she’ll be pursuing this fall at the University of Cambridge.

(Learn more about Esau: “Top UC Davis Graduate to Pursue Studies in Climate Change Fiction.”)

Amid wrapping up finals and preparing to graduate, Esau took a moment to share with us her thoughts on climate fiction, and she gave us some great book recommendations.

What led you to this path of study? 

I have always been interested in the emotional dimensions of literature and how that impacts our perception of social issues. Climate change is a particularly relevant issue since it is so polarizing.

Professor Tobias Menely’s “Climate Fiction” course led me down this particular path, since I did not know that a genre of literature about climate change existed.

Although climate change itself is difficult to narrate and represent, stories of climate fiction involve emotions just like any other story: hope, dread, apprehension, etc. I wanted to explore how our affective orientation toward literature and imagined worlds can help with issues that people are facing in discussing climate change. These novels give expression to a moment of planetary crisis without immobilizing their readers with fear.

Jumana Esau. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

In what ways do you think fiction can serve the very real challenges of climate change and climate justice?

When news articles explore possible futures of the world based on emissions, or warn against specific actions, they engage in speculative fiction-making.

My thesis advisor, Professor Menely, discussed the power of climate fiction by stating that our world is organized around narrative. For instance, politicians cannot win elections without an engaging story. Climate fiction narratives are another way we can come face-to-face with a possible future produced by our actions in the present.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 provides a hopeful future where we adapt, whereas Omar El Akkad’s American War presents a somewhat more cynical story. Both are necessary to engage with when thinking about how climate change will impact our standard way of life or exacerbate social issues.

As someone who wants to better the lives of others, I turn to fiction because, according to literary theorist Kenneth Burke, it acts as our “equipment for living.” We use fiction to imagine solutions to the problems of our changing Earth. Creating stories is a first step to action, acting as a kind of preparation for us by projecting strategies for dealing with situations.

What are some of your favorite and most influential books in this realm? 

Thanks so much. And best of luck to you at Cambridge!

Media Resources

Kat Kerlin is an environmental science writer and media relations specialist at UC Davis. She’s the editor of the “What Can I Do About Climate Change?” blog. @UCDavis_Kerlin

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