Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists and special award recipients for the publishing year 2015.
The Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award goes to an individual or institution who contributes to American arts and letters and has made significant contributions to book culture. Past recipients include Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison. This year, it is awarded to 81-year-old environmentalist, farmer and writer Wendell Berry. His body of work includes eight novels, two short story collections, 28 volumes of poetry, and 31 volumes of nonfiction. In his latest essay collection, Our Only World, Berry explores energy conservation, capitalism and climate change.
Christina Berke: What do you hope this prestigious award will help you do?
Wendell Berry: My side on the issue of land use has not much standing and receives little notice, although most of the land that’s now in use is seriously and dangerously abused. Any notice or prestige that comes to me, I hope, will increase a little the standing of my side.
CB: In your essay/speech “Local Economies to Save the Land and the People” you outline 12 ways to save the people and the land. Most of these center around community and household action. How can we make these relevant and concrete to our youth, or more particularly, college-age students?
WB: The economy that people actually depend upon for food, clothing, and shelter cannot dependably be invented and imposed by corporations in the best interest of the land and the people. People can defend themselves and their places only by making their household and community economies as diverse, coherent, and self-sufficient as possible. Most colleges are not going to teach this. Most professors don’t know it. Young people will have to learn it from parents or other elders or historical examples, and of course from their own reading, observation, and experience.
CB: You said that the use of fossil fuels is “certainly one of the most urgent public issues of our time” yet it is increasingly used in products like cosmetics and fabrics. How realistic do you think it is to see a notable change within the next few decades?
WB: “Realism” is a false standard. First, we would have to define what is real. The question that interests me is not what is realistic, but what makes sense. Because people have minds, a part of their health is in using their minds to make sense. You can make sense without knowing what will happen in “the next few decades.” Nobody does know that, and so we had better make sense.
CB: Local organic farming and the reduced use of fossil fuels are two suggestions you mention to help conserve our resources. However, this is increasingly difficult in low-income communities such as East Harlem and South Los Angeles. What are practical solutions for people living in poverty who care about the environment?
WB: There are in many cities vacant lots and other abandoned lands that can be used for food production, and in many cities this use is established and ongoing. This obviously is useful. And it is instructive, it carries thought, it reduces helplessness and passivity in a good way. But this is a complex problem, which I can suggest by saying that from the point of view of farmers food is too cheap, but it is too expensive from the point of view of poor people.
CB: In “A Narrative For Our Future” you said, “We are always ready to set aside our present life, even our present happiness, to peruse the menu of future exterminations” and that “The present is going by and we are not in it.” How can individuals be more present yet be proactive for their futures?
WB: I think that our cultural and religious traditions have instructed us well enough about our ordinary, everyday responsibilities to the present: Be neighborly, don’t be wasteful, clean up your own messes, perform the small tasks and duties in the right way at the right time, etc. This is all we owe, and all we can pay, to the future.
CB: You advise to worry less, appreciate the day and all that is good in it, provide against want, prepare for tomorrow by doing the right things today, and not waste or destroy anything of value. What other things are you teaching your children and grandchildren, and what do you hope they will teach theirs?
WB: The importance of loving your family, your neighbors, your enemies, and of being loved. Everything else of importance derives from that. I tell my grandchildren again and again, “You don’t belong to yourself.” I’m hardly the only one who has ever said that, but it’s the right thing to say to young people, even though they may not know it for themselves as soon as they will need to.
The author of more than 40 works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, Wendell Berry has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, a National Institute of Arts and Letters award for writing, and a Lannan Foundation Award for Non-Fiction. His books include the novel Hannah Coulter, the essay collections Citizenship Papers and The Way of Ignorance, and Given: Poems, all available from Counterpoint. Berry's latest works include Our Only World: Essays and The Mad Farmer Poems.
Christina Berke grew up in Los Angeles, California. From an early age, she loved libraries and creating stories. She pursued writing throughout high school and college, completing a minor in Creative Writing at UC Berkeley. After teaching English for five years, she decided to fully dedicate herself to writing. In 2015, she moved across the country to pursue her MFA in Creative Writing. Her work can be seen in Thought Catalog, The Odyssey, Eleven and a Half, Literary Orphans, The Underground, The Moorpark Review, and elsewhere. She currently resides in Manhattan and is working on her debut novel. More at www.christinaberke.com.