Jeff Biggers reading from Reckoning at Eagle Creek
Prairie Lights — Oct. 22, at 7:00 p.m.
Author Jeff Biggers is no stranger to Iowa City: He’s the Writer-in-Residence at the University of Iowa’s Office of Sustainability, where he oversees the Climate Narrative Project. Tonight at Prairie Lights, Biggers will be reading from his new book, Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland, a book which has earned the David Brower Award for Environmental Reporting and the Delta Prize for Literature.
The grandson of an Illinois coal miner, Biggers has written on environmental and social movements across the U.S. for decades, exploring topics as varied as how the history of Appalachia has informed the history of the United States, to contemporary fights over immigration in Arizona. His work has appeared in New York Times, Washington Post, The Nation, The Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and NPR.
Little Village recently interviewed Biggers over email about his fondness for Iowa City, what he hopes for the climate movement here and nationally, and why we need progressive journalism and good storytelling to spur social change.
In his latest book, Jeff Biggers covers the history of coal mining in Southern Illinois. — Photo by Miriam Alarcon Avila
Little Village: As a writer, one of your major focuses is climate change. What do you think is the most effective way to communicate about climate change and other environmental issues?
Jeff Biggers: Stories, stories, stories. The City of Literature must now become the City of Climate Action. As the Writer-in-Residence for the University of Iowa Office of Sustainability, I created the Climate Narrative Project as a special media arts initiative to reach across academic disciplines and foster new ways of chronicling regenerative approaches to energy, food, agriculture, water and waste management, community planning and transportation.
We need to become (and train a new generation of) climate storytellers. After decades of chronicling and participating in social justice and civil rights movements, I’m convinced we need to get beyond the hand-wringing, the false arguments the finger pointing, and use the narrative process to both challenge and celebrate ways of living, and to envision and unfold ways for a more viable future. Stories and the narrative process — including film, video, theatre, visual arts, music, etc. — play a crucial role.
You spend a lot of time in Iowa City and you also write a lot about environmental and other movements nationally. How do you think that those in Iowa City can and should be involved in fights across the state and the country?
I love Iowa City, and with its University of Iowa bedrock, and a thriving local foods and permaculture movement and determined climate advocates, our river town is wonderfully positioned to play a lead role — a showcase role for the state and nation — as a regenerative city in the heartland.
Last spring, Iowa City hosted an “Ecopolis” show as a way of building on our city’s and campus’s notable sustainability efforts and taking the next step toward rethinking our community as a walkable model for renewable energy self-sufficiency, food justice, urban farming and soil carbon sequestration initiatives, among other regenerative ideas.
In 2008, volunteers in Iowa City filled a record six million sand bags to respond to the historic flood. What if we applied that same sense of urgency and investment to build on our current sustainability efforts and create “an ecopolis” showcase in the riverfront district?
Today, it’s en vogue to bemoan the loss of journalism — the general conversation is that we’re seeing “top five” lists replacing long-form, in-depth, and nuanced journalism. Do you think that this sentiment that journalism is going down the drain is appropriate? How have you seen journalism change, and how has it impacted your ability to do the work that you care about?
I’m currently at work on a biography of the first female muckraker — Anne Royall, the godmother of the muckrakers — who took part in the transition of journalism in the early 1800s. I’ve also written extensively about Adolph Ochs and his transformation of the New York Times in the late 19th Century, in a period that everyone bemoaned as the end of journalism, thanks to the penny press.
We are going through a similar transition today, and I am concerned about the loss of so many veteran journalists (and friends) and funds for investigative work, the consolidation and control of corporate entertainment media over community-based media.
But I am also excited about the flourishing role of citizen journalists and new internet media outlets, especially in frontline communities. The challenge, as always, is to find a way to financially support investigative and community journalists — NPR and Democracy Now, for example, rely on fundraisers (donate now!), while others are now using Kickstarter and subscriptions. Times are rough, though, for sure.
I consider myself more of a cultural historian and chronicler than nuts-and-bolts journalist. My exemplar is Studs Terkel, who not only provided an informed and safe place for underrepresented voices in his radio studio, but packed up his microphone and took to the road to make sure the voices from other side of the story, especially on the front lines of injustice, were included in the national story. I also read a lot of poetry, fiction and narrative non-fiction, which keeps me on my toes on the lyrical demands of the trade.
Currently, it’s so easy to see the same story reported again and again in several different media outlets. What publications do you go to in order to find original reporting today? And how do you find original stories in the sea of all this repetition?
The most original stories are in our own backyards. In the haste of much of journalism and its quick-and-dirty exigencies, a lot of important voices in our backyards are overlooked in the process. For me, it’s important to not only chase original stories, but also take the time to become extremely informed about them; most of stories I cover are related to my interests, my expertise, my sense of place; where I’m willing to spend years of my life to understand the minutiae, the back stories, the history.
But, having said that, I also feel like a lot of journalists and writers need to take more time to get out of their comfort zones and allow themselves to hear, see, and experience more diverse voices and stories.
Last summer, for example, I worked with immigrants in Italy, as part of a larger arts project to record the immigrant experiences and voices in both modern times and Ancient Rome. The Sisyphean task of endless interviewing, reading, reading, reading, interviewing — just to become knowledgeable to write about the issue — is part of the writing business I love.
I read a lot, and since it’s my business to know as many sides and voices of the issues I cover, I read and listen across the media spectrum — from Guardian US, New York Times, NPR, Democracy Now and HuffPo, to business and industry journals, to local newspapers like the Press-Citizen, Little Village, to a lot of blogs and nonprofit websites, like EcoWatch. I find Al Jazeera America is doing a lot of original work lately.
As we know, social media is also driving a lot of our journalism — I received so many pieces every day, recommended from friends, which I would probably never see on my own.
How do you balance being a journalist, and being an activist? Do you think it’s possible for a writer to objectively cover a movement that he or she is actively involved in? Moreover, is there even a need for objectivity in this regard, or is objectivity over-rated?
I believe stories matter, that writers and stories play a crucial role in challenging our communities and ways, and in envisioning a different future. The marrow of journalism is providing a honest account of our times, of truth telling, of challenging misperception and propaganda, of making sure all voices in the debate are included, especially those who are having to defend themselves from injustice and corruption and the mayhem of our times.
One of the most important books on journalism for me was The Race Beat, by former New York Times editor and Southern journalist Gene Roberts. Gene recounted the courageous role of (largely Southern) journalists in informing and awakening the nation in the era of segregation, and in chronicling the struggle for civil rights. It wasn’t a matter of being a journalist or activist — it was a matter of bringing the truth out of the shadows, and playing a role in challenging our nation to move forward.