Q&A with David Huebert: ‘Chemical Valley’ & Gasoline Rainbows

Supriya Saxena

David Huebert’s story collection, Chemical Valley (224 pages; Biblioasis), explores the ways in which humans cope with living in an imperfect and polluted environment. The stories are varied, featuring oil refinery workers, teenage climate activists, long-term care nurses, and more, showing the issues and intricacies of their lives in lush detail. The grim explorations of wealth inequality, illness, and bereavement are counterbalanced by the rich and lyrical prose, providing heartfelt insights into today’s damaged world and the individuals who inhabit it. 

Huebert’s writing has won the CBC Short Story Prize, The Walrus Poetry Prize, and was a finalist for the 2020 Journey Prize. His work has been anthologized in Best Canadian Stories and The Journey Prize Stories. He teaches at the University of King’s College in K’jipuktuk/Halifax.

Huebert recently spoke to ZYZZYVA via email about Chemical Valley.

ZYZZYVA: Many of these stories deal with ugly, unpleasant subjects, but your prose remains beautiful and evocative throughout. In one story, you describe the visual beauty of oil even as you show how the natural gas industry destroys lives. What motivates you to write about these unpleasant subjects in such a lush manner? 

DAVID HUEBERT: Part of my job as an eco-fiction writer is to cultivate environmental love and appreciation of the myriad beauties of non-human life. One of my goals in this book is to demystify oil, to illuminate its ecology and materiality. So often oil travels unseen through bowsers and media headlines. For me it’s important to show that oil itself is not an evil thing. In fact, it is very beautiful, as a quick image search for “Bitumen” will show you. Undisturbed, it is morally and ethically neutral. I think if we saw oil as a naturally derived substance with its own deep history, we might treat it more respectfully, cautiously, curiously, or reverentially. We might learn to love it, to see it as a gift. Maybe we would at least look at it twice before labelling it “resource” and moving it through the (conveniently invisible) pipelines of industry.

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There is an intrinsic and troubling beauty to toxicity. Just think of gasoline rainbows in puddles or the amplified sunsets over Sarnia. It really is a new sublime. Here I’m inspired by artworks like Warren Cariou’s “Petrography” project and Mark Quinn’s “Toxic Sublime.” You might say there is a danger here: what is the line between exposure and reverence? But I don’t think anyone really wants to celebrate toxicity. When we see poison rendered beautifully, we feel a little tingle of unease in our spine. That’s what I was going for here.

One of my broader goals as a fiction writer is always to pivot subjects toward the unusual and the unexpected. Most of the writers I admire do this really well. Alice Munro is a good example. In Munro’s work, what you think you’re seeing at first is never what you get at the end. We meet an abusive character, write him off as cruel and wicked, then see the underbelly of his character exposed, pale and tender. I suppose I’m attempting an ecological version of that kind of pivot.

Z: These stories are filled with lonely people: a man misses his recently deceased mother, a new mother feels neglected by her husband, a divorced hockey player searches for a new partner using Tinder. Loneliness seems increasingly common in our modern world, and the pandemic has certainly exacerbated this. What draws you to these lonely people, and has the pandemic changed how you view this aspect of the stories?

DH: Humans have always been lonely, and much of our best art has arisen from our inability to perfectly or finally connect. (I’m thinking of The Epic of Gilgamesh as well as Billy Ray Belcourt’s recent memoir, A History of My Brief Body.) We’re profoundly social animals, and we’re also seekers, strivers. This means we’ll never be quite satisfied with what our lovers give us, we’ll never feel socially whole. I look at my children with a dizzying and overwhelming love which they reciprocate simply and easily. But I also know that they need me less and less each day, that they’re pulling away. Loneliness is beautiful and universal and agonizing. It’s also a great conduit for fiction writing because it gives energy to characters as they search and fail to find one another.

We live in a very particular formulation of loneliness. On one level we’ve never been so connected, but most of us find our online connections to be fundamentally vacuous (another good example of the paradox of desire—we can never be “liked” enough online). Technology is a big theme across my work, as characters try to navigate the increasingly tenuous lines between the so-called natural and the so-called artificial, trying to find something genuine in the murk.

But I also think our current world is an ecologically lonely place. The Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the term “solastalgia” to describe “the distress caused by environmental change.” We can link this to climate change but also to extinction and urban life. What does it mean to live in a city? I think it deflates us to not be around plants and animals—the more charismatic creatures and trees but also the insects, the fungi, the microbiomes. It is this atmosphere of eco-melancholy I was reaching for and working through in Chemical Valley. This is one reason why my characters are often lonely; together they pine for the lost and unrecoverable world of ecological plenitude that resides in our collective past.

Z: Several of these stories are connected to each other, some sharing the same characters and others sharing the same setting of Sarnia, Ontario. The weekly testing of the gas leak alarms in Sarnia is also mentioned in several stories. What were you hoping to create through this interconnectedness?

DH: There hasn’t been much fiction written about Sarnia, and I think it’s a fascinating and troubling place to explore. The air quality is the worst in Canada, sixty-two petrochemical refineries hunch on both sides of the river, and the oil industry has gradually encroached on and stolen the lands of the local Aamjiwnaang community, which they now abuse with regular leaks and constant “low-level dread.” Most people across Canada don’t even know about the situation there. But for me Sarnia also stands as a kind of every-place, a symbol of our global relation to toxicity—there is always a refinery or a generator or some industrial ticking time bomb around the corner. What does it mean to live like this? The alarms being tested every week are the ecological alarms to which we’ve all become woefully desensitized, by turns panicked and despairing, all of us sensing the enormity of this situation that we are all but powerless to change. Of course, there are crucial degrees of separation. Levels of exposure are not universal; they are dictated by factors like environmental racism and socio-economic status. But none of us are immune to toxicity.

Z: Many of these stories focus on death, of both people and animals. Despite this, the stories achieve a gritty sense of optimism. As a writer, how do you strike that balance between conveying environmental destruction yet leaving the reader with some sense of hope? 

DH: “A gritty sense of optimism”—I love that! If there’s anything I’m going for here, that’s it.

I’ve been asked about optimism a lot lately, and I have to admit I’m cautious around the idea. If hope is an anaesthetic, I don’t want any part of it. I think it’s important, when talking about environmental emergency, to think hard about hope. Perhaps it’s not the right barometer. Perhaps we’d be better to turn to responsibility, care, and scarred forms of love. In this collection, I wanted to make a love that would spread like weeds through abandoned parking lots, that would glimmer like gasoline rainbows.

I think this question comes back to that idea of looking for that pivot point, where stories can re-illuminate things, make things appear other than what they seem. A story can suck us through the dark, bring us out the other side with new strength and clarity. This is the beautiful alchemy of story. My goal is to never stop coaxing startling wonders from the gloom.

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