Friday 13 January 2023

Jessica Gaitán Johannesson, The Nerves and their Endings

This remarkable collection of essays begins with an exploration of control and ends with one on hope, discussing so much in between: climate collapse, activism, eating disorders, identity (race, queerness, nationality), naturalising in the UK, capitalism and work, motherhood, illness and loss. Intersectionality is at the core Gaitán Johannesson bridging the personal and political as well as the relational and relative experiences of belonging or "unbelonging".

Linking climate anxiety and anorexia in the first essay, Gaitán Johannesson teases out the conflicting duality of wanting to control your self and surroundings—what you choose to eat or not, or your personal choices around living greener by, for example, choosing not to fly—and the recognition that so much is out of your control, that things happen to us without notice or invitation, that we are products of society, and that those with the greatest power to make the enormous changes are needed to safeguard the planet from further climate chaos and loss.

In one essay, Gaitán Johannesson interweaves moving and tender passages where she directly addresses a future and/or hypothetical child, while detailing her ambivalence and anxiety around having children given the projection of further, extreme climate collapse. Her arguments focus less around the carbon footprint of a child or overpopulation, which she presents as lacking in nuance—as carbon footprint is highest among the world's richest 10% and overpopulation has been used to justify racial violence and suppression—and distractions from the greater issues, which are, in short, late capitalism, endless production, extraction, and exploitation. Instead, Gaitán Johannesson's impulse is parental: to protect from suffering. That she would be unable to reassure her child that they would be safe and live a long and quality life is cause for distress and hesitation. Rather than present a judgmental position of right and wrong around having children in our times, Gaitán Johannesson acknowledges the personal and private stakes of this consideration, and that her alongside her anxiety and ambivalence—which she has made public, for better or for worse—is the recognition that this would entail a personal loss. 

The Nerves and their Endings was so relatable for me in so many ways (Gaitán Johannesson's narrative of becoming a British citizen could have been written as my own). I so valued the sensitivity but also anger, energy and frustration that came through in each of the essays, which reflect how emotionally complex it is to make our way through the world right now in a way that foregrounds care, compassion, courage and action. 

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