Cygnet is a coming-of-age story set in a time of global ecological crisis and on social, political and geographical margins. The novel is set on Swan Island, a fictional island in a real archipelago ten miles from mainland New Hampshire, the coastline of which is eroding through a series of landslides. It follows a seventeen-year-old girl who lives in her recently- deceased grandmother’s house which sits on a cliff that’s eroding into the Atlantic. Swan Island is an old-age separatist community, and the elderly population there places the Kid (as they call our protagonist) under increasing pressure to return to the mainland over the course of the novel. In this book I sought to humanize urgent contemporary issues like ageing and social value, addiction and empathy, and the lived experience of climate change. Lauren Berlant’s 2011 polemic, Cruel Optimism, was a major inspiration for this novel.
I think that, traditionally, narratives about the end of the world belong to speculative fiction, but at the moment we’re facing apocalypse from climate change, and marginalized people are at the sharp edge of it. As William Gibson put it, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” While Gibson was referring to the benefits of the then-bourgeoning digital age, the inverse is also true; we in the Global North, the middle class, and other positions of privilege have a glimpse at our future when we see the already-unfolding impact of global warming on marginalized people, from the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia that killed almost a quarter million people to the ongoing disenfranchisement of New Orleans’ poorest (and Blackest) communities following Hurricane Katrina.
Left without money, family, or community, the Kid’s precarious position means she is experiencing the future acutely and urgently. Still, there is – for me – some satisfaction in the reversal: the poor, young, Black, female protagonist as the one with greater “access” to the future (for better and for worse). I hope to leave the reader with an inkling that it is exactly her marginalized positionality and the ingenuity and creativity she has had to develop, which allows her to survive.