James Bradley on the colonisation of the oceans

James Bradley on the colonisation of the oceans

James Bradley is a writer and critic. He has returned to non-fiction with his latest work, Deep Water: The world in the ocean. His previous books include the novels WrackThe Deep FieldThe ResurrectionistClade and Ghost Species, a book of poetry, Paper Nautilus, and The Penguin Book of the Ocean. 

His essays and articles have appeared in The MonthlyThe GuardianSydney Review of BooksGriffith Review and Meanjin. In 2012 he won the Pascall Prize for Australia’s Critic of the Year, and he has been shortlisted twice for the Bragg Prize for Science Writing and nominated for a Walkley Award.

James has previously appeared on The Garret discussing his works of climate fiction.

James Bradley on the colonisation of the oceans


ASTRID: Thank you very much for your time here, and congratulations on Deep Water. I keep track of the books that are coming out and what I will get to read. I was really surprised that you were publishing long form non-fiction. What drew you to non-fiction at this point in your life, rather than fiction?

JAMES: Oh, that's a great question. I've got a novel that's coming out next year! But I've always had a parallel career as a non-fiction writer. Over the last, I guess, 10 or 15 years, I've been writing more and more in that space around climate and animals and nature, and that was partly because I had been thinking about this book for a long time. It's one of those books that I began thinking about more than 20 years ago. I tried to write it back in the early 2000s, and I couldn't work out how to write it. I tried to write it again about 10 years ago, I but I didn’t know how to write it. I did eventually work out how I could do it. But it's not just that it was something about a feeling that fiction is… We're in a moment where things are moving so fast, and fiction is a really great way of dealing with aspects of that. It's good on feelings, it's good on, I think, human experiences and things like that. But I wanted to write something which was larger, which tried to use the ocean as a way of thinking about a whole series of questions around the climate crisis, you know, how we got where we are, where we are going from here, how we have undermined our larger relationship with natural world. It seemed to me the ocean was a way of doing all of those things. But it was also about trying to find a way of writing non-fiction which brought those skills from being a fiction writer into the writing. So, it's not a straight science book. It's not a history book. It's a kind of… I would hope it's an imaginative experience that uses all kinds of techniques.

ASTRID: It does, it uses all types of storytelling. I was laughing to myself after I got over the fact that you've written non-fiction and I wasn't having a novel in 2024. But I want to go back to what you just explained to us. You tried to write this book, you know, 20 years ago, 10 years ago, and it didn't work. What do you mean, it didn't work?

JAMES: I think the first time I probably didn't have the skills to do it, because I'd always been writing non-fiction but I had not done that longer form non-fiction, I think I just didn't have the skills. I think it was also that I didn't believe I had the authority to do it, which is quite an important thing. I mean, any book like this… writing this book has been an ongoing crisis about my authority to speak on any of this stuff. But that sense that you go, ‘Well, I'm not a marine biologist. I'm not an oceanographer. I'm not a historian. I'm not any of those things. What authority do I bring to bear on this?’

But also, the actual book itself was incredibly challenging at the structural level. I wanted to write a book which was about the ocean, but I didn't want to write a book which had a fake narrative, or where I went on a journey or something like that. I wanted to write a book and the original idea was I'd write a book which was separate essays, and they would be held together somatically and speak to each other a little bit like I did with Clade.  When I wrote Clade, the novel before last, I had this quite clear idea of it as separate sections which resonated with each other. So there's a musical structure to it, and I thought, well, this book could do that, and it would emulate the flow of the ocean and continuities and all of those kinds of things.

Now, of course, once I was writing it, I realised that that wasn't going to work. Over a great big book, you need a much a better structure than that. I ended up… the book has got quite a lot of structure in it, but the structure is all hidden. Does that make sense? There's a hidden sort of intellectual structure behind it, there is a meta structure about how the sections fit together, but I don't think that unless you're me, it's particularly apparent. Does that make sense? I mean, I guess someone who read it very closely might notice it, but it's just there to cohere the story. There's a range of things really.

ASTRID: I did enjoy the structure, and it's very much a coherent non-fiction book. Each chapter focuses on a part of the ocean, but within each chapter, you go into places that I really wasn't expecting, and I really appreciate. It's much more than a book just about the ocean. I'd like to talk to you about how you took all of this research, which is very cross disciplinary, and fit it into this this structure that you had in your mind.

JAMES: One of the things I think the book does, and I tried quite deliberately to do, was because there are a number of chapters, the chapters have different structures. Some of them are reasonably journalistic, you know, and they look like, I guess, a long essay in The Monthly or the New Yorker about fishing. Others are much more digressive. What they do is they follow an imaginative path from a starting point to somewhere else. But I wanted them all to be like that. They all digress as they go along into other ideas and wander around and go to interesting places. But what I wanted to do always was to find, with each chapter and with the book itself, not quite a narrative line through the material, but a somatic line through the material. It always seems to me, throughout fiction as well, that narrative in the sense of being one thing happening after another is only one way to structure a story. It's one way to structure a set of ideas. Ursula Le Guin talks about this when she talks about story as catches, it's what she calls her carrier bag theory of fiction. You use, you know, story as a way of holding different ideas and putting them next to each other. I think that's what I wanted to do.

So what I would do was find bits that sat next to each other and somehow refracted the piece before it. So it might be that there's a piece of science next to a piece of history. During the beaches chapter, you know, it starts off talking about beaches, but then it talks about the oyster reefs that used to be all around Australia, which First Nations people cultivated and cared for for thousands of years, and which were destroyed within a few decades, usually, of white European invasion. But it moves from there into a discussion of time and the way time works, because time and tides are so closely connected, and then into a discussion of Indigenous memory of submerged landscapes, you know, the landscapes that were there before sea levels rose at the end of the last Ice Age, and from there into a discussion of sea level rise. So they're following this path where they go from one thing to the next.

I mean, I think that was always about trying to find a kind of intuitive path through the material. Does that make sense? Some of them, there's a couple where I went to places or did things and you're able to do that lovely thing where you can say, ‘I did this and then this happened, and then this happened’. But lots of the others, it's much more intuitive and digressive.

ASTRID: One of those digressions has really stuck with me, and I find myself thinking about it days after I read the chapter. It is when you talk about swimming and the history of swimming, the racialized overtones at some points of history, the class-based assumptions that are associated with history. I’d just like to use this as a little example of the depths of this book, in terms of it's not only about water and oceans and how that makes our world, but also about how we interact with it, all of the stuff that humans have brought to the oceans and put on each other over history.

JAMES: So swimming is a fascinating activity. We have that relationship with the water and I think people who do swim, you know, people like me who grew up by the water, that relationship seems entirely intuitive. The strokes that you swim seem natural, you know? We swim freestyle, we swim breaststroke, we swim sidestroke – you know, some maniacs swim butterfly, but I've never been able to. But the strokes aren't natural. The strokes are cultural forms that societies used. And so, some, and even butterfly, for instance, has only existed for about 70 years. You know, the kick was developed by one of the guys who worked on the Manhattan Project, actually. But you know, it's only been a stroke for about 70 years, I think. I think it was finally resolved then.

There is this fascinating deep history of swimming. We know that we can probably assume that human ancestors like homo erectus was swimming. We know that Neanderthals were swimming from a series of fascinating pieces of evidence. Once you get to a more contemporary context, there's this fascinating distinction between European attitudes to the water and attitudes of people in other parts of the world, which then became tangled up with a whole series of questions about colonization, especially slavery. The ability to swim and the way it was naturalised for some people and turned into a natural activity that they could do, and was something that was learned by other people in the minds of Europeans was used as one of the ways of separating out people of colour from white people. It's involved in the development of both ideas, but even into the 19th century, you had a situation where Europeans didn't swim freestyle. Freestyle was seen as… they call it native swimming. They, you know, I mean, the book reproduces a little bit of the racist language around it, which is pretty confronting. Even when you see broad strokes or overarm strokes, freestyle, whatever you want to call them, come into play and start to become really widespread, it's really with the development of the Australian Crawl. And you know, even the Australian Crawl is this amazing piece of cultural appropriation, because the people who developed it and disseminated it, the Sydneysiders who did that, it was actually a guy called Alick Wickham, who was a Solomon Islander who lived in Sydney. And you know, they saw him swimming the stroke and acquired it, and so the Australian crawl is not in fact, the Australian Crawl at all. It's like the Solomon Islander Crawl. There is this fascinating racialized history to swimming, which is really, interesting.

ASTRID: I have a question that I don't know exactly how to phrase, James. I think a lot about how white writers on this continent can meaningfully write literature and ideas without either intentionally or unintentionally reproducing a lot of the silences and the appropriation, and just the distaste, that has permeated a lot of literature in the past, a lot of European literature in the past. But I'm interested in how you place yourself as a white writer on a stolen continent in this,  and how you deal with it in your work, like in Deep Water?

JAMES: It's a question I think about quite a lot, as someone who's been writing for probably nearly 30 years now. I think it's one that perhaps when I was starting out, people didn't think of that as much as they do. Now, I think that's a positive shift. I think it is. But it's something I've thought about a lot. Writing this book, I talked to a number of Indigenous people while I was writing. I was having to write about a series of questions about race and racism, which were, I felt very… let's say I fell out of my comfort zone writing about. Does that make sense? I think one of the things I tried to do is to consult with people as I went along, and to try and think about acts as a series of larger questions. It's not just about… one of the things I think the book does try to do is to move away from that lazy conception that the climate crisis and ecological crisis are a product of human agency, something that has happened in the last 30 years, and show that, well, they're not a product of human agency, they are product of a very specific economic system, a system of extraction, but also to show that that has a really long history.

So the book talks quite a bit about the idea that if you want to think about the Anthropocene, I am weary of this idea that you put the marker in 1945. Do you know what I mean? It seems to me you put the marker in 1492, probably, or even earlier, you know, but 1492 is the moment when you see the Columbian Exchange begin. Broadening out those ideas forces you as a writer to think about where you sit in systems of extraction, where you sit in systems of destruction, and the degree to which you are a beneficiary. I don't really know what to do about it, but I think about it quite a lot. I guess I tried to do my best. Does that make sense? But also just to try to be aware of those things while I was writing, but also, what I was going to try and expand that frame of reference to show that what's happening is part of the process of colonisation, it is not something that just happened randomly, and it's definitely not everybody’s doing.

ASTRID: It does make sense. I guess this brings to mind the parts of the book where you talk about the sugar trade. I mean, sugar is a heavily water intensive crops, but also, sugar was a driving force of capitalism and imperialism and the slave trade and how that all played out across the world's oceans. I just bring that up, James, because, you know, I pick up a book called Deep Water and I'm expecting chapters on dolphins and whales and echolocation and pollution in the oceans and that's all in there, but also, there's a lot more, and I really appreciated that in my read.

I'd also like to talk to you selfishly about Amitav Ghosh. You mentioned him at least three times. I am heavily influenced by Ghosh’s work, particularly The Great Derangement, but also his historical fiction as well. When I walk into a bookstore in Australia I often find his work, whether it's his non-fiction or his fiction on the shelves. People are clearly reading and buying Ghosh’s work. But I rarely come across people who refer to him or reference his work. And I wanted to ask you about the influence of Ghosh on your thinking, and whether that is your fiction or your non-fiction?

JAMES: Oh, that's fascinating. Look, I think that both The Great Derangement, and then particularly The Nutmeg’s Curse are two of the most important books that have been written in this space. He has – and I think his fiction has this as well – this astonishing capacity, both for synthesis, so his capacity to have read across the material, and to pull it together and to make sense of it, but also to find other ways of thinking about other parts of it. He comes from a completely different perspective, from most of the Anglo American writers who read around this stuff. But I think The Great Derangement, the bit that everyone remembers from The Great Derangement, is the discussion of fiction. And I would have said… I remember reading it for the first time and having that response, where you're like, ‘This is incredibly important. Also, I disagree with lots of it’. Do you know what I mean? But in a productive way. I have to say over time I've come perhaps around to the view that on most of the things that I disagreed with him, he was actually right. To me the really fascinating bits of The Great Derangement were the the latter bits, the discussion of colonisation and capitalism, which then expand in The Nutmeg’s Curse into this astonishing discussion of those practices, of the idea of animate nature of, the ways that's been suppressed and damaged, and I guess the ways that it can inform the way we think about where we are now. I think ithis's historical fiction is brilliant as well, I actually read The Calcutta Chromosome, I read it 25 years ago, which I remember loving. Yeah, he's a really important writer, and important to me personally, if that makes sense.

ASTRID: It does. He's also important to me. I've also read The Nutmeg’s Curse that you just mentioned, and he hasn't written Smoke and Ashes, which I am staring at right now, although I haven't yet read. This brings me to my next question, James. I was looking at your bio, and you are an Honourary Associate at the Sydney Environment Institute. I followed the stuff that comes out of the Sydney Environment Institute a lot, including the extraordinary work of the 2019-2020 bushfires fires by Daniel Celermajer, Summertime. How does that kind of academic approach to things influence you? But also, how do you place yourself within it as a thinker and a writer?

JAMES: Oh, look, I love the institute, I have a number of people there whose work has been really influential and incredibly helpful. For me, Danielle's obviously. She’s written other things as well. But the director, David  Schlosberg and Dr Sophie Chao, in fact, who has written about palm oil, and did the Iain McCalman lecture a few weeks ago, which is online, and I encourage people to seek out because it's beautiful and amazing.

It's a fascinating organisation, because it's got people thinking across a whole range of questions, nuts and bolts adaptation questions to field work to, I guess, people working in the more philosophical and environmental humanities, and that thing, cross pollination is really exciting to be around and really useful for me, because in a weird kind of way, that's the kind of thing I was trying to do with this book, to kind of go from the philosophical to the nuts and bolts. I mean, like, how do these things speak back and forth? How do we think about that? I mean, I'm not sure what I think of myself. I'm not an academic. And I'm constantly aware when I'm at SEI things that I am essentially a fiction writer who's a fiction writer with another interest. Does that make sense? Like, I mean, not someone who's trained in that in those disciplines. But I think that those disciplines have a huge amount to contribute to larger conversations about how we think about where we are, how we think about our relationship with animals, about our relationship with the natural world, with the landscape, with the oceans. Also, you were talking about the bushfires work. But there's also amazing work that's come out of SEI around studies of the effects of extreme heat, all things like that. It's a fascinating institute, and they've got people doing amazing work across this huge range of things. Whenever I go in there, I'm like, I need to write about that.

ASTRID: I have a final question for you, James. You mentioned before earlier that you have a work of fiction coming out next year, which will be 2025. In terms of your experience as a writer and someone who publishes a great deal of work, how is the experience of writing and publishing and sharing the work different for you, if indeed it is, between non-fiction and fiction?

JAMES: It's really different. I found it… it's different in two ways. There's a lovely way, which is that people's responses are much more immediate, you know, people are interested by the subject than say it with a novel, which is a much always a much harder sell. Do you know what I mean? You know, like, they're interested, but it's another book, you know. But I guess I've been really startled by and really pleased by how engaged and excited people are by the subject, because thIat was like who's ever going to talk about the ocean? But that's been wonderful.

The flipside is that I've found much more alarming, I guess, because, it's not something I've done before. You feel much more exposed. And so, maybe it's like publishing your first novel again. I mean, it's a while since I did that, but I remember that being pretty anxiety inducing. As I said before, one of the things that's nice about non-fiction and what draws me to it is it allows you to make an intervention in a more direct way. Does that make sense? Fiction, I think fiction does useful work in this space. I think one of the things that's been really fascinating over the last 10 or 15 years is watching, I guess, the kinds of fiction that's been published change and watching questions about ecology and things permeate through fiction, you know, which is good. Or Ghosh, who we were talking about. But when you're writing this kind of non-fiction, you can really speak to people. Does that make sense? You feel like they shift their thinking in a way…  a novel can do that, obviously. But it's a less direct process. And I like that. I mean, it's interesting, also, because there's a timing question on things. Everything I was writing about was moving so fast. And you knew that there came a point where the book ends in September last year, you're just going, all this stuff is going to happen? Like what point do I cut this off? What figures should I be using? And can I be talking about what the temperature across 2023 was? Because obviously, I don't know that they'll give me 2023...  that trying to find a way of allowing the book to be anchored in time and to feel like it is in the moment and talking about where we are, but allowing it also to have some currency going forward, so someone could pick it up in five or ten years, read it and it would still feel relevant. It was important, but an interesting challenge.

ASTRID: I think you pull it off, James. Thank you.

JAMES: Thank you very much. It's wonderful to talk to you.