Spoiler alert: This interview discusses Nadine Tomlinson’s short story The Metamorphosis of Marie Martin, the winner of this year’s Imagine 2200 climate fiction contest. If you haven’t read it yet, go do that now.
Nadine Tomlinson’s love of writing arose from reading her mother’s cherished books — and from her biweekly visits to a mobile library, which opened a door to the world that would move her beyond words. Or perhaps, that would move her to find those words. Throughout her childhood, she felt increasingly compelled to write stories that would inspire readers in the same way other authors had inspired her.
Tomlinson grew up in Kingston, Jamaica, a place that contributes little to climate change yet bears the brunt of its effects. The island nation, home to roughly 2.9 million people, faces increasingly violent storms, dwindling groundwater, and rising sea levels, all of which threaten its vulnerable infrastructure. Tomlinson’s first, and most striking, memory is living through Hurricane Gilbert, which devastated Jamaica in 1988 — an experience she “never wants to go through again.”
Tomlinson has turned to writing to transform distress into fuel for her imagination. She often does this at times of great turmoil, even if her relationship with storytelling wavers. “My writing journey has been on and off,” she says. “There was a period when I was going through some challenges and stopped writing, but I always pick it up again. I thought that I had lost it — but it never really leaves me. Every time I read a book, it awakens something inside of me again.”
In Tomlinson’s vibrant short story The Metamorphosis of Marie Martin, a young Caribbean woman brazenly spends her days spearfishing illegally, so that she may provide for her mother and daughter. When an unusual transformation turns Marie into the very species that she hunts, she is forced to bid farewell to her human life, and to those she loved in it. But as she comes to grips with her parrotfish world, she uncovers a way to continue to protect her daughter and save the imperiled environment.
The tale, written in Jamaican patois, intertwines loss with love, crisis with hope — and won Fix’s annual Imagine 2200 climate fiction contest for 2022.
While writing nonfiction poetry and short stories had always flowed naturally for Tomlinson, she had never written climate fiction — or any fiction — before. As time went by, a voice within her kept urging her to give it a try. Eventually, she gave in to that call, deciding to “just let the writing take you where it wants you to go.”
Fix talked to Tomlinson about her lifelong journey as a reader and storyteller, the inspiration that comes with writing in a mother language, and the power of imagination in a time of global crisis. Her responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Q. What compelled you to submit a story for Imagine 2200? Had you felt drawn to climate fiction writing prior to entering?
A. When I saw this contest and read the description, I was so excited. Then the doubts settled in. I had never written a fiction story before, and I honestly didn’t think I could do it. I put it away and said, “No, I can’t do this.” Later on, something just pricked me again and again and said, “Just try, give it a go. Believe in yourself.” It was never about winning; it was about showing up and leaving my comfort zone. You can’t keep writing stories that make you feel comfortable.
I knew that I wanted to tackle something that had to do with the sea, but I wasn’t really quite sure what I wanted to say. Then, out of my research, I saw some information about the parrotfish, which, of course, most Jamaicans love. I learned how important they are for corals and what they do for the corals. Reading about them, I also discovered that they can switch genders. That led me to think of metamorphosis and recall Kafka’s story. That is how The Metamorphosis of Marie Martin was really born.
Q. One particularly beautiful and immersive aspect of the story is that you wrote in Jamaican patois. There’s a point in the story where Marie explains to her daughter that people still pass judgment based on dialect. What significance does writing in Jamaican patois hold for you, and perhaps, in instilling pride of identity in your readership?
A. I loooove Jamaican patois! Even without me expressly stating that the story is set in Jamaica, the language is very important to me, because there are some things you have to say in Jamaican patois that can’t be fully expressed in standard English. I didn’t write it phonetically, because I knew that it would be a hard read for non-Jamaicans. It makes me really, really happy that you, and hopefully other readers, enjoyed receiving the story in this way. Recently, an acquaintance of mine referred to the dialect as “jarring,” and it just made me shake my head. How can a language of the people be jarring? It’s not “broken English,” it’s another language. It is a mother language. All we need to do is teach [people] that there is nothing wrong with it. There is nothing derogatory about it.
For readers, I’m hoping it offers encouragement. Some of my favorite authors, like Nicole Dennis-Benn, Kei Miller, and Marlon James, include Jamaican patois in their books. Despite any biases or feelings that readers have, I know that Jamaicans especially would be so happy to see their language proudly out in the open. But it took me a while to get there — my writing is often influenced by what I’m reading at the time. As a child, we read in the Queen’s English. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I really felt comfortable writing in Jamaican patois. My first published story was written completely in Jamaican patois, phonetics and everything, and that gave me the encouragement that I needed. In this story, it’s also the character’s voice — that’s who she is.
Q. Your protagonist is an imperfect, yet fiercely grounded and loving, example of someone who cares for the planet. How did you develop Marie as a character? Does she mirror yourself in any way?
A. I thought that it would be interesting to write a main character who isn’t a hero in the traditional sense. She’s aware that she’s engaging in illegal activity, but there’s an urge for survival, and an urge to provide for her family, especially her daughter.
Writing this story sparked something in me. I’m not on the forefront of environmental activism, but I am very concerned and try to do my part in my own way. This main character, her fearlessness, her daring nature — that’s not me! I’m an introvert. I like the idea of challenging myself to write characters who are not like me. Even if I’m writing in first person or close third, I like to step into the character but, at the same time, maintain that distance. It’s very important to me to not infuse myself into the character, to write characters who look different from me and who have different personalities and abilities than I do. Growing up, all of the characters that I read did not look like me, so of course at the same time, as a Jamaican, I want to write characters who are Caribbean.
Q. What made you decide to utilize this metamorphic power of the ocean and Mother Nature? And what lessons can readers take away from the transformation of your main character, who was perhaps taking more than she was giving to the ocean?
A. With what is happening globally, I think that we have taken more from the ocean and from nature than we have given, and we’re seeing the consequences of that gross imbalance. I wanted to take the approach that the nature spirits are not going to take too kindly to that. It can be seen in a sense that when you do certain things, there are repercussions for so much sowing and reaping. But in Marie’s case, it was just something that happened. It’s not my intention for readers to see this as her being “punished.” I wanted something good and useful and hopeful to come out of her and her metamorphosis. Things happen that we can’t explain, but the next question is: What are you going to do with the experience? Are you going to let it define you? Are you going to learn from it? Are you going to use the experience to not only benefit you in some way, but someone else?
Q. Why are storytelling and other forms of art worthwhile solutions to the climate crisis?
A. Imagination and science should work together. As writers and artists, we aren’t able to go to these global conferences where scientists are having all of these talks, but we have firsthand experience that we can translate into our art.
With things arising out of our imagination, we can come up with solutions that maybe global leaders have not thought of. Yes, writing a story about someone turning into a fish and producing magical sand might sound far-fetched. But imagination helps us combat this crisis by spreading awareness, educating, inspiring — and by building resiliency.
Writing this story really sparked a desire in me to know that I’m no longer afraid to write more on this issue. There is so much that I want to explore.
For someone who might not like to read, they can see art, whether it’s sculpture or mixed media or painting or whatever. If someone can portray the climate crisis in different mediums, it can teach, it can inform. It can spark something in them to want to do something about it. Through our art, in any form, we can pave a way of activism in our own right. We’re using what we do have to fight for the planet. It’s our way of showing that we are standing up and fighting for the planet.
Read stories from the Imagine 2200 collection: