What if Al Gore had been elected in 2000 and was able to focus his agenda on climate change? What if all of the climate policies that Democrats had proposed had been put in place? What if those policies had only benefited wealthy white neighborhoods? Where would we be? These are some of the questions author and journalist Sim Kern explores in their latest novel The Free People’s Village. Kern will launch the book in Houston on September 12 at Brazos Bookstore, and the event will include a conversation with writer Ehigbor Okosun.
Kern has lived in Houston since 2007, and in that time has taught both middle- and high-school English, started a family, written articles for national publications such as Salon and Out, and completed four novels. To say that Kern stays busy is an understatement. But Kern understands the importance of their voice, and uses it to encourage climate activism.
Kern describes their novels as “queer, Jewish, anarchist climate fiction.” That may sound convoluted to some, but it actually comes from a place of thoughtful concern for both the planet and for minority communities. “I have been dealing with climate anxiety since I was a teenager in 1999 when there weren’t a lot of people preoccupied with climate change,” Kern explains. “I’ve spent a lot of time processing feelings and figuring out how to move from despair and nihilism toward action and revolution, which is what my books are all about—how to find ways to be useful.”
That activist’s passion inspires all of Kern’s novels. Other influences include writers like Octavia Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin, as well as Kern’s involvement in the local music scene as a band member and an explorer of Houston’s unique ecosystem and vibrant culture. “You can see how all of these things come together. All of the books I have written so far tend to get lumped into a genre known as climate fiction—books that deal with the way our world is changing due to the climate, and how that intersects with social-justice issues and queer identity.”
In The Free People’s Village, which is set in a futuristic Houston, Kern gets to explore that intersection of climate change and social justice in a rapidly gentrifying city. The novel’s protagonist, Maddie Ryan, spends her free time as the rhythm guitarist for a queer punk band living in a warehouse space called The Lab in Houston’s historically Black Eighth Ward. When Maddie learns that their warehouse and neighborhood is to be destroyed for a new green hyperway out to the suburbs, she joins a Black-led movement fighting for their community.
But The Free People’s Village isn’t just a dystopian story about racial justice and climate action. It’s also a love story and a tale of queer awakening through the eyes of Maddie, who is leaving behind a strict Catholic upbringing and embracing her queerness, all while getting closer to the band’s lead guitarist. It is also about becoming resilient when your dreams of making the world a better place are crushed and you can only pick yourself up and try again.
Kern hopes that writing about climate change and social justice will help people confront those vital issues. “I don’t want to leave people in a place of despair, even though this book deals a lot with grief. But it’s about coming out of grief and moving forward. I hope people are inspired to take action—or even just [find ways] to cope better.”
And take action they do. After reading Kern’s first novel Depart, Depart!, a story about a trans man dealing with the difficulty he had faced when sheltering with neighbors after a devastating hurricane, someone from the Red Cross in Wyoming contacted Kern to say they had been inspired to rewrite their disaster-response policies to be more trans-inclusive—proof that Kern’s voice is making a difference.
Kern hopes to inspire further activism among readers of The Free People’s Village. The book’s cover art—a red background with graphic characters suggesting war propaganda—should inspire readers with its revolutionary tone. The cover was designed by Egyptian artist Ganzeer, who Kern met at a local festival and recognized him as the activist and street artist who gained notoriety during the Egyptian revolution in 2011 before being forced into exile. Now based in Houston, Ganzeer was able to produce a cover design—including a dust jacket that unfolds into a protest poster—recalling the street art he produced during the Egyptian revolution.
Looking ahead, Kern is already working on their next book, and it’s a departure from previous climate-fiction novels. This new story takes place in Eastern Europe in 1647 and is a historical-fiction plot that follows a group of traveling queer Jews as they navigate religion, racism, and capitalism. But Kern’s signature style—including elements of climate change and social justice—will still be evident throughout the book.
WHAT: Sim Kern book launch event and discussion
WHEN: September 12 at 6:30 pm
WHERE: Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet
Keep up with Sim Kern on Instagram @sim_bookstagrams_badly