On Friday, March 5 at 6pm CST, join FlowerSong Press in celebrating the official release of Luz at Midnight! As y’all know, Luz tells a climate change story unique to South Texas—belly of the beast for boom-and-bust extraction—challenging regional histories of environmental injustice while weaving a universal story of love and longing. Arts writer Nicholas Frank recently wrote in The San Antonio Report that the novel has proved “eerily prescient” in its depiction of the rolling blackouts that have recently rocked the state.
Launch will happen online via Zoom: click HERE to attend.
ALSO! RAFFLE ALERT! Cuz it’s fun: between February 20 and the end of the reading, if you purchase a copy of Luz from FlowerSong, we’ll enter your name into a drawing for a chance to win prizes! Books can be purchased HERE. To learn more about the book and view the trailer, visit https://mcortez.net/luz/
Here are the deets in superconcentrated visual form, with thanks to Jo Reyes-Boitel and the FlowerSong familia:
In the past week, a couple of the environmental subplots in my book (Luz at Midnight) have leaped from page to real life here in South Texas. And I’ve been stuck inside, even more deeply inside than I have been for the past year’s pandemic–the four of us confined not just to the house but to one room of the house to maximize the power of three space heaters—with nothing else to do than to reflect on the weirdness of it all. It’s kinda freaky, until I remember that I crafted those subplots based on what I imagined to be the most plausible scenarios for climate disruption in this part of the planet, based on historical patterns to date. So it makes sense. But then it quickly goes back to being freaky.
The first and most obvious, of course, is the polar vortex that has dipped down into Texas to knock us flat on our unaccustomed asses for a week, tripping rolling blackouts across the state. Here’s a passage from one of the early chapters of the book, when I’m setting up the widest stakes of the climate change subplot:
And so the energy descent the movement people had fought for, even before Al Gore made his famous PowerPoint presentation of a film, had arrived. There was nothing left to try but the sun and the wind, sucked up into industrial scale battery storage, if possible—and if cities could make the shift quickly enough while also keeping the lights on. Time was running out, time was up: since 2010, each summer had seen more triple-digit dog days than the one before it. And the winter before Lali’s return to San Antonio was, bizarrely, the coldest on record—rolling blackouts blanketing the city during a winter storm that stalled over South Texas for several weeks, freezing the river hard enough to skate on for the first time in over 100 years. In what they called a polar vortex, the Arctic circle had been knocked off its perch at the top of the globe, a hat tipped by bullies off a kid’s head to slip over the eyes, farther south than ever before. Deep in the Rio Grande Valley, the oranges and grapefruit had frozen on the trees and dropped to the earth from glassified limbs.
Then, later, when the journalist character reports on the freeze and blackouts that follow, he opens with a description of the experience of one San Antonio resident whose power was initially cut during ERCOT’s planned outages and then didn’t come back on for days:
When the power cut off for 22 hours at José Hernandez’s house this past February in the middle of a record freeze, he didn’t know why. “I thought we had gotten disconnected,” he says. The summer before, they had gotten the dreaded pink disconnection notices in the mail from CPL due to a $425 bill they couldn’t pay. But Hernandez had arranged an installment plan and paid it off faithfully after seven months.
Regardless, he knew what to do. “With no power to run the space heaters, we had the kids sleep with all the dogs to keep warm,” he laughs, remembering. “Like they do in the Arctic.”
It’s an anecdote that feels less quaint now that the Arctic circle is melting during summer, then dipping down during winter to encircle South Texas, with flooding and hurricanes and drought in between—all of which portend further power outages.
But what Hernandez learned only later was that this particular outage was, in fact, intentionally orchestrated by the city’s public utility, in concert with a shadowy state regulatory body that oversees Texas’s sizable corner of the grid.
“On the news the next day, they said they had planned it to save power. They were supposed to shut off the electric in different neighborhoods around the city for just 30 minutes each, taking turns, kinda spreading it out. So I don’t know why, at our house, it took a whole day to come back on.”
Welcome to the wonky world of the rolling blackout.
Written in the style of a news report, this chapter is in fact completely speculative (read: made up)—but I made it up after reading about a freak February freeze in 2011 that was much like this one in terms of both causes (climate change-fueled polar vortex) and consequences. Writing this chapter also required me to read extensively about blackouts and heatwaves in historical context; about how ERCOT, the agency that operates Texas’s power grid, works; and about energy deregulation. And so now here we are, living out these speculations. As of Tuesday night, nine people in Texas have died during Winter Storm Uri, including one here in Bexar County, either directly from exposure or from desperate, hazardous efforts to keep warm. That also happens in the book, though there it’s from high heat and rolling blackouts. But there’s nothing particularly prescient about these parallels between fiction and real life. It’s just that we already know who suffers most when the power goes during a heatwave or cold snap: those who are homeless or housing insecure or living in older, energy inefficient housing, who are more likely to be poor, of color, elderly, ill or disabled.
The second parallel that had people who’d read the book emailing me incredulously—did you see this?—involves the news that an Australian mining company is about to open a rare earth processing facility outside San Antonio:
In the book, the rare earth subplot involves a shady local mining startup that discovers a huge cache of rare earth minerals beneath South Texas and embarks on a frenzy of extraction and backroom wheeling and dealing. True, the proposed Hondo plant has a different political context and thus resonance. Whereas in Luz rare earth mining holds the (ironic) key to a rapid transition off fossil fuels, Hondo’s proposed rare earth processing appears geared toward more 20th century kinds of concerns: production of defense technologies and consumer electronics, Trump-era obsessions with one-upping China. So that’s different.
What’s not is the naïveté (some might call it corruption) of the local government interests which salivate at the short-term benefits of boom economics, as well as the environmental manners of transnational mining companies that crap all over other countries before leaving for tiny Texas towns known (like SA) for the entrenched colorline between its majority-Mexican residents and its majority-Anglo decisionmakers.
Like, I’m not saying I told you so or anything like that. I’m more just saying…it’s weird. But it’s also not weird, given what we know about how climate change has unfurled in Texas thus far, who it has affected, and how. But still…it’s weird.
One of the givens of small press publication is that most of the book marketing stuff you do yourself (and, from what I’ve observed of the press side, production is largely a DIY hustle as well). Once I got past several months of extreme overwhelm, I’ve actually found this kind of fun, in the way most DIY stuff is. Years spent working at various nonprofits have taught me a number of skills I never knew I was acquiring at the time (graphic design, press releases, website maintenance, social media stuff, and more recently media production), all of which have come in handy.
Like, for instance, did you know that YouTube has a function where you can set an uploaded video to premiere at a certain day/time? I did not. I’ve had a YT account for like 15 yrs and have pretty much used it only for making wacky playlists (“Music to Poop To“) and writing short stories in response to Bette Midler videos. Only the other day did it occur to me that it’s a sort of an artistic medium in its own right, or at least a medium for sharing artistic stuff. But then, the idea that you might actually want other people to look at artistic stuff you did occurred to me only very recently as well.
So. Here is the book trailer I produced with Greg, who has a natural knack for the audio/visual. You can’t watch it now–it premieres Sunday, January 3 at 4pm CST. YouTube says to tell you that you can click on the little bell icon to get a reminder just before it airs.
This morning my 13-year-old woke up at 6am to make me a pot of tea, because for weeks we’ve been obsessed with The Crown and drooling especially over all those silver Victorian tea sets, their tall shining kettles with swan neck spouts flanked by stiff-lipped creamers and stout sugar bowls. Just imagine the delicious tea that must be inside! I waaaaaaaaant it, we wail.
I’d already spent all night fighting panic because the toddler promptly puked the bed last night just after he went down–most likely the result of spicy homemade ginger ale followed by the overstimulation of chaotic Christmas Eve family Zoom, everyone talking at once–and I have a lifelong phobia of vomiting. So I stayed up half the night in a state of hypervigilance, fighting sleep by watching The Crown in the toddler’s bed, a little crib mattress tucked into the corner of the room. Finally, around 1, I let go and let Xanax, only to wake at 6am to the sound of the teenager banging and rumbling around in the kitchen.
Despite my medicated stupor, I got up and stumbled into the kitchen. What’re you doing?
This Saturday, November 14, I’ll be reading in support of Davíd Zamora Casas’s exuberant, beautiful, heartbreaking Dia de los Muertos exhibit (click here to take the 3-D tour). I’ll be reading from Luz but also from cat stories, pandemic poetry (everybody’s got some), and election incantations. Would love to see you there. Click below on the image to RSVP and access the Zoom link:
Excited to read from Luz at Midnight at this event, a community conversation on what just climate/COVID recovery looks like. I wrote Luz based on my deep involvement over the years in environmental justice struggles in San Antonio, and one particular springboard for the story was the tendency of local powers-that-be to imagine they can address problems like climate change in a purely technological way, swapping out dirty fuels for cleaner tech without addressing its underlying political/economic logics. The book’s political backdrop presents a not-so-distant and very imaginable future in which the necessity of a rapid transition away from fossil fuels launches a new mining boom for the rare earth minerals that will be required to produce all those solar panels and wind turbine strong magnets and electric car batteries–and thus looks a lot like the old world we’re trying to leave behind, with wildcatters and mancamps popping up all over everyone’s watersheds as startups extract and excrete and sleep around with all the city people.
This is the first time I’ll be reading primarily to the folks I’m writing about in the book, so I’m nervous but also excited. I think I picked the right passages.
I’ll be reading at 3:30pm CST but stick around for the rest of the conversation too, which is vital and critical. City people will be speaking, but schedule also features radical and visionary thinker-activists on climate/food/energy justice and regenerative economy, as well as poets and musicians.
Here’s something fun for everyone out there who loves wordplay and hates fucking grifters, strongmen, and white nationalist demagogues, especially when they seize power and seek to maintain it at whatever cost.
On Saturday, October 17, I’m excited to be participating in TWO readings (see post below for info on the first!). Here’s the second one, which starts at 2pm–an online reading by members of Stone in the Stream/Roca en el Rio environmental writers collective for the closing of Sabra Booth’s “Hot Pursuit: A Visual Commentary on Climate Change.”