By Heather Fabrtize
Elm Staff Writer
The first event in the English Department’s Living Writers: Journalists series, a talk by nonfiction writer Earl Swift, was held on Thursday, Feb. 24 in Hotchkiss Recital Hall.
The seminar started at 4:30 p.m. and featured opening remarks from Visiting Assistant Professor of English Sufiya Abdur-Rahman and Professor and Chair of English and Director of Writing Sean Meehan.
Swift also ate lunch with Abdur-Rahman’s living writers: journalists class earlier in the day. Abdur-Rahman’s students read Swift’s book, “Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island,” in their class.
Swift wrote seven books and other major features for newspapers and magazines. His work was nominated for the National Book Award, the National Magazine Award, and the Pulitzer Prize seven times. He was a Fulbright Fellow in New Zealand, as well as a fellow of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities at the University of Virginia since 2012.
According to his website, he has “earned a reputation for fast-moving narrative and scrupulous reporting.”
“Chesapeake Requiem” and his subsequent talk discussed his in-depth, long-term reporting on the watermen of Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay and the impact of climate change on their everyday lives.
Swift first discovered Tangier Island in 1994, and then rediscovered it later, in 1999, when his editors at The Virginian-Pilot requested stories relating to the island. There, he learned of their struggles with the tide rising steadily year by year.
He decided to return in 2015 while looking for inspiration for a new book.
According to Swift, the island had become unrecognizable since his last visit 15 years before.
“The island was dissolving before your eyes,” Swift said. “I realized the first day of my trip back, I had to write this story pretty damn soon [or] there won’t be an island to write about.”
Starting in May 2016, he went “native” for 14 months, living on Tangier.
Much of the book focuses on the day-to-day lives of the island’s residents, almost all of whom are related to one another. They have their own unique dialect that has formed over the centuries since their town was established, and the local school is the only K-12 combined school still existing in Virginia.
According to Swift, most residents of Tangier are politically conservative, extremely Methodist, and “god-fearing” — this combination results in a persistent disbelief regarding why they are “facing their own extinction.”
“It’s a diabolical kind of apocalypse that we’re facing because it’s been quietly sneaking up on us,” Swift said. “You’ll often hear Tangiermen who absolutely do not buy that their dilemma is the product of climate change.”
Swift does not share these beliefs — his research shows that the cause for the island’s sinking is a direct result of climate change, which, due to Tangier’s location, is occurring at twice the global rate.
However, he did not let his different beliefs sway him from the story he wanted to tell.
“I knew what the science was and I include that in the book, so there’d be no gap in regard to my facts,” Swift said. “But the fact that they didn’t share my reliance on the facts did not affect my feelings about them. Their feelings [and] their thoughts were what I was there to capture and my views were pretty irrelevant. I’m just the guy telling the story about the story.”
At the rate of its decline, Tangier has only roughly 15 to 20 years of viability left.
For students who are interested, the next Living Writers: Journalism series event features freelance journalist and author Erica Hayasaki, and will be held on Tuesday, March 22 at 4:30 p.m. in the Hynson Lounge.
Photo by Olivia Dorsey
Featured Photo Caption: First speaker in the Living Writers: Journalists series, nonfiction writer Earl Swift, speaking about his book “Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island,” on stage in Hotchkiss Recital Hall.