Andri Magnason, Cristina Bendek to discuss climate change through lens of literature

Bendek and Magnason

Mariia Novoselia
Staff writer

How can one develop a narrative that others can relate to, that’s culturally aware and that bears in mind the past but urges action? 

Cristina Bendek, author of Salt Crystals, asked herself this question and came up with an award-winning book. At the same time, author of On Time and Water, Andri Magnason, sees climate change as “one of the greatest literary challenges of our time.” 

Together, Bendek and Magnason will discuss the way climate change has impacted their countries – the island of San Andrés, Colombia, and Iceland – and how they have managed to put their reflections into words. Their TED Talk-style discussion is at 4 p.m. today in Chautauqua Cinema, programmed by the Chautauqua Climate Change Initiative.

Away from her hometown for over a decade, Bendek said what she saw upon her return inspired Salt Crystals

“It just hit me – everything that I saw around me, the way that the landscape had changed, the way that the beach had changed around the islands, the food availability – it was really shocking to see how, for example, none of the fish that you could get was actually fished (on) the island,” she said. “Most of the fish was brought from Venezuela, from Chile or from the Pacific region in Colombia, if you’re even that lucky; but before I remember quite vividly (that we) would have plenty of huge fish in the ocean.” 

At the time, she said, the island was going through a drought, which in combination with general fears over climate change, geopolitical disputes with Nicaragua and degradation of the environment, made local people, who are usually “very cool” and reluctant to “make big trouble,” feel on edge. This, Bendek said, is especially concerning because “people know already that there are certain areas in the island that prioritize water supply just for commercial and touristic reasons.” 

After the drought, she said, came a natural disaster – what was first going to be a Category Three hurricane downgraded to a tropical storm just before hitting San Andrés. 

“People were publishing stories that God saved us, and that really concerned me even more … because it’s only a matter of time until a major hurricane will come our way,” Bendek said. “What will happen when it does?”

The question, Bendek said, prompted her to reconnect with her own roots and look into her cultural and spiritual identity. Salt Crystals, she said, explores a complicated matter of ethnicities and cultural identities in the archipelago of San Andres, Providence and Santa Catalina, that was colonized more than once. 

The island of San Andrés, Bendek said, was largely populated by the Raizal people. Up until the 1950s, she said, very few — with the exception of institutional employees or police officers — spoke Spanish.  

This changed, Bendek said, when Colombia began to encourage migration to the 10-square-mile San Andrés in an effort to “Colombia-nize it” and prevent it from joining other national projects around the area or gaining independence, like Panama did in 1903. 

In 2000, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization proclaimed the archipelago as the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve. 

The proclamation, Bendek said, should remind people that humans are part of the environment, and to make the environment an integral part of human goals. 

“Being aware that we are a biosphere reservation should imply that we look onto that past, that we learn from this past, that we keep on reproducing the good things that we have from this heritage … and really look into building the capacity for the new generations to adapt,” she said. 

Bendek said with her novel she wanted to lay out questions on environmental issues and understand how people ended up on the island.

“It’s usually either dreams or pain that takes people to these remote locations,” she said. 

The novel creates “a tension between the past and this very threatened notion of the future,” Bendek said.

Magnason’s novel On Time and Water also explores a shift in reality “when nature has left geological speed and has entered human speed; when all aspects of water are changing within a lifespan of a human being,” he said.  

Humanity is currently going through the biggest paradigm shift, Magnason said. The power of melting glaciers or rising sea levels, for example, has never needed to be considered by to the human psyche before, and it can take decades if not hundreds of years for people to understand their new position “when Earth is simply not the center of the universe or when the world is suddenly not controlled by God,” Magnason said. 

In 2015, he wrote “A letter to the future” on a memorial plaque dedicated to Okjökull, the first Icelandic glacier that lost its status as a glacier due to climate change. The plaque reads: “This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.” 

What needs to be done, Magnason said, is taking the interest of future generations into account and decarbonizing human practices as soon as possible. 

“Some values and habits that come from being a virtue or, possibly, a symbol of success might turn into something that future generations will see as obscene, damaging, harmful, lethal, possibly evil in the light of the consequences of our actions or inactions,” Magnason said.

While decarbonizing will have economic consequences, he said, not doing anything will lead to more and more natural disasters like that in Maui, Hawaii, and around the world. 

Wildfires in Hawaii that started Aug. 8 have already killed at least 114 people, with about 850 people still unaccounted for — according to Reuters as of Monday — making it the deadliest wildfire in modern United States history.

In On Time and Water, Magnason said he uses the black hole as a metaphor “because you can’t look straight into the black hole; you have to look at the periphery (of) the network of stars and galaxies.”

“To understand science, I use poetry; to understand the future, I look at the past,” he said. “And to be global, I try to be personal.”

On that individual level, Magnason said he pursues environmental activism because he feels that “it’s the right thing to do” and that it’s difficult to do otherwise. He said he hopes the discussion with Bendek will inspire Chautauquans to “start taking the torch and doing what’s needed.”

Bendek said she hopes their talk will serve as an interactive forum that bridges divides, creates empathy and is a call to action.


The author Mariia Novoselia

Mariia Novoselia is a senior at Western Kentucky University studying journalism with a minor in political science. Born and raised in Odesa, Ukraine, she previously attended Odesa I. I. Mechnikov National University. She has experience writing for student publications and interning at a local newspaper in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Summer 2023 will be her first season on the grounds of Chautauqua, where she will be covering environmental issues. Mariia is also a music enthusiast, and when not writing, she enjoys singing and playing the guitar.