When David Huebert arrived at Western, the Halifax native took the opportunity to explore neighboring Lambton County and its long-standing concerns about chemicals, capitalism and the climate crisis.
Huebert, PhD’19 (English), immersed himself in learning about life in “Chemical Valley”, the name given to the massive oil refineries surrounding the city of Sarnia. It is also the title of his second collection of short stories.
The author will read an excerpt from his latest publication in a discussion with Sydney Warner Brooman, BA’18, at Words literary and creative arts festival, Sunday Nov. 28 at 5.30 p.m.
Huebert’s research began with a “Toxic tour”, led by Aamjiwnaang activist Vanessa Gray.
“I was fascinated that this fortress of the oil industry could exist around these beautiful people in a beautiful place,” Huebert said. These people inspired his roster of raw and identifiable characters, including a grieving refinery worker, a loving sick teenager, and a savage hockey player. All of them struggle with some form of environmental anxiety in their daily lives.
As the first five stories take place in Sarnia, the setting itself is not just a muse but a metaphor for what surrounds us all. As one of Huebert’s characters observes, “Everyone lives in Chemical Valley. There’s always a refinery around the corner, a reactor in the closet.
The region “has become a parable,” Huebert said. “It showed how precarious life is, in terms of all of us living near toxicity.”
Huebert dedicated the book to his parents, both literature teachers.
“Growing up, ‘history’ was sacred in our home,” said Huebert, whose personal way of words appealed to people early on.
“I used to write letters of apology, which got me out of trouble, and when I was in second grade I wrote my first story, called ‘Big Beard Ben’. My teacher really liked it and entered it into a library competition. I came third and it was awesome. It was my first attempt at writing.
Subsequent projects brought more recognition, including first place in 2010 Al purdy poetry competition, in which Huebert entered on a whim, evoking a lived experience.
“I spent a night in the liquor tank outside of Moncton, New Brunswick after attending an AC / DC concert when I was 25,” he said. “The characters I saw there were quite fascinating and intense. I wrote the poem about it, and it was my surprise and my pleasure to win.
The poem was published in EVENT magazine, a publication that “researches” Huebert’s heart, giving him the confidence to consider himself a professional writer.
More recently, Chemical valley, the title story of his recent collection, was selected as a 2020 Writers’ Trust McClelland & Steward Jury Prize finalist. The jury quote praised Huebert for “such meticulous attention to language that tragedy is imbued with an aura of beauty.”
Oil “all around us”
Huebert’s surveys of the oil industry also inspired Symposium: JT Henry and Lady Simcoe on Early Ontario Petrocolonialism, who won the 2016 Walrus Poetry Prize. Reflecting on his victory, Huebert noted, “I’ve been drunk on oil lately, and I’m glad the dark intoxication has burned into a poem I’m proud of.”
Its penchant for oil bubbles up to the surface all the way through Chemical valley in a subtle and surprising way.
“Oil is fundamentally and deeply gothic thing,” he said. “It exists all around us, it is under us all the time, evoking this phantom of biological remnants of old and past life.”
Nourish the shade
Now a professor of creative writing and literature at the University of New Brunswick, Huebert pushes his students towards “a capacity for ambiguity and nuance,” a practice he consistently employs in his work. Chemical valley.
In a style he calls “speculative realism,” he said he does not write to criticize, but to try to show both sides of a complex and compelling problem.
“Green and environmental writing can be very difficult,” Huebert said. “It shouldn’t say, ‘Here’s the right thing, here’s the wrong thing,’ because we can all see right and wrong perfectly clearly here. A lot of people don’t do this job because they like it or drive cars because they like it.
Instead, Huebert said he wrote the collection to “get us out of complacency by asking, ‘What’s going on? Why do we value chemicals and capitalism over human life? “