AMA JOSEPHINE BUDGE
Ama Josephine Budge is a Speculative Writer, Artist, Curator and Pleasure Activist whose work navigates intimate explorations of race, art, ecology and feminism, working to activate movements that catalyse human rights, environmental evolutions and troublesomely queered identities. Ama is a PhD candidate in Psychosocial Studies with Dr Gail Lewis at Birkbeck. Her research takes a queer, decolonial approach to challenging climate colonialism, with a particular focus on inherently environmentalist pleasure practices in Ghana and across the Black diaspora. Ama is a member of Queer Ecologies 2020, runs the Apocalypse Reading Room project and is Lead Artist on the MycoLective project with Chisenhale Studios and Feral Practice.
Originally published on October 9, 2020
Salome Kokoladze: Your short story A Shoal of Lovers Leads me Home opens with the following sentence: The ocean was a toxic enemy, but this was Kwakua’s special place. I am really interested in this, maybe necessary, dependence on toxicity around us, loving or having home in a place that nourished us, but has, at some point, become toxic; so we continue having the need to believe in a place that may or may not hold a future for us. How does one navigate this sort of love and loyalty towards environments that have been altered or used as tools of violence?
Ama Josephine Budge: This is such a beautiful question — thank you! In Shoal the importance of opening with that line is that Kwakua’s peoples — who are wary of water given that their gill-like “scentsers” can cause them to drown — have built the perimeters of their lived environment in direct relation to this “toxic” ocean. Its toxicity has informed how they evolved, where they live, their cohabitation strategies and lifeways in what has become a world far more hostile than the one we currently inhabit.
I think too, these questions around love/loyalty towards environments nag at the very root of how we got here: climate change — the ontological belief that the environment somehow owes us fealty, that we are deserving of its bounty just because we were born here. The idea that the earth should produce edible crops that benefit us in unending amounts, regardless of the other life coexisting with us; that we are supposed to be the earth’s “favourite” or favoured children, at the great expense of literally all other life; that we are “children” that “mother” Earth should suckle at all, feels extremely patriarchal and anthropocentric to me. Shoal writes a future in which this one dissident young woman feels emotionally, sensually connected to the environmental element that is supposed to be the most toxic, the most dangerous/uninhabitable and hostile . For me, because Kwakua connects to the ocean of all things, she is somehow surrendering her position of being a dominant species, she seems to intrinsically understand that whilst her life is important and worth fighting for — I certainly do not perceive her as being suicidal — it’s not more important than anyone/anything else’s life. That’s a philosophy from which I have learnt a lot and try to emulate in my own approach to climate justice work.
In the world of Shoal, Kwakua is perhaps more inclined to surrender than we are, because her peoples were genetically modified to understand themselves as prey rather than as hunters. Her ancestors (our descendants?) believed the fact that we saw ourselves as untouchable predators was a large part of creating this core ontological tendency towards domination and extraction. I don’t necessarily agree with this reasoning in its entirety, but if you look to the non-human kin that share this ecosystem with us, you can see patterns in which dominant predators are kept in check, either by environments, or diseases, or slow reproductive processes, or other rival predators, or even by forms of bacteria and fungi. This begs the question, what’s keeping us in check ?
SK: Has your understanding of “environment” changed over time? And how has your relationship with various familiar locations/places evolved?
AJB: Definitely. I was raised and conditioned by a colonial, post-enlightenment ontology here in England, and then in a very clinical version of Ghanaian ontology and lifeways as a mixed child with close proximity to, although not a part of, both expat life and “local” life. Therefore I grew up being told that alter-life was less intelligent and less feeling: I collected slugs from the garden as a child, put them in a bucket of salt water and watched them fizz — I literally poured acid over slugs that, may have been a menace in my mother’s garden, but were also just surviving and living their best slow lives (I still feel guilty about this, can you tell?). I believed that because paper and wood was no longer “growing” it was therefore dead and had not come from an entire ecosystem, a family of life, whose memories and connections were/are still alive in the wood/grains of paper. I believed that humans deserved to survive, because we had proven ourselves to be “the fittest”, in other words I believed the lie of post-enlightenment Western philosophy — the lie that justified the class system, patriarchy, gender discrimination, age-discrimination, colonialism, empire, slavery, eugenics, ableism and centuries brutality against minds and bodies labelled “different” and a whole lot of other oppressive systems for which we don’t have names yet.
I also loved to dance naked in the rain with the increasingly squelching soil between my toes. I put nettle leaves under my front door for protection, I dreamed of planting lavender bushes in pentagrams, I learned the properties of plants by rote, I thanked houses in which I had stayed for keeping me safe, I spoke to houseplants and even — after the bucket murders — kept snails as friends in an open box in the garden and fed them lettuce every day. The spirit child was always beating underneath my skin, but now I understand that the forces that inhibit it, that separate me from my environment are socially constructed, to maintain a privatised, hierarchical, extractive order. I understand that I am both a resource that system seeks to extract from, and a part of the extractive system. I understand that the “environment” — i.e. EVERYTHING — owes me nothing. If anything, in the words of adrienne maree brown “we have to re-earn our right to be on this planet”, to be with this planet, to be this planet.
SK: When I was looking at your collaborative project Microbe Disco, I kept thinking about how the most present, obvious parts of ourselves or our world are often made inaccessible to us. And this inaccessibility isn’t necessarily about a lack of knowledge, taboos or prohibitions, but the misunderstanding of who we are and why it’s important to reach out to the tiniest organisms like microbes, giants like the stars or anything in between to feel better, to be better. Why do you think we should dance with microbes and why are these conversations inseparable from talking about gender, race, environment?
AJB: This question made me smile…It’s important to dance with microbes because it is humbling, and it is joyful. To learn about microbial ecosystems is to learn that at the bacterial level, which is to say the very make up of all of us and all of everything, there is queerness, there is fluidity and most importantly there is reciprocity. These are fundamental elements of our nature that have been deliberately de-centralised from our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. That we are not binary, that we are not static or linear or even one-dimensional. We do not live then die and that’s it. That we move in multiple directions in wiggles, and crawls and leaps, we eat each other, and ourselves and are reborn all the time.
The “Microbe Disco” project reminds me to be humble and to marvel at our capacity for generosity, because that’s what we’re built around — generous, reciprocal exchange. We breathe in the offerings of trees and plants, and we breathe out their food in exchange. It’s really as simple as that — and we need to fight for that. Every struggle that defines my being — as a Black woman, as a queer lesbian, as a pleasure activist, as a spirit child — comes back to the ever-present need to remember that that is who we are, who we can be. And that it’s a choice. One you make every day all the time, not just about the giants — the stars as you so beautifully put it — not just about who you vote for or how many planes you take a year, but how you try to coexist with the spiders that live in your house, or the mold that grows under your toilet, or how you learn about resilience and healing and transformation from octopus that lose a precious leg — a part of their brains — and regrow a whole new one within one-to-two months .
I’m not saying we can all coexist all the time, and I get it — some people are terrified of spiders — but it’s like have you thought twice about it — have you tried to find a way to rehome that living thing somewhere else before just stomping on it and moving on. If you do stomp on it, do you give thanks to whatever you believe in for its spirit and for its sacrifice so that you can continue to live in this place and sleep soundly and be well and feel safe? Or do you believe everything else lives to serve you and therefore to maneuver its very existence around your comfort? It’s about trying to live your politics, to live a new future every day — little by little — it’s about progress not perfection. And it is not about beating yourself up, about measuring yourself in failures, about comparing what your radical journey looks like in comparison to someone else’s, or about shaming other people and judging a life that you do not live, and may not fully comprehend. It’s about being mindful of structural inequality, social conditioning and systemic exhaustion that makes the shift away from extractive white-supremacist capitalism and towards transformative justice, interspecies future and pleasure activism really, really, deliberately difficult, and working from where you are, a little every day, and supporting and loving each other into growth.
SK: Why is the experience of pleasure important in creating a change in the world?
AJB: For me, and I think (hope) you can see this throughout my work, without centering pleasure, joy, rest, wellbeing, pleasure, pleasure, pleasure — the healing justice of the most oppressed first, now and not later — we cannot build a sustainable world that looks and feels different from this one. We cannot build it. We cannot sustain it. We cannot be it.
Another way to unpack this question is to ask how we might learn to redefine and understand pleasure not as consumerism, capital gain and wealth? Not as power over others, but as the empowerment of ourselves in ways that bring power and pleasure to others. This is a much larger conversation though, but I’d really recommend Audre Lorde’s The Uses and Power of the Erotic, Malidoma Patrice Somé’s Of Water and the Spirit and adrienne maree brown’s Pleasure Activism. As essential further reading…
SK: Can you talk about your recent project, The Apocalypse Reading Room?
AJB: The Apocalypse Reading Room was initially a physical installation at Free Word — an arts organization in London. They supported the project when I pitched it to them, as part of their All the Ways You We Could Grow season — exploring gender and fluidity. It is essentially an interactive installation, a library of radical books, essays, graphic novels, short stories, seeds, tea and coffee (because there’s no surviving the apocalypse without hot beverages), and some quotations by the writers and thinkers that help me continue to survive the many apocalypses we’re currently facing. I describe it as a world of talking stories because it’s a physical collection of “all” (in reality only some) of the books I and others believe can change “the end” of the world. And because I believe that even when no one is in the room the books talk to each other, plan rebellions, debate philosophies and tactics, origin stories and love affairs, and that thought really excites me.
I believe it means something to collate these books in this place and this time under the intention to revisit some of the life’s work of our greatest thinkers, activists, fiction writers, dreamers, farmers, medicine keepers, nomadic leaders, archivists, etc. What if the question was not — we don’t have the knowledge we need — but rather — we don’t have (or make) the time to read it, to process, to evolve, and to act accordingly. Or perhaps even, not we don’t have or make the time, but that time is kept from us, is stolen by the constant drive to work, to produce in order, for some, to survive, and for others to have more and more and more. More stuff that will keep us from facing our own mortality. More stuff to steal up our time. Less time for growth, for hard conversations, for radical change.
The Apocalypse Reading Room holds practical as well as speculative and philosophical texts, books, essays and epistemologies I truly believe can change the choices we make over the next 200 years, which will very literally determine whether or not humans will still be here after that. For example, there is Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest in there, and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass and Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider which can teach us about colonial encounters and alternative ways of doing globalisation, teachings of reciprocity, foraging and surviving forced migration, how to process anger, how to weaponise collectivity, how to see poetry as a right and not a luxury how to utilise the powers of the erotic.
During lockdown I turned the project into a virtual installation: Room2Room — with a series of 1–15 minute readings by a variety of artists from their very own “apocalypse survival guides”. These personal readings became very beautiful because they were so intimate. I asked people to read to us from the places they read at home, and they shared extracts from the books that have literally changed and shaped their understandings of who they are, and who they can be. The next phase of the ARR will be another, more developed physical installation at Artsadmin in London, with (and I’m so excited about this) the opportunity for two resident artists to be with the reading room, adding to it, reading from it, and learning with it over the course of the 3-month installation. So watch this space for more info on that — coming early next year.
 The word “hostile” is important here, because it supposes ill intent, i.e., the ocean became toxic to get back at us, as opposed to it becoming toxic due to the fact that the temperatures were rising; over 80% of this planet’s life had lived there and they were dying. Therefore, the ocean evolved in order to itself survive us.
 An uncomfortable but poignant response to this, given that it is the first global disease of my lifetime that largely affects — or at least affected and was initially most carried by — middle and upper class populations, could be COVID.
 I knew about this before, but seeing it happen in the incredible Netflix documentary My Octopus Teacher (2020), was a deeply healing experience.