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  • Jessica J. Lee: “On some level, there is an activist project behind my nature writing”


Jessica J. Lee: “On some level, there is an activist project behind my nature writing”

We spoke to award-winning writer Jessica J. Lee about her newest essay collection 'Dispersals' and why nature writing has a diversity problem.

Photo: Ricardo Rivas

Early on in her newest book, Dispersals, Jessica J. Lee muses: “What happens when a plant – or a people – moves from one place to another?” Lee, a prize-winning British-Canadian-Taiwanese nonfiction author who has lived in Berlin on and off since 2014, is better placed than most to take on the question. Her first two books, Turning (2017) and Two Trees Make a Forest (2019), established her as one of the most interesting and celebrated contemporary writers of nature, identity and place.

She has a PhD in environmental history and aesthetics, and her work deftly interweaves personal memoir and family history with botany, cultural criticism and first-hand observations of the natural world. From 2018 to 2022, Lee founded and ran The Willowherb Review, an online magazine for nature writing by writers of colour. In Dispersals, Lee takes on themes of plant life and human migration in a series of fourteen essays, each of which tell the border-crossing story of one particular type of flora – and of the various homo sapiens that have captured, cultivated, exploited or admired it.

The cherry blossoms came in, and I thought, this place isn’t grey at all!

Congratulations on this marvellous book. How did you come up with the title?

The book was born out of my thematic preoccupation with the question of belonging and how belonging can shift, and how the ways in which we think about plants themselves are so deeply bound up with our own cultural thinking. I was trying to find a word that could cover all of these themes, and I settled on this idea of how we describe seeds as moving around the world – we talk about seed dispersal, about spore dispersal. I thought about how, in my own family, we very much have that sensation of being dispersed across different places. So it felt very natural to me – although I wanted to avoid any overly obvious plant metaphor, like ‘uprooted’, or anything like that.

My favourite chapter is the one about the cherry blossom – partly because it describes Berlin as a city associated not with greyness but with vibrant pink. What a thought! 

(Laughs) That was one of the first chapters I wrote. And it was partly because living in Berlin, we always gripe about the winter – about how miserable and grey it is. 


When I first moved to Berlin, it was during a strange period of absolutely fluorescent sunsets. And then, the following spring, the cherry blossoms came in, and I thought, this place isn’t grey at all! My experience was so, so different. I was aesthetically really drawn to that vibrancy. Most of the cherry blossoms we have in Berlin that grow in long rows, like along the Mauerweg, were gifted as a diplomatic gesture by Japan. That, for me, is familiar: pretty much every city I’ve lived in has had these gifted cherry blossoms. But I hadn’t dug into that history, or thought about what the plant represents, until writing this essay.

Dispersals is out Apr 25 in the UK (Hamish Hamilton) and available now in the US (Catapult).

So my chapter traces how cherry blossoms have been deployed, whether as a poetic celebration of spring or in Japanese imperialism or in their association with death. In the places that Japan colonised – in Taiwan, in Korea – they planted cherry blossoms, because the idea was that you could make a people belong to your culture through an expression of the natural world. We also have that idea in all sorts of other places: like in Germany or in England with the oak tree. I traced this history up to the contemporary period, in which cherry blossoms represent diplomacy and friendship. I was really fascinated by how we can put so much symbolic weight on this non-human thing – how much cultural baggage we put on these featherweight, beautiful, cheerful little blossoms. 

There is a stereotyped version of nature writing, especially regarding flora, where it’s all about the deep continuous history of one place. The plants in your book, though, are constantly moving around. Were you consciously resisting these old tropes, or did you just follow your fascinations? 

It’s a bit of both. My lived experience has always been contrary to that trope of nature writing – the trope of rootedness, of belonging to one place, whether a plant or a person. In the tradition of nature writing, you get books by writers who say, “My family has lived on this land for three hundred years.” And I can’t really identify with that, since I come from three generations of migrants. But that doesn’t mean this other form of nature writing is any less valid or important to hear – in fact, I would argue it might be more so, as we’re facing climate-related migrations, as we’ve got plants and people moving all over the world. How do we make sense of belonging and environment in that context?

So, on some level, there is an activist project behind my nature writing. But it’s also just from looking at the plants I’ve chosen, and looking at my own story – it would be impossible to write all this in one single place. I’m not someone who stays put, and I’m not someone who has a life story that makes sense without the context of added layers from other places. And I think the same is true of the plants I’m writing about.

You refer to yourself as “a person made by both” the Orientalised and the Orientalisers. To what extent is your approach in the book informed by your own family history?

The point is that I’m not able to choose. I have days where I might lean more in one direction than the other, but my ability to pass as belonging in any one place is always up for debate. I recently had an encounter in Germany where someone stopped me, and they were going to ask for directions – and then, before I had even opened my mouth, they looked at me a little closer and decided not to ask, having decided I was an outsider who couldn’t help them. It was one of those moments that underscored for me how sometimes I get to belong and sometimes don’t. And for me, in writing about these plants, there was no point where I could say, “Today, I’m going to be British, and I’m going to be okay with this imperial history,” or where I could switch off the side of me that might feel differently about plant extraction from China and elsewhere. So it was always about bringing those dual perspectives into the story – because both these legacies are mine, both these histories are mine, and I need to come to grips with both.

Photo: Ricardo Rivas

In 2018, you founded an online magazine for nature writing by writers of colour called The Willowherb Review. What were your aims?

I founded Willowherb after I had finished writing my first book and had had the experience of being out in the world promoting it. And I’d just heard way too many times, either from readers or literary critics or op-eds in the papers, people saying, “Where are all the nature writers of colour?” Saying that it’s such a conservative, boring genre, and we’re not hearing from any diverse voices. I found this a little frustrating, to be honest, because there were actually a whole number of us who were out there doing this work. Just pay attention to it! It felt important to me to plant a flag in the ground.

I wanted to give that platform for writers to try out the genre or to have a space where we could explicitly say, here is what you people are looking for. Here it is. Come read it. The writers are here – they’ve always been here. They just need your time and attention. So we operated the publication for five years, and then we finished up in 2022. Over that time, we published 70-something writers of colour and reached over 70,000 readers. It was incredible to see the sheer number who were interested. 

I have to ask: what’s it like to go out into nature with somebody as knowledgeable and curious as you? Is it still fun, or are you stopping every 10 seconds to look up some leaf shape or birdsong or the path of some ancient glacier?

(Laughs) I mean, people who know me well are kind of used to me stopping to look at mosses or lichens or trees or ferns. But I’m also a physical experience person. So if someone’s out hiking with me in the forest near a body of water, it’s pretty much guaranteed that I’m going to get in that body of water and swim. I like climbing over things, jumping into things, being tactile – it’s almost a kind of childishness, too, not being afraid of getting dirty. Now I have a toddler, and it’s a real pleasure to witness that in her as well. It means taking time a little more slowly and saying, okay, perhaps we’re not moving as fast as I once might have. But we’re going to pick up every pinecone, and we’re going to throw everything, and we’re going to find out if this or that stone makes a different sound when we throw it in the lake. 

  • Dispersals is out Apr 25 in the UK (Hamish Hamilton) and available now in the US (Catapult). Lee will also be reading at a book event on May 23 at the Lobe Canteen (more info here).