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Midge Raymond on Antarctica as a Literary Character

27th July 2016

Midge Raymond is an award-winning short-story writer who worked in publishing in New York before moving to Boston, where she taught creative writing. She has published two books for writers, Everyday Writing and Everyday Book Marketing. Midge lives in the Pacific Northwest, where she is co-founder of the boutique publisher Ashland Creek Press. 

My Last Continent is Midge's first novel. Part love story, part elegy, and perfect for the ‘armchair adventurer’, My Last Continent takes readers to the end of the world – to the glacial mountains, cleaving icebergs and frigid waters of Antarctica—where Deb Gardner and Keller Sullivan feel at home. For the few blissful weeks they spend each year studying the habits of emperor and Adélie penguins, Deb and Keller can escape the frustrations and sorrows of their separate lives and find solace in their work and in each other. But Antarctica, like their fleeting romance, is tenuous, imperiled by the world to the north…

Exclusively for Foyles, Midge writes about Antarctica as a literary character in its own right.

 

 

 

Antarctica as a Literary Character

When I began writing about Antarctica more than a decade ago, I became rather obsessed with the continent and its inhabitants, from the penguins to the seasonal human population. As I began putting characters into this setting, it wasn’t long before I came to view the continent as a character itself.

As characters go, Antarctica is unique. There is nothing else like it on the planet: whitewashed, freezing, mostly uninhabited by humans, and populated with creatures that endure the harshest of conditions. But Antarctica also has weaknesses, as it is vulnerable to exploitation and tourism. And My Last Continent was inspired by the very real risk that increasingly large cruise ships pose to this fragile region.

Before I visited Antarctica, I didn’t know much about its past. While I was there, and in the years afterwards, I got to know its fascinating human history — the explorers who discovered new territory, those who strived to be the first to reach these uncharted places, those who survived and those who didn’t. Antarctica, I learned, is capricious, and it doesn’t discriminate when it comes to who survives and who doesn’t. While Ernest Shackleton, whose ship Endurance was crushed by ice in the Weddell Sea, saved every member of his crew, Robert Falcon Scott and his party were not as fortunate. As so many others have learned over the years, Antarctica is as ruthless as it is beautiful.

I’ve also gotten to know the continent’s creatures — the Adélie, chinstrap, gentoo and emperor penguins, their nesting and feeding habits. By watching them commute back and forth to the ocean to forage and then return to their nests, I began to see parallels with others species, namely ours. Many penguins mate for life, and both parents play equal roles in raising their chicks. Penguins, like humans, are at the mercy of a changing planet. And penguins who lose their chicks or their mates stand over their empty nests, by all appearances grieving as we do.

Another reason I connected so deeply to this continent is due to its isolation. Antarctica is a loner, like the character of Deb in My Last Continent — and also an introvert, as I am, tolerant of a small number of visitors but overwhelmed by too many. It’s a rare thing,

in these days of constant connectivity, to be in a place where you can be quiet and still — where there are few sounds other than the wind, the waves and the birds. To sit on a rock or on a beach on the Antarctic peninsula is nothing short of a spiritual experience. There’s a sense of peace about Antarctica, not only because it’s at the bottom of the world but because it is also free of everything else; it’s owned by no single government, and the Antarctic Treaty requires that all activity on the continent be for peaceful, scientific purposes. It is — and we all need to be sure it remains — the last, unspoiled, uncorrupted place on earth. 

And this is why, as a writer, I realised that Antarctica is as much a character as Deb and Keller are in My Last Continent, and I hope readers feel the same way. I hope they connect with the continent in the same ways they do with the human characters in the story, and that they’re inspired to help protect it. As Deb reflects in the novel, 'I’ve come to think of the continent not only as a place but as a living, breathing thing — to me, Antarctica has always been as alive as the creatures it houses: Every winter, the entire continent fattens up with ice, then shrinks again in the summer. When I’m here on the peninsula, looking out at the green and white of young ice and the deep, ancient blue of multiyear ice, I feel as though the bergs, too, are alive, sent forth by thousands of miles of glaciers to protect the continent from such predators as the Endurance and the Erebus, the Cormorant and the Australis… Sometimes I wonder how long this alien invasion — the ships, the humans — can continue before the continent strikes back.'

 

 

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