Review: You Are My Sunshine by Octavia Cade

My Quick Take: An emotional and deeply satisfying collection of short stories that transforms grief for a dying planet into a resilient hope.

Stelliform Press (2023)

“Sympathies and stories: they are the structures and the resolutions of laws that can beat back even the worst of greed, of ecological devastation.”
Octavia Cade's short story collection You Are My Sunshine is an evolution. In the beginning, there is eco-horror. A nightmarish future where animals burn or starve and humans are sacrificed to atone for at least a little of the planetary devastation. It’s a near future that feels believable, and the beginning of a revolution, or perhaps anarchy born of climate change:
“We took knives to them first, the polluters and the lobbyists, the ones that we let look away for profit, the ones whose money we took to look away in turn, but money didn’t do much for us when the hunger bear came…when we look at them, we see the mirrors in their starved and burning eyes, the ones that say we let it happen, we let our greed and their greed call the bears and now they've’ come and we’ve nothing left but sacrifice.”
Then there is guilt and an attempt at atonement for dying species and ecosystems. In the titular story "You Are My Sunshine, " Cyrus is a marine biologist who has a deep connection with sea stars. When they begin massively dying–losing their arms then almost dissolving before his eyes–he is helpless to stop it. When dismembered arms begin showing up on his property, he finds a curious solace and connection with a larger Grief shared by others. He finds his own version of peace in bodily transformation. There is some mild body horror here, but beauty and longing too, to be connected in some way with the dying.

This theme is carried forward in several stories, perhaps most strongly in "Gone To Earth," an entry that brought tears as I read. Alan is an astronaut who visits Mars but comes back to Earth with a malady called Earthsickness, brought on by the “acid sterility, the red and waterless horizon” of Mars. “A living planet, a dead one. Alan never thought the difference so disturbing it could unnerve him–not until he stood upon the dead, and stood reminded that he was not.” On his return, Alan finds solace in deep connection with the physical Earth. Cade plays with notions of blood sacrifice, atonement and connection. There is such a visceral longing to be one with the natural elements, and a beauty in the wish for symbiosis:
“He rubbed the moist dirt into his cuts, reveling in the symbiosis between them; rolled in it and felt the rolling again as a relief. He could taste his kinship in the blood-soaked earth whenever it touched his tongue; Iron and earth, they were relatives.”
Cade’s stories gradually wander through new territory. In several, we get a sense of future corporate and state control, with fascism and the need for an underground network of climate scientists to carry on the work and knowledge that will lead to a viable future for humanity on earth. At the same time, new ecosystems are forming, nurtured by people who have internalized the ideas of oneness, and the interconnection of everything on earth as a necessity for survival. In "Resilience," two young girls explore nature and make plans to protect new eel populations. Elsbeth doesn't remember the old ways of cities, but contemplates her mothers words:
“...urban environments had come to be seen as reefs–as three dimensional structures that could be colonized by birds and beasts and insects. Every surface had become an opportunity–gardens sprawled down the sides of skyscrapers, streams uncovered and left to run through buildings instead of beneath them, orchards in the center of city blocks and beehives on every roof.”
Next, there is societal transformation: A possible future that is hopeful but requires wholesale change in our relationship to life and what we value. In the moving "You’re Not the Only One," Cade challenges the notion of self-centeredness, both in personal grief and loss, and as a society. Astronaut Marcus’ trip to the moon is delayed because the melting polar ice caps have released too much carbon dioxide and “blown the global carbon budget,” so he can’t go. At the same time, the main character is carrying her baby to term, a child named Hannah who won’t live past a couple of hours after birth, but will sustain others by donating her organs to kids that need them. Along the way, the mother shares all of this with elementary school children. In the future, teaching empathy is a priority.
“The only way to be hurt this badly when someone dies is to love them, and it’s not good to live without loving someone. Grief isn’t a bad thing. You’re all going to feel it one day, if you haven’t already, and it’s important to be kind to yourself when you’re sad, and to let people be kind to you, and to be kind to them when you are grieving too.”
Cade has brought the experience of the Grief from earlier in the collection full circle, to a different understanding of individual and collective ecological mourning. Grief is our wake up call to love and be with the Earth and all its creatures in a different way. The last story is "The History of a Coral Future," which feels like a manifesto: Cade’s vision of a wholesale shift in the way we live, and a restructuring of our values centuries from now. It is audaciously hopeful, imagining a reef as metaphor for the way we must live. Children are now taught about interconnectedness as a priority:
“It was a failure of character that some people were allowed to amass millions while those who did not look like them, who did not think like them, were allowed to starve, or to live without medical care, or to be shut out from opportunities that should have been their birthright. Failure, and disgrace.

When our children learn medical science, it is after they have learned to feel for the pain of others. When they learn of space travel, it is after they have learned to value the sustainability of home. They learn of vivisection after they have learned to love animals, economics after they have learned to love seeing others well provided for, mathematics after they have learned that other people count as well as they do.

Our children read and read and grow, because it is not guaranteed that they will meet enough people unlike themselves to learn to love those people as themselves, and exposure must come early or compassion never will.”
In the end there is joy, and this is what makes You Are My Sunshine deeply satisfying. As a reader, I had to descend into the Grief, hardship and profound disconnection with nature before I could emerge into Cade’s vision of a possible bright future. Her writing is strong and assured, so that I could take this journey with her and feel every part of it. I’d highly recommend you consider taking this journey as well.
“There is so much we had to learn tolerance for. There is so much that makes that learning worth it.

Reading. Eating. Naming. Making. These are things a reef can do. This is what it means, now, to be human.”