The Big Idea: Emmie Mears
Look to the Sun is a book that is getting a second chance at a release, and in the time between its first appearance and its new one, author Emmie Mears looks at how the world changed around it — and what that change means for all of us.
I think we all know by now what it’s like to be in the midst of a situation that is simultaneously inescapable and untenable. The claustrophobia. The sense of being cornered. Everywhere you look, it seems there is another wall in front of your face, another thicket of brambles bursting into flames. Like the only way out is through, and it’s cutting you to shreds.
It’s like a nightmare of multidimensional wizard chess where the board is on fire, someone is feeding the hydroxychloroquine you need for your lupus to a healthy person who’s having a panic attack, and they’re saying “everything is fine” whilst tossing a fire extinguisher into the face of a dying person whose lungs are full of smoke.
Once, in a different time, talking to a friend about feeling trapped, she uttered three little words that have stuck with me ever since:
You’re still free.
Many times in life, we make choices that don’t work out the way we expected them to. Sometimes they’re big ones, like where to move your family or who to date. Maybe the flat has roaches or the rose-coloured glasses come off to reveal a landscape of burrs and barbs. Other times, choices are smaller, like which restaurant to eat at or whether to go to the toilet before we get on a train.
(Okay, most of us know that the latter can have dire consequences, not least of which being loo options on trains.)
Most of us over the past several years have felt other choices becoming more weighty, more ponderous. Even if we always saw value in voting, it is likely that over the past few years, the stakes have felt higher. Who is in power has always had an influence on life and death, but sometimes that power inches closer to us, and sometimes it leaps.
I’m an older Millennial. I grew up in the first Bush and then the Clinton eras in the US and started my adult life transatlantically in the aftermath of 9/11. I remember watching bombs fall in Baghdad and the sick, creeping feeling that found its way into my gut knowing I was watching people die for no other reason than political hubris.
I finished uni the year we elected Barack Obama. In the face of global recession, there was hope—even as something else stirred in the periphery. My degree is in history, and I did about half of it at Uniwersytet Jagielloński in Kraków, Poland. One of my professors there was an expert in precisely what was happening at the periphery. We watched an extremist group march in the city to averted eyes from passers-by and a counterprotest that dwarfed the actual march.
And just a few years ago, ten years after that day, that same extremist group marched in Warsaw with tens of thousands at their backs.
When I wrote Look to the Sun, it was with my eyes seeking out the periphery, watching it move from the fringes into the line of sight for people who had, until that point, the privilege of looking away.
Because then it was right here. “Grab her by the pussy” didn’t end a career—it marked the beginning of one.
I emigrated from the US to Scotland in 2017, which was a massive privilege to be able to do. It wasn’t an escape from fear, though it mitigated some, and with an immigration office that prides itself on creating a “hostile environment,” it’s impossible to say that anything is certain, especially as a queer, nonbinary autistic with a chronic illness.
Look to the Sun came out of a need to see something hopeful. It’s less about revolutionaries and more about survivors and acknowledging that many people don’t survive these shifts. Writing these words in year two of a global pandemic that has claimed millions of lives feels too on the nose.
But if there is anything the last couple years have illustrated, it’s that we can make new choices today.
Last year, there was an excellent visual of how small choices (wearing a mask, not going to a party, not shaking a hand) could cut off heaps of branching avenues for a hungry virus.
I remember growing up and watching Back to the Future, how Doc would always warn Marty that even the smallest and most insignificant actions could have disastrous effects on the timeline. And sometime in the pea-soup wobble of recent years, I saw a meme talking about how ingrained that is in our psyche collectively, but how none of us think about what our small choices today could mean for our own future.
Let me be clear: when it comes to things like climate change and human rights, major action is needed from major players, full stop.
But there is worth in individual action, and there is worth in the choices we make to alter course. If we simply walk one foot after another into the pit whilst shrugging at our own helplessness, that does no one any good.
Each of us can only do what we can do—but we can all do something. Humans have survived as long as we have not because we look out for number one, but because we recognise community responsibility. We cooperate. We work together. And sometimes, millions of feet start walking away from the pit.
The thing is—the entirety of the impetus for this book for me—that even when things grow heavy on our shoulders and the monster in the shadows steps out into the light, it’s not too late to change course.
Sure, ideally, we manage to steer the Titanic past the iceberg without hitting it. But if we’ve hit, we don’t just all jump overboard to die of hypothermia.
Sometimes it’s all we can do to just survive. Sometimes we’re able to get someone else a life vest. Sometimes we’re able to encourage someone else to just hold on a little longer.
When I wrote Look to the Sun, it was about survival. It was looking up with water around your feet and realising that jolt a bit ago was the iceberg.
The book came out in its first edition the week of the 2016 presidential election.
I was doing first pass pages on the new edition in January of 2021, and I think it’s safe to say that was an experience.
While the book is about survival—and a bit about ice water creeping up to your shins—what has stuck with me is this: you’re still free.
Even in this hellaciously offensive reboot of the Roaring Twenties, there are paths forward. They may not be easy paths, and it’s pretty much guaranteed they won’t be. But if, like the old adage says, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, imagine where we could be a thousand miles from now if we pick up our feet and move in a better direction.
Imagine the kind of future we could build.
And help us change course.