When David Huebert came to Western, the Halifax native used the opportunity to explore nearby Lambton County, and his long-held concern around chemicals, capitalism and the climate crisis.
Huebert, PhD’19 (English), immersed himself in learning more about life in ‘Chemical Valley,’ the name attached to the towering oil refineries surrounding the City of Sarnia. It is also the title of his second short story collection.
The author will read from his latest release in a discussion with Sydney Warner Brooman, BA’18, at the Words literary and creative arts festival, Sunday, Nov. 28 at 5:30 p.m.
Huebert’s research began with a ‘toxic tour,’ led by Aamjiwnaang activist, Vanessa Gray.
“I was fascinated that this fortress of the oil industry could exist around these beautiful people in a beautiful place,” Huebert said. Those individuals inspired his roster of raw and relatable characters, including a grieving refinery worker, a love-sick teenager and a feral hockey player. All wrestle with some form of environmental anxiety as they carry out their daily lives.
While the first five stories are set in Sarnia, the setting itself is not solely a muse but a metaphor for what surrounds all of us. As one of Huebert’s characters observes, “Everyone lives in Chemical Valley. There is always a refinery around the corner, a reactor in the closet.”
The area “became a parable,” Huebert said. “It showed how precarious life is, in terms of all of us living in general proximity to toxicity.”
Huebert dedicated the book to his parents, both of whom are professors of literature.
“Growing up, ‘story’ was sacred in our home,” said Huebert, whose own way with words won people over early on.
“I used to write apology letters, which got me out of trouble, and when I was in grade two, I wrote my first story, called ‘Big Beard Ben.’ My teacher really liked it and entered it in a library contest. I came in third and it was awesome. That was my first endeavour with writing.”
Later projects brought more recognition, including first place in the 2010 Al Purdy poetry contest, which Huebert entered on a whim, recalling a real-life experience.
“I spent a night in the drunk tank outside Moncton (New Brunswick) after attending an AC/DC concert when I was 25,” he said. “The characters I saw in there were quite fascinating and intense. I wrote the poem about that, and it was my surprise and pleasure to win.”
The poem was published in EVENT magazine, a publication “near and dear” to Huebert’s heart, giving him the confidence to consider himself a professional writer.
The poem later appeared in We are no longer the smart kids in class, Huebert’s first poetry collection. The book was launched at Joe Kool’s, while Huebert was studying at Western.
He won the CBC Short Story Prize a year later, and his fiction debut, Peninsula Sinking, garnered a Dartmouth Book Award and was runner-up for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award.
Most recently, Chemical Valley, the title story of his recent collection, was selected as a 2020 Writers’ Trust McClelland & Steward Jury Prize finalist. The jury citation lauded Huebert for an “attention to language so meticulous that tragedy is imbued with an aura of beauty.”
Oil ‘all around us’
Huebert’s investigations into the oil industry also inspired Colloquium: J.T. Henry and Lady Simcoe on Early Ontario Petrocolonialism, which won the 2016 Walrus Poetry Prize. Reflecting on his win Huebert noted, “I’ve been drunk on oil lately, and I’m happy that dark intoxication has burned into a poem I’m proud of.”
His proclivity for oil bubbles up to the surface throughout Chemical Valley in subtle and surprising ways.
“Oil is a fundamentally and deeply gothic thing,” he said. “It exists all around us, it’s beneath us all the time, conjuring this ghost of biological remnants of ancient, previous life.”
Now a professor of creative writing and literature at the University of New Brunswick, Huebert pushes his students toward “a capacity for ambiguity and nuance,” a practice he employs consistently in Chemical Valley.
In a style he describes as ‘speculative realism,’ he said he’s not writing to criticize, but with an attempt to show both sides of a complex and compelling issue.
“Ecological and environmental writing can be very difficult,” Huebert said. “It shouldn’t be saying, ‘Here’s the right thing, here’s the wrong thing,’ because we can all see right and wrong perfectly clear here. Many people are not doing this work because they love it or driving cars because they love it.”
Instead, Huebert said he wrote the collection to, “snap us out of complacency, by asking, ‘What’s going on? Why are we valuing chemicals and capitalism over human life?’”