Raising climate awareness through cli-fi – An interview with Yasmeen Cohen about her YA novel The Helix

Six years ago, Yasmeen Cohen (BA Journalism and Economics, 2014) attended an event that opened her eyes to the destruction of the environment. Today, she is Sustainability & Climate Analytics Lead at Deloitte and about to publish her first novel, The Helix. A fantasy novel for young adults, The Helix falls into the climate fiction (cli-fi) genre and hopes to inspire young people to take action. 

 

Yasmeen CohenWhen Yasmeen Cohen attended a TEDx talk about the impact plastics have on the ocean, it changed her life.
“For me, it was really that moment where I had my conscious awakening to what was happening around me,” Yasmeen says, recalling the suffering of vulnerable marine animals. “I was kind of shocked by my own behaviour, the fact that I never thought: Where does my trash go?”
Yasmeen approached the speaker after the talk to discuss how her own work could benefit the environment, and she hasn’t looked back since.
“I’ve solely dedicated myself to trying to help and protect our climate and fighting climate change.”
Six years later, Yasmeen is the Sustainability & Climate Analytics Lead at Deloitte in London and about to publish her first novel; The Helix. The novel is the first part of a fantasy trilogy for young adults, which falls into the relatively young but growing literary genre of climate fiction or cli-fi, an abbreviation coined by journalist Dan Bloom.
“This is a new genre looking at a much more optimistic message and empowering readers. It’s trying to draw on the type of sentiments that are actually going to create change rather than dread,” Yasmeen explains.

In The Helix, set against today’s pressing need to fight climate change, Ella’s journey through the multiverse demonstrates the power of technology, collaboration and stubborn optimism.
“It’s about a girl who travels through a series of parallel universes to discover her past,” Yasmeen says.
Yasmeen hopes the readers will take away three things from her novel. First, she wants to encourage readers to become more conscious and aware of their surroundings and their connectedness with it.
“Ideally, having that moment of realisation that we’re not separate from our environment, we are our environment. And so, if we are part of our environment, we then have a role in protecting it and helping nature regenerate.”
Second, she wants the reader to realise that we are “masters of our own destiny”. By acknowledging the reality we live in, and working through the fear this realisation might cause, we can create important change.
“The reason why I believe that to be really important, is because if you embrace that fear and get over that fear, we’re going to break free from this paralysis that we’re in at the moment and really start transforming into catalysts of change.”
Third, Yasmeen hopes that readers will be inspired by the protagonists in the story.
“Hopefully prompting them to take their own local action, think about what they can do in their daily lives, and what changes they can make as of today.”

The cover art of the novel.Asked about the ups and downs of writing her first novel, Yasmeen is quick to identify what has brought her joy and the challenges she has faced.
“I’m dyslexic, which people usually automatically think of as spelling, which is part of it, but not the biggest part. For me, personally, it impacts my short-term memory.”
Having a “goldfish-type memory”, as Yasmeen calls it, meant she couldn’t just write in big blocks on the weekend. Yasmeen needed to write every day to remember what she had done the previous day and build a long-term memory of her writing.
“Another part of that was being super structured, with the facts, the plot twists, how I want to do it and what the seeds of ideas I want to plant are?” she says.
It meant keeping a strict log of everything written down, including the personal growth of all the characters and their emotional journeys.
“It’s very difficult for one brain to remember these things and then also be able to follow through. So that’s definitely been really hard.”
For Yasmeen, however, problems can also be part of the fun.
“There’s nothing more satisfying than solving your own problem. Whether that’s your plot or a challenge you’ve given to your protagonist, especially when you yourself don’t know how she’s going to solve it, you just know it’s a really good problem,” she says. “This one thing, in particular, gets me so excited every time I think about it.”

Yasmeen attended City’s undergraduate course in Journalism and Economics and graduated in 2014.
“I loved the course. It taught me how to write, which is super important,” she says. “It’s what gave me the competence to undertake a massive project. It also led me to make a lot of really good friends who still work in the journalism sector.”
According to Yasmeen, many of the skill sets she uses in her current role are those of an investigative journalist, and storytelling also plays a big part.
“I’ve continued using everything that I learned on the course.”
Having completed her degree, Yasmeen quite quickly pivoted into the business sector, the world of data and AI, and now works for Deloitte.
“I lead our sustainability and climate analytical accelerators in the UK. I’m very much looking at how we can use technology to accelerate sustainability. Or, in more simple language, how do we help the private sector decarbonise?”
She sees a parallel between what she does with large businesses and what she is trying to do with her novel.
“A big part of it is giving the confidence and the knowledge that’s needed for businesses to make these moves with confidence, while also trying to find ways so their business doesn’t collapse, whether it’s in the short term, or in the long term because the businesses just simply aren’t resilient to the changing climate.”

From a climate perspective, what would Yasmeen advise someone who wants to make a difference?
“Anything you do will have an impact, so I think the most important thing is to find your voice.

“There are a lot of apprehensions to just say; this is the right thing to do. Let’s go forward. We know it’s the right thing to do. We know it’s the only choice we have. So, let’s just go forward. What the leaders need, whether that’s policymakers, business leaders, or your local community, they need reassurance that they have the support from individuals.

“And even before you find your voice, find your awareness.

“Do you acknowledge that you’re a part of the environment? Off the back of that, once you have that consciousness, action will follow.

“If we wanted to, at any point in time, if the entire world decided we’re going to regenerate our land, we could do that. Immediately. And that for me, is super empowering as a message.”
Yasmeen provides her own thought-provoking question:
“What would you do if Mother Earth was your boss? If she was your ultimate boss, what would you do? And how would you change your behaviour according to that?”

A big thank you to Yasmeen Cohen for sharing her story and her passion. The Helix is now available online and in a selection of bookshops. 

 

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