A Voice Yet to Be Heard
Sugar Land, TX
2023, Senior, Creative Writing
Climate Hero: Howey Ou
When the floods arrived in Guangdong, the only thing Howey could do was watch the floorboards of her wooden house rattle and her belongings bob through the shin-deep water, and listen to the mayhem of her mother’s cries. Outside, her livestock screamed in fear as some floated restlessly with the strong current. Where would she go if her house was her only haven?
Howey trudged around the house, searching for belongings that kept her company – her journal, toys, small gadgets – but they were all drenched and frayed to ruins. Her mother signaled other villagers about the situation, frantically requesting for mandatory meetings to be arranged.
For the past five years, floods have destroyed Howey’s home – rotting the floors and walls, killing her livestock and pets, destroying all her books and journals. And for the past five years, the only thing the villagers did was spit curses at the treacherous weather. They were foolish enough to think that nature would listen to them.
* * *
During the meeting, many villagers wanted to sacrifice fields to construct a levee. Others argued that the limited acres of rice paddies were too precious for a wasteful project. The disagreement sparked more controversy. Before long, the meeting turned into complaints and personal rants about flooded floorboards and dead crops.
The villagers would disregard any remarks that Howey, a teenager, made. In their eyes, the young were too naive to understand the way the world works. “Howey,” her mother whispered, “Listen and follow what they have to say. Only speak when they ask.”
“Hey,” Howey mumbled. The villagers continued to argue, their spit flying on each other’s faces. “HEY.” Howey spoke louder. The room grew silent. Thunk, thunk, thunk. She could hear the rain outside banging on the thin ceiling. Villagers turned around in shock, their mouths half opened. “Isn’t this nature’s way of punishing our wrongdoings?” she cried. “The irregular floods and recurring droughts – did you all ever realize that this is the aftermath of climate change?”
A villager in the back leaned towards me. “C-clim—?”
“Climate change.” Howey never thought that with decades of experience in farming, these villagers were clueless about the changes of our planet. “Have you seen what we’ve done to our planet? The way we’ve killed it? The carbon projects, the dirty fumes we emit into our atmosphere, and the trash we’ve littered around the dirt roads of this village!”
Howey could hear giggles in the back. Villagers looked at her and smiled, amused by the comments. “Climate change?” a villager questioned. “Our country can do anything. Just tell them to make a vaccine or something!” Immediately, laughter erupted in the room. One scoffed, “We just got to bite nature back harder, huh? It’s simply the city’s problem, not ours.” Other villagers began to chime in until the meeting became a joke full of obnoxious remarks.
* * *
In her room, Howey gathered pieces of cardboard and laid them out on her bed. With Sharpies, she drew out big block letters. One said: Vaccines cannot solve climate change. Another said: As we kill the climate, the climate will kill us. The problem was not whether her country had the capabilities to change their practices in killing the planet, it was the mindset. No one had the incentive to fight, even mutter, about change. With Howey’s palms smudged in black ink, she began to collect cardboard crates around her village.
After a few more grueling days, the rain stopped. Villagers scrambled out of their shacks. They headed to the rice paddies in dismay, finding the remains of their destroyed crops. Howey began nailing her signs to streets and telephone poles. The flimsy cardboard folded under the wind, howling cries to the village houses. Many walked by – some laughed while others scrunched their eyebrows in confusion. One villager spat curses at the sign. He ripped the cardboard off the pole and discarded it in a nearby trash can. The neon green flip-flops he wore squawked as he trudged through the mud.
“Howey,” her mother scolded. “What are you doing nowadays? Aunties have been complaining about your foolish words hanging on their mail post.” Howey only nodded, unsurprised that her mother did not support her actions. The idea of climate change was a foreign phenomenon in the village – buzz words thrown in useless meetings.
But after a few weeks of protesting in the barren streets of the village, two older women came over and asked what the words on Howey’s sign meant: As we kill the climate, the climate will kill us. “The climate will kill us,” one mumbled. “Has it ever killed anyone?” the other asked. The ladies glanced at each other in fear. They scurried away – their loud whispers and frantic cries could be heard through the streets.
* * *
Although many villagers despised Howey’s actions, several began to understand Howey’s words and implemented more environmentally friendly practices. Instead of attending meetings, those villagers worked with Howey to collect trash and abandoned tools from the sides of the dirt roads and tried switching to a sustainable vegan diet. One of them was a teacher, who began to share issues of climate change with children, hoping that their knowledge would spread awareness among future generations. The words of the issue were slowly growing, yet there was still a lot more to be done.
* * *
Howey escaped her village to walk to the city. The terrain was tough on foot, but she refused to use Guangdong’s public transportation. The dirty fumes that polluted the rainwater and paddies would only further kill the hopeless crops. “Howey, you cannot,” her mother whined. Her fragile voice feared that she would lose her only daughter, but Howey feared that she would lose the village. Howey stuffed Sharpies, a few days’ worth of bread, and cardboard signs she had made. If her village wouldn’t listen, she would hammer these words into the city’s council. As a child that once loved her village – no – as the only voice that would scream for the dying Earth, she must fight until her throat ran hoarse.
Howey ran along the dirt roads, kicking the dust as she went. In her hands were signs, carved from the bottoms of cardboard crates. She took one and nailed it to a lamp post, so it was visible to anyone who drove on these roads. An officer pulled to her side, his arm perched on the window frame. He stuck out his cigarette and tapped the ashes, leaving a pungent scent of thick smoke in the air.
“What is this?” He threw the burnt stump onto the ground. The officer got out of his car and squinted his eyes, reading the words on her sign. “What is your name, child?” He smiled, his yellow teeth sticking out.
“Howey.” She couldn’t lie to an officer, “Don’t take my—”
The officer snatched the cardboard signs out of her hands and chuckled. “Howey, you are detained.”
Was this real? Never did Howey think putting up signs on telephone poles would get her in trouble. Would she follow the officer back to the village? But I have already gone so far, she thought. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” she stuttered.
“Signs,” the officer pounded on the pole. “Not allowed,” he grunted.
“Then what about those lost animal signs, officer? What’s the difference?” Howey pointed at a sign hanging on the other side of the road.
The police officer looked through Howey’s stack of signs. “This is nonsense,” he said. “Useless to us.” He opened the passenger door and signaled Howey to get in.
As Howey climbed into the car, the officer noticed the writing on her hands. The black, bolded phrase Climate Change is Real were engraved in her palms, words no one could erase.
The arts evoke some sort of urgency in me, as I find compelling writing playing a significant impact in raising awareness of important issues like climate change. My grandmother worked on rice paddy farms as a child, and her stories inspired me to write my piece with the setting, lifestyle, and mayhem of her hometown, Guangdong, China. I want my piece to highlight climate change activism from a new perspective, one where many activists are silenced for speaking out, and one where global issues are not announced to the public. Exploring this Contest's theme, I discovered Howey Ou, a Chinese teenager like me, who was the inspiration for my piece. She uses her passion for activism to spread awareness of climate change, despite the backlash she faces from society, the police, and even her parents. I am extremely lucky to have local organizations that aim to combat climate change, but in Howey's case, she has a lack of support from the citizens and government of China. Although her platform and actions have not made substantial differences, her persistence in the face of hate shows her heroic personality. Heroes like her make the future hopeful, as their passionate protests and environmental friendly practices will influence future heroes.