If you’ve read or listened to anything so far in 2020, chances are you’ve taken in the words of Zing Tsjeng. Executive Editor of VICE UK, Tsjeng also writes for The Guardian and Time Out (among many others); is host of BBC podcast Obsessed With... Killing Eve, and the author of the four-book series, Forgotten Women.
From Brexit to the beauty industry, prostate orgasms to ‘posh people getting absolutely smashed at the races’, it’s fair to say Tsjeng has touched on a broad spectrum of subjects for VICE UK. But one topic cropping up with increasing regularity is climate change. As Tsjeng told ace & tate in a 2019 interview, “I don’t think our levels of consumption, especially in the UK, can carry on as they are without really seriously damaging the environment”.
And it is the topicality of climate change that brings Tsjeng to us at Southbank Centre. In April she chairs the panel talk Eco-Anxiety: How to Cope with a Changing World; part of our Reading the Mind series, exploring mental health and well-being through literature. In anticipation of her visit we caught up with the journalist and author to discuss her field, her book series, and whether we should feel ‘climate guilt’.
What led you into journalism? Was it something you always wanted to do?
I didn't realise it till quite late on – I was a journalist at my student paper, but it was almost too much fun for me to realise that this was something you could actually do as a job. I only started considering it seriously after I won a Guardian Student Media award at university.
The nature of journalism is always evolving, what do you think is the most vital quality to have as a journalist in 2020?
I don't think the essential traits that make a good journalist have changed, although the platforms that journalism is put out on are changing all the time. Tenacity, a good news sense, an ability to write and cut through the noise to understand the real story – those are still necessary in 2020.
How we consume our news, and stories, has changed dramatically in the past decade; has the growth of social media made it harder or easier for news platforms such as VICE to reach their audience?
I think it's easy to think of news organisations competing with social media for eyeballs, but in my experience, it has actually allowed us to reach new audiences on the platforms where they spend all their time.
In 2018 you published your Forgotten Women series of books, detailing the overlooked stories of prominent female figures. There is no doubting the series was needed, but was there a particular catalyst that made you say ‘I need to write these’?
I just thought ‘it's now or never’. The interest in excavating women from history was at an all-time high, and I wanted to put something out that was rigorously written, researched and delivered with heart.
What has the reaction to the books been? Have any reactions taken you by surprise?
Some of the best reactions have been the most unexpected. People have come up to me and said that their relatives' lives crisscrossed with the lives of the women in the books – someone told me that they'd attended the Grunwick protests led by trade unionist Jayaben Desai, and another told me that her grand-au to had worked in Bletchley Park. It's always such an honour to know that I've written about people who have touched so many others.
Journalist, editor, author, podcast host… you’re an incredibly busy person - how do you find the space and time to focus?
I sleep eight to nine hours a night (seriously) and if I don't get that amount of sleep, I immediately find myself feeling cranky and stressed. I'm told that this is an insane amount of sleep, but I think the whole ‘sleep less to maximise your efficiency’ is absolute BS.
You’re joining us for our Reading the Mind series, chairing a talk on eco-anxiety. Is ‘eco-anxiety’ something you have found yourself feeling?
Definitely. I've written about it for VICE and Time Out. I grew up in Singapore, which is a very green country, and have always loved nature and wildlife. But it's only been in the last year or so that I've realised that my experience growing up puts me in the minority, and, given the way the planet is going, is likely to get even rarer still.
As well as anxiety, there is perhaps a propensity to feel a level of guilt around our own actions around climate change. Should we feel guilty? And, are there things we can do to help stave off this guilt?
I think it's important to caveat that individual consumers will never bear as much responsibility for polluting the planet as much as, say, Exxon-Mobil. There's always more we can do, obviously, but part of the solution requires us to channel our guilt productively and start getting angry with the companies and institutions that have let us down.
And lastly, in terms of your own interaction with the natural world, I’ve read that you’re a keen gardener. What’s the appeal of gardening for you?
It's an excellent way to unplug. Anybody who's tried to use their phone with gardening gloves on knows what I'm talking about.
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Interview by Glen Wilson