Let me preface this by saying: I am not someone who enjoys the summer. Sure, having a break from school is great. Ice cream is tasty. Sangria is to-die-for. But of all the seasons, summer has to be my least favorite. This has been true ever since I can remember. For example, I distinctly remember the last day of third grade, packing up my desk in Mrs. White’s classroom and weeping because the school year was over and I just didn’t know what to do with myself. Two years later, I had a mini-existential crisis as fifth grade came to a close and I convinced myself that this meant “saying goodbye to my childhood.” In high school, things were looking up. I busied myself with dance classes and camping trips with my best friends, learned how to bake bread and sew, and became a thoroughly skilled domesticated feminist. But even that couldn’t save me.
There was just something about the sun that I couldn’t handle. I felt stuck in my house, like the world was against me. When I went outside, I felt like my whole body was under siege. I felt how weak it was, how susceptible to the elements, how fragile.
In France, they call this kind of heat la canicule. I remember the first time I ever came across this word. I was in a translation class my sophomore year of college, and I needed to find a poem to translate for my final project. Late one night I sat in the empty common room of my dorm, flipping through an anthology of Algerian poetry. I came upon a short poem by Malek Alloula, a native Algerian poet who had been living in exile in France for most of his life. Something about the poem struck me, and I tried my hand at a translation.
The translation was clumsy and inaccurate, especially my rendition of la canicule. What I loved about this word was that it sounded to me like “canopy”. I could picture the heat hanging over the city like a large piece of suffocating cloth. A force that lorded over you, drying you up like a relic of petrified wood. Of course, the speaker’s primary concern in this poem is not the literal heat of summer. Instead, he uses the heat (and the “sarcasms of winter”) as a metaphor for the intensity of war—the way it cuts off the past, breaks lineage, destroys families.
And then there’s Albert Camus, probably the most well-known French author to write about la canicule. You could say that Meursault, the main character in The Stranger, is more than a little bit obsessed with the heat of the sun. As he follows his mother’s funeral procession, a nurse gives him some sage advice: “She said, ‘If you go slowly, you risk getting sunstroke. But if you go too fast, you work up a sweat and then catch a chill inside the church.’ She was right. There was no way out.”
If we look more closely at la canicule, we begin to see that it really does bring out the worst in people. For Camus’ Meursault, it’s cold-blooded murder. For the speaker in Alloula’s poem, it’s colonial violence and civil war. Outside of the realms of fiction and poetry, the effects of the heat are no less severe. In August of 2003, over 15,000 people died in the span of one month during a deadly heat wave in metropolitan France.
So what do these three incidents have in common, besides being related to France? In all three cases, the fatal effects of the heat (whether direct or circumstantial) disproportionately targeted marginalized populations. In The Stranger, Meursault (a white man of French origin) shoots an an unnamed “Arab” to death on an Algerian beach. In Alloula’s poem, he alludes to the Algerian War, fought between 1954 and 1962, which scholars estimate to have resulted in the deaths of nearly 1 million native Algerians. During the heat wave of 2003, the vast majority of heat-related deaths affected France’s most vulnerable citizens: the elderly, the homeless, and those living in poverty.
This summer, the heat has intensified. Violent act after violent act, senseless death after senseless death. And not surprisingly, this violence takes a disproportionate toll on marginalized populations: people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, trans women, people living at the intersections of these and other identities. As news broke of the shooting in Orlando, and of the murders of Philandro Castile and Alton Sterling, I felt as though as though mass shootings and police brutality were increasing at a dizzying rate, rushing towards some kind of horrific climax.
Crime rates have evolved and changed over the past fifty years in complicated ways, just like the weather. Hot summers, cold winters, unexpected floods. One hot day in the middle of April is probably not going to hurt anyone. Three hot days in May might be a bit of a bother. It’s when the hottest days pile one on top of the other, day after day, that you enter la canicule.
What’s different about this summer is not that the heat is any hotter, it’s that we’ve had to live through so much of it in such a short span of time. We’ve reached a threshold, a tipping point between passively waiting for the heat to pass, and actively working to alleviate its deadly effects. Many of us reached this threshold long ago. As a white American, the seemingly sudden horror I felt this summer after the deaths of Philandro Castile and Alton Sterling showed me just how passive I had been about the deaths that have been happening for years, for decades, for centuries. It was as though I had been sitting in an air-conditioned penthouse, and somebody broke the window to let in the ferocious heat that had always been outside.
The violence of this summer, like the heat of the sun, cannot be solved by short-term solutions alone. Refusing to leave the house, to walk around in public places, to drive your car—in the long run, these changes are not sustainable. They fix nothing. Just look at climate change: inventing better sunscreen won’t fix a hole in the ozone layer. So why do we think that carrying more guns will fix the epidemic of violence that is taking over our country?
As we work towards long-term systemic solutions to this epidemic, we must also deal with the fact that we are still in the heat of the fire. We are still in la canicule.
But here’s the thing about a heat wave: it doesn’t have to kill. One of the primary reasons why so many elderly, impoverished, and homeless French citizens died in the 2003 heat wave was because they did not receive the care they needed. Many died alone in their apartments, when all that was needed was for a neighbor to walk up the stairs with a cold washcloth and a bottle of water, and make sure their neighbor was okay.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that the long-term solutions to the problems we face are… well, long-term. In the short-term, we need to take care of ourselves and of each other. Allies need to step up and start carrying water, providing support, checking in on the ones they love. The heat does not affect everyone in an equal manner. The death of yet another person of color in our country at the hands of police will break some, and pass over the heads of others. It doesn’t matter who you are, or how immediately you feel affected by this violence. It is your job, it is my job, it is our job, to support and care for anyone who is. It is our job to go into the heat that some of us can’t escape, and do what we can to keep each other safe.
Camus, Albert. The Stranger. 1946.
Kaouah, Abdelmadjid, ed. Poésie Algérienne Francophone Contemporaine. Autre Temps: 2004.
Keller, Richard C. Fatal Isolation: The Devastating Paris Heat Wave of 2003. University of Chicago Press: 2015.
Gladwell, Malcolm. “Why mass shootings, like Orlando’s club attack, keep happening.” CNBC: June 14, 2016.