The resources at the British Library enabled me to fill in the last theoretical gaps of my dissertation that argues female writers from Caribbean and Pacific Islands offer a diverse and significant contribution to ongoing debates about the global environmental crisis, says Yvonne Kaisinger, recipient of the Eccles Centre Visiting European Postgraduate Award.
With the Eccles Centre Visiting European Postgraduate Award I was able to conduct research for my dissertation in English and American Studies at the British Library in London for two weeks in September 2015. My dissertation project “An Ocean of Words: The Interplay between Literature, Language, and the Environment on Caribbean and Pacific Islands” investigates the treatment of environmental problems, including species extinction and climate change, in contemporary fiction and poetry by female authors. At the beginning of the 21st century, we
face countless global environmental crises that are a direct result of colonial and neo-colonial practices in many regions. Literature has always played a crucial role in depicting political, social, historical, and environmental issues. Through creative depictions of these issues, literature makes for instance the notion of (in)justice more tangible for readers and creates a feeling of empathy towards humans and the nonhuman world. Through the lens of postcolonial ecocriticism, a relatively new field of study, I address how contemporary female writers from Caribbean and Pacific Islands try to make sense of a changing relationship to the land and the sea in a postcolonial present. By writing against the preconceptions that these islands are remote, isolated, and particularly vulnerable, contemporary writers offer a diverse and significant contribution to ongoing debates about the global environmental crisis. It is often through the juxtaposition of Western ideas of these “paradisiacal” islands with the every-day lives of locals that contemporary literature from Caribbean and Pacific Islands offers a fascinating glimpse into island life by creating complex and layered texts that invoke a new eco-poetics of darkness.
These counter-narratives constitute a crucial challenge to dominant master narratives from Western countries about these regions. Robert Nicole remarks in The Word, the Pen, and the Pistol: Literature and Power in Tahiti that islands were long “associated with a set of inherited mythological, intellectual, poetic, and psychological factors. Being by definition closed and remote, islands big or small could appeal to the Western imagination” (16). After a renaissance of Caribbean literature in the 1950s and 60s and of Pacific literature in the 1970s, contemporary writers, including Mayra Montero (Cuban-Puerto Rican) and Chantal Spitz (Tahitian), have consequently created new genres of writing by appropriating Western forms, such as the novel, and by expanding them with regional characteristics, such as talkstory in the Pacific.
In Chantal Spitz’s novel Island of Shattered Dreams, the importance of knowing “the language of the land, the sea, the moon and the stars” is highlighted in order to help one’s “soul to take root in [the] culture” which offers an enriching “new understanding of the world around” oneself (51). Elizabeth DeLoughrey and George Handley, the editors of Postcolonial Ecologies: Literatures of the Environment (2011) highlight in their introduction to the volume “that histories embedded in the land and sea have always provided vital and dynamic methodologies for understanding the transformative impact of empire and the anticolonial epistemologies it tries to suppress” (4). They propose an “aesthetics of the earth,” a term borrowed from Edouard Glissant, which they define as “a discourse of transformative self-conscious disruption that calls attention to the universalizing impulses of the global–as a key aspect of postcolonial ecocriticism” (28). Writing from a Caribbean context, Glissant develops his idea of an “aesthetics of the earth” in Poetics of Relation (originally published in French in 1990). In this monograph, he calls for an aesthetics of the earth that is linked to rupture and connection, disruption and intrusion (151). So he does not limit aesthetics to positive ideas but insists that the disrupting factor is needed to ascertain that for instance land will not become territory again, which implies that it cannot be conquered anymore. The multifaceted narratives from both regions offer a fascinating glimpse into island life that are embedded in current environmental crises that the characters have to face in order to ensure a future for themselves as well as future generations and thus these texts promote a sense of planetary consciousness.
During the period of my award, I filled the last theoretical gaps for my dissertation project by reading Edouard Glissant’s Caribbean Discourse and Poetics of Relation, among many other sources related to Caribbean and Pacific Island literature, and I hope to complete my project in the summer of 2016. With the resources I had access to, I was also able to finish my talk on “Myths and Metamorphoses: Reading Seascapes in Contemporary Pacific Literature” which I presented at the conference “Underwater Worlds: Aquatic Visions in Art, Science and Literature” at the University of Oxford in September 2015.
In conclusion, my project has greatly benefited from the Visiting European Postgraduate Award and the chance I had to conduct research at the British Library. I am very grateful that I also had the opportunity to meet some of the staff at the Eccles Centre while I was there.
DeLoughrey, Elizabeth and George B. Handley, eds. Introduction. Postcolonial Ecologies: Literatures of the Environment. Oxford: OUP, 2011. Print.
Glissant, Edouard. Poetics of Relation. 1990. Trans. Betsy Wing. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1997. Print.
Glissant, Edouard. Caribbean Discourse. Trans. J. Michael Dash. Charlottesvilles: U of Virginia P, 1989. Print.
Nicole, Robert. The Word, the Pen, and the Pistol: Literature and Power in Tahiti. Albany: State U of New York P, 2001. Print.
Spitz, Chantal. Island of Shattered Dreams. 1991. Transl. Jean Anderson. Wellington: Huia, 2007. Print.
Yvonne Kaisinger is a Research Assistant at University of Salzburg.