Eco-literature needs to move beyond the sterile badgering of activism and delve deeper into human stories of subtlety.
Written by Rajesh Subramanian
Reprinted with permissions from The Wire India and Rajesh Subramanian
Eco-literature includes the whole gamut of literary works, including fiction, poetry and criticism, which lay stress on ecological issues. Cli-fi (climate fiction), which deals with climate change and global warming, is logically a sub-set of eco-literature. Most of the current writing under this genre looks at human activities that have been killing nature slowly.
Cli-fi often ventures into the realms of sci-fi and/or speculative fiction when the narrative gets rooted in future or in an imaginary geographical locale. The litmus test is how far such fiction evokes in the reader a sense of urgency towards an action to save the environment, or, if they are capable of leaving a deep impression to humans conscious of their role in saving the earth.
The crux lies in ensuring that such literary works do not sound like propaganda and should necessarily carry with them deep literary values. Authors need to ensure that they do not artificially structure their plots or introduce characters in their narrative to justify their labelling as eco-literature, which they have largely failed to do. This is why the eco-literature wave did not reach greater heights, though the modern eco-lit wave started in the 1970s. Authors could induce a tendency in the readers’ minds to dismiss them off as a kind of “moral literature” dictating the dos and don’ts towards the environment, albeit in a subtle way through a structured ‘moral’ story.
The genre of cli-fi seems to have given regular novelists just another platform and locale to shift their storytelling from the normal world’s heinous crimes to ecological crimes perpetrated by either villainous individuals or corporations. Such crimes include causing massive glacial ice melting and flooding cities, resulting in huge disasters with heroic characters rising up to the occasion to save humanity. But such plots, more often than not, make uninteresting reading.
The real ecological issues lie elsewhere. There has been a rapid loss of ecological species with the progress of time. Natural habitats keep shrinking due to human activity. Wildlife poaching has resulted in species becoming endangered, pushed to the brink of extinction. Illegal largescale mechanised fishing has resulted in the erosion of ocean biodiversity. Large scale deforestation across the world has led to displacement of tribal populations and consequently, loss of their culture and languages.
Is it not contemporary literature’s responsibility to capture such catastrophes? But in reality, how far have the literary works of today focused on such burning issues? A careful analysis of the contemporary works of literature may only lead one to disappointment. The juries of various literary awards seem largely uncaring about ecological issues. Contemporary literary works need to focus on the effects of ecological havoc on humans: how large scale tribal populations lose their habitats to give way to gigantic industries; how human activities have been shamelessly insensitive towards other living species in the environment.
More often than not, classical and ancient literature from almost all parts of the world had some form of ecological narrative in their literary constructs. Animals and birds, oceans and lakes, skies and trees have been a part of storytelling from time immemorial. They made entry and exit into the stories very naturally in their original forms or as special avatars without affecting the story’s narrative flow. A sort of ancient and enduring magical realism, so to say. But the world was different then; man was not hell-bent on destroying the environment and lived in harmony instead, or maybe man’s destruction was still limited in scope.
Eco-literature is not nature writing. It is not romantic poetry. It is not about how humans live in forests or in mountains. In such cases, the writing would be only a realistic portrayal, just like in other human environments. Eco-lit needs to delve deeper into portrayals of how environmental degradation leads to human agony, suffering and displacements; how citizens turn into refugees within their own country; how economic and political exploitation turn human life upside down and jeopardise the environment, thereby making it unsuitable for life in future. But it needs to be done as literature, as human stories of subtlety, not just the sterile badgering of activism.
Nicanor Parra, the famous Chilean poet, popular for his anti-poetry re-christened himself as an eco-poet later in his career. When asked in an interview about how he would define an eco-poet, he replied:
“The eco-poet also works with contradiction, he defends nature, but he cannot fall into the trap of a new dogmatism. So there are some eco-poems which are apparently anti-ecological, like the following: “I don’t see the need for all this fuss, we all know the world is at its end.” It must be kept in mind that any type of dogmatism, including ecological dogmatism, produces a hardening of the soul. To avoid this hardening, this new dictatorship, this new central committee, one has to denounce even ecological dogmatism. Paradoxically, this is also the soul regulating itself. The man who only affirms runs the risk of freezing up inside. Constant movement, vital motion is crucially important for me.”
Two brief excerpts from his eco-poetry are reflective of how such writing carries the “ecological” message to the reader:
I honestly don’t know what to tell you
we’re on the brink of World War III
and no one seems to give a damn
if you destroy the world
do you think I’m going to create it again?
The mistake we made was in thinking
that the earth belonged to us
when the fact of the matter is
we’re the ones who belong to the earth.
It appears eco-lit has found stronger proponents in the realm of poetry than fiction. Many universities have set up separate academic chairs to make eco-lit a part of their literature curriculum. Eco-criticism, as a wing of literary criticism, has made its presence known in academic circles. But very often, eco-criticism serves as an alter-ego of post-colonial, post-modern approaches to literary criticism. But it is heartening that the eco-lit wave has begun its journey. It is high time it gained strength and turned into a strong wave across the literary ocean.
Rajesh Subramanian is based in Chennai. He is a literary critic, translator and the editor of the online literary magazine Modern Literature. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.