The Storyworld Accord: Econarratology and Postcolonial Narratives

The Storyworld Accord: Econarratology and Postcolonial Narratives

by Erin James


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The Storyworld Accord: Econarratology and Postcolonial Narratives by Erin James

“Storyworlds,” mental models of context and environment within which characters function, is a concept used to describe what happens in narrative. Narratologists agree that the concept of storyworlds best captures the ecology of narrative interpretation by allowing a fuller appreciation of the organization of both space and time, by recognizing reading as a process that encourages readers to compare the world of a text to other possible worlds, and by highlighting the power of narrative to immerse readers in new and unfamiliar environments.

Focusing on the work of writers from Trinidad and Nigeria, such as Sam Selvon and Ben Okri, The Storyworld Accord investigates and compares the storyworlds of nonrealist and postmodern postcolonial texts to show how such narratives grapple with the often-collapsed concerns of subjectivity, representation, and environment, bringing together these narratological and ecocritical concerns via a mode that Erin James calls econarratology. Arguing that postcolonial ecocriticism, like ecocritical studies, has tended to neglect imaginative representations of the environment in postcolonial literatures, James suggests that readings of storyworlds in postcolonial texts helps narrative theorists and ecocritics better consider the ways in which culture, ideologies, and social and environmental issues are articulated in narrative forms and structures, while also helping postcolonial scholars more fully consider the environment alongside issues of political subjectivity and sovereignty.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803243989
Publisher: UNP - Nebraska
Publication date: 07/01/2015
Series: Frontiers of Narrative
Pages: 308
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Erin James is an assistant professor of English at the University of Idaho and has published essays in the Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Literature, Journal of Narrative Theory, The Bioregional Imagination, and Teaching Ecocriticism and Green Cultural Studies.

Read an Excerpt

The Storyworld Accord

Econarratology and Postcolonial Narratives

By Erin James


Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-8076-2


Toward Econarratology

When Thursday Next transports herself to the world of Jane Eyre in Jasper Fforde's novel The Eyre Affair, the environment in which she finds herself does not surprise her. Born and raised in England—albeit a fictional, fantastic version of England that boasts pet Dodo birds and Prose Portals—Next is comfortable with the color she sees washing from the scene, the shape of the country lane stile, and the image of the rising moon. Indeed, she immerses herself in the "starkly beautiful landscape" of rural Victorian England with much ease, so much so that we might say she shares a certain environmental imagination of this space and time with the narrating Jane (66). Yet not all imaginative transportations to storyworlds are this easy, nor are all storyworlds built upon models that align so closely with readers' preconceived notions of what an environment looks and feels like. Imagine if Next had visited a Frank Herbert museum and read a passage from Dune (1966) instead of Brontë's Jane Eyre. Instead of modeling mentally the familiar shape, texture, and placement of a country lane stile and the color of a British sunset, Next would be tasked with modeling a world more than twenty-one thousand years in the future in which computers are prohibited, battles are fought over the life-extending "spice" melange, and giant sandworms roam the high desert. Or take, for that matter, readers of Fforde's text, who must model mentally a world that includes an independent Welsh republic and garden-invading mammoths to interpret Next's story. Fforde's readers then must simulate Next's understanding and experience of Jane's world as they read about Next reading about Jane. Texts such as Dune and The Eyre Affair show us that reading is an environmentally adventurous activity. When we read narrative texts, we imaginatively transport ourselves to virtual environments that may or may not reflect those environments in which we read.

Beyond the simple pleasure of such virtual travels, this process of imaginative transportation promises to help us understand the environment from the perspective of others, and thus experience the world according to alternative environmental imaginations. This increase in understanding can have important real-world consequences, as environmental imaginations are in no way universal and can often lead to conflict when they clash with each other. Amitav Ghosh's novel The Hungry Tide (2004) offers us a powerful illustration of such conflict. In a seminal scene in the novel, Piya, a young American cetologist of Indian descent, watches in horror as members of a small Sundarbans village trap, blind, spear, and burn a tiger that recently killed two people and has been preying on the villagers' livestock. As Piya listens to the tiger growl inside the cage, she pleads with her friend to intervene: "We have to do something, Kanai. We can't let this happen" (293). Kanai refuses to step in, both because of his reluctance to insert himself into village business and his awareness of the true dangers of tigers in the area; in an earlier scene, Kanai's aunt tells him that one human being is killed by a tiger in the Sundarbans every other day (240). Kanai's hesitation to become involved no doubt is informed also by Project Tiger, a conservation scheme established by the Indian government in 1973 that aims to ensure a viable population of Bengal tigers in their natural habitat. Project Tiger is India's most ambitious conservation program and has resulted in the displacement of communities such as the Chenchus in the southern state of Andhara as space is set aside for tiger reserves, and the imprisonment of Indians that have been caught hunting, trading, injuring, or killing tigers. But Piya is insistent, and her desire to protect the tiger overshadows her concern for the welfare of the villagers in the moment and colors her perception of the scene. Ghosh writes that it is "as if she could see the animal cowering inside the pen, recoiling from the bamboo spears, licking the wounds that had been gouged into its flesh" (294, my italics). Driven by her imagination of what the tiger is feeling, Piya reaches for a spear that one of the villagers is using to injure the tiger and snaps it in two under her foot.

The tiger's death is made even more horrific for Piya by the actions of her friend and local fisherman, Fokir. Fokir has helped Piya navigate the complicated river system of the Sundarbans in scenes leading up to the tiger's death, and Piya has come to see Fokir as an ally in her attempts to locate, observe, and conserve the rare Irrawaddy dolphin, despite their lack of a shared language. She is thus shocked that Fokir's conservation ethics do not extend to the tiger. Fokir, via a translator, tells Piya that she should not be so upset by the tiger's death, that when a tiger enters a human village "it's because it wants to die" (295). Piya cannot believe Fokir's response and refuses to listen to him as she covers her ears with her hands. As Piya flees the scene with Kanai, she laments her discovery that she and Fokir really have nothing in common. "But what did you expect, Piya?" asks Kanai. "Did you think he was some kind of grass-roots ecologist? He's not. He's a fisherman—he kills animals for a living" (297). Ghosh's narrative exposes a significant rift in the way characters imagine and experience the environment around them. For Piya, Indian animals—dolphins, tigers—are to be protected at all costs. For Fokir, Indian animals are both a way to support his family and a significant threat to the survival of himself and his peers.

An imaginative gap exists between Piya and Fokir—a cultural dissonance that leads each to tell strikingly different stories about the tiger. My primary argument in The Storyworld Accord is that reading narratives can help bridge imaginative gaps such as the one between Piya and Fokir. A narrative of the events surrounding the tiger's capture from Fokir's perspective, after all, would allow Piya to model and transport herself imaginatively to a world that better corresponds to a local desire for safety and fear of mauling. Alternatively, a narrative of the same set of events narrated by Piya would allow Fokir to imagine the tiger according to a different set of values and proscribed courses of action. I am not claiming that reading these respective stories would absolve the conflict between Piya and Fokir. Issues of translation aside, reading such hypothetical narratives would simply provide these fictional readers with the necessary textual cues by which to experience a different environmental imagination, not force a change in their actions or beliefs. Yet reading each other's stories would provide Piya and Fokir the chance to transport themselves to a different version of the environment they fight over—a process that stands to increase understanding between the two.

In this book, I analyze postcolonial narratives via ecocritical and narratological reading strategies to highlight such moments of cultural dissonance and discuss the potential of narratives and their world-creating power to increase understanding among readers of different environmental imaginations. This is a novel project, as despite many possible points of dialogue, ecocriticism and narratology have thus far said little to one another. Indeed, we might even see a certain incongruity built into the origins of the two fields. After all, one (ecocriticism) originated in part as a reaction against the dominance of discursivity emerging from structuralism, while the other (narratology) helped to secure that dominance in the first place. In her essay introducing feminist narratology, Susan Lanser states that "no contemporary theory, whether Anglo-American or continental, has exerted so little influence on feminist criticism or been so summarily dismissed as formalist-structuralist narratology" (676). We can recognize the same dissonance between narratology and ecocriticism almost thirty years later. On the one hand, ecocritics rarely, if ever, evoke narratological ideas or vocabulary in their readings of primary texts, as they tend to remain more interested in realist content than form or narrative structure. The theoretical discussion of narrative to gain the most hold in ecocritical discourse—Scott Slovic's idea of "narrative scholarship"—does not employ narratological terminology or reading strategies but instead emphasizes the importance of storytelling within ecocritical scholarship itself. On the other hand, discussions of the physical environment are largely missing from narratology. Although scholars such as Brian Boyd and Nancy Easterlin pair evolutionary theory with their study of narrative, few narrative theorists speak openly about the environment or the modern environmental crisis in their work.

Yet just as Lanser urges literary critics to forge an intersection between narratology's structuralist concerns and feminism's political concerns for the benefit of both fields, so too is the time ripe for scholars of literature and the environment to embrace complex narratological taxonomies, neologisms, and traditions and for narrative theorists to consider environmental issues alongside textual analysis. In the sections below, I first develop a sketch of respective developments within ecocriticism and narratology to highlight the auspicious timing of an econarratological mode of reading. I then spend time explaining what readings of storyworlds stand to bring to ecocritical, narratological, and postcolonial discourse, and the environmental humanities more generally. My aim with these theoretical snapshots of the development of ecocriticism and narratology, respectively, and my following discussion of storyworlds, is to create a strong foundation for the individual literary analyses in the chapters that follow. These theoretical explorations also supply a scholarly context for this book's concluding arguments—namely that engagement with storyworlds can help us overcome the cross purposes to which we often speak when we talk to each other about the environment, and that narrative reading stands to play an important role in the transnational environmentalism the modern environmental crisis demands.

Ecocriticism and Postcolonial Ecocriticism

We can locate the roots of ecocriticism in an organized sense of the word in Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm's 1996 anthology The Ecocriticism Reader. Glotfelty and Fromm organize the essays in the collection to answer the question, what is ecocriticism? To this end, they group together previously unrecognized work of literary and cultural scholars who for decades had been considering an environmental approach to literature, largely in isolation. The collection thus stands as a powerful testament to the emerging field of environmental literary studies and highlights the way such work had been slowly redrawing the boundaries of literary criticism since the early 1970s to respond to the contemporary environmental crisis. In her attempt to answer the question that lies at the heart of the collection, Glotfelty offers up this now frequently quoted definition: "Simply put, ecocriticism is the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment. Just as feminist criticism examines language and literature from a gender-conscious perspective, and Marxist criticism brings an awareness of modes of production and economic class to its readings of texts, ecocriticism takes an earth-centered approach to literary studies" (xviii).

All ecocritical work, according to Glotfelty, shares the fundamental premise that scholars of human culture can no longer ignore the environment. She suggests ecocriticism is a theoretical discourse that negotiates between the human and the nonhuman and takes as its subject the interactions between culture and nature. Glotfelty positions ecocriticism as the latest "green" development within the humanities and traces its roots to similar environmental turns in history, philosophy, law, sociology, and religion.

Glotfelty is quick to note that ecocriticism does not begin with her anthology and, indeed, a flurry of ecocritical work precedes TheEcocriticism Reader. Most notable of these developments are the hiring of the first academic position in Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, in 1990 (a position that went to Glotfelty herself); a 1991 MLA special session entitled "Ecocriticism: The Greening of Literary Studies"; and the establishment of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment in 1992, with Scott Slovic as its first president. Patrick Murphy founded the ecocriticism journal ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies of Literature and the Environment in 1993 to "provide a forum for critical studies of the literary and performing arts proceeding from or addressing environmental concerns" (qtd. in Glotfelty xviii). Literary scholars continued to publish influential ecocritical work in the wake of Glotfelty's reader, including John Elder's American Nature Writers (1996); Slovic's Seeking Awareness in American Nature Writing (1992); Michael Branch, Rochelle Johnson, Daniel Patterson, and Slovic's Reading the Earth (1998); Richard Kerridge and Neill Sammells'sWriting the Environment (1998); and John Tallmadge and Henry Harrington's Reading Under the Sign of Nature (2000), to name but a few examples.

In The Future of Environmental Criticism (2005), Lawrence Buell summarizes the trends of this work in his description of what he labels "first-wave" ecocriticism. We can align Buell himself clearly with the first-wave group, as his monograph The Environmental Imagination (1995) is another landmark in the establishment of ecocritical studies. He argues that we can identify the work of first-wave ecocritics as engaging in three clear projects. First among these projects is the foregrounding of nature in literary criticism—a reaction to the structuralist and poststructuralist revolution in critical theory that dominated literary studies in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s that examined the ways that language constructs reality and asserted linguistic representation and social construction at the expense of materialism or realism. Foregrounding representations of nature in texts such as Henry David Thoreau's Walden and Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire is a way for literary scholars concerned about the environmental crisis such as Buell, Slovic, Branch, and Glotfelty to stress the importance of a natural world that exists outside of language; as Kate Soper's cutting sound bite states, "It is not language that has a hole in its ozone layer" (What Is Nature? 151). A companion project is one of recovery, in which ecocritics raise awareness of the significant traditions of American and British nature writing. This work facilitates the establishment of a canon of Anglo-American and British nature writing, a constellation of texts that favors realism, fact-based nonfiction, and responsible models of individual environmental stewardship that many ecocritics argue can foster a sense of environmental responsibility. In addition to that of Thoreau and Abbey, the work of writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Aldo Leopold, William Wordsworth, John Clare, John Muir, Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez, Rachel Carson, Mary Austin, and Annie Dillard represents this canon. A third related project Buell associates with first-wave ecocriticism is the call for greater scientific literacy among literature scholars. First-wave ecocritics, Buell argues, tend to presuppose a universal human condition and appeal to science's ability to describe natural laws and provide a corrective to the dominance of cultural relativism and critical subjectivism in dominant literary studies. We can see a clear example of this interest in scientific discourse in Glen A. Love's Practical Ecocriticism (2003), and the ways that text grounds environmental literature in the life sciences, particularly evolutionary biology.

Buell holds this work in contrast to "second-wave" ecocriticism, which he sees as maintaining a first-wave interest in the environment while providing correctives to first-wave oversights. Second-wave ecocritics, according to Buell, seek to expand the ecocritical definition of environment by considering urban and degraded environments in addition to "natural" ones. We can see the second-wave move to broaden a definition of "environment" in studies such as Michael Bennett and David W. Teague's The Nature of Cities (1999) and Karla Armbruster and Kathleen R. Wallace's Beyond Nature Writing (2001), the latter of which argues that the term environment includes "cultivated and built landscapes, the natural elements and aspects of those landscapes, and cultural interactions with those natural elements" (4). Buell also sees second-wave ecocritics as working to expand the ecocritical notion of who should be included in the nature-writing canon and recognizing the work of minority and working-class writers more concerned with issues of environmental justice and environmentalism of the poor than conservation or wilderness protection. The most notable example of this work is Joni Adamson, Mei Mei Evans, and Rachel Stein's The Environmental Justice Reader (2002), which brings together articles that view environmental issues as integral to problems of social inequality and oppression. Finally, Buell sees second-wave ecocritics as challenging the first-wave reliance on scientific authority and working instead to forge links between studies of literature and the environment and mainstream literary theory. Illustrative of this work is Dana Phillips's The Truth of Ecology (2003), a polemical appraisal of the ways ecocriticism has been "lamentably under-informed by science studies, philosophy of science, environmental history, and ecology" (ix).


Excerpted from The Storyworld Accord by Erin James. Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Preface: “Another Place Entirely”    
1. Toward Econarratology    
2. Space and Counterpersonal Narration in Sam Selvon’s A Brighter Sun and The Lonely Londoners    
3. Rotten English and Orality in Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy    
4. Sight and Bodies in V. S. Naipaul’s Indian Travelogues    
5. National Myths and Ontological Boundaries in Ben Okri’s The Famished Road Trilogy    
6. Toward Storyworld Accords    
Works Cited    

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