Mapule Mohulatsi, Oceanic Humanities for the Global South PhD fellow reports back from the conference 'Oceanic Humanities: Perspectives from the Global North and South' at the University of Virginia.
Climate change and rising sea levels haunt every crevice of the earth and thus everything we have written or are yet to write will be influenced by the impending apocalypse. Water, usually associated with words such as ‘life’, ‘renewal’ and ‘regeneration’ now poses such a threat to the earth as we know it that ‘death’, ‘degeneration’ and ‘detritus’ may soon be its accompanying words. Ultimately, we are now forced to re-read and rewrite so much of what we thought we knew. Words, writing, reading - all are changing and shifting. Today, one cannot use, as Kanishk Tharoor intelligently notes in his piece ‘The swiftness of glaciers: language in a time of climate change’, the term “moving at a glacial pace” in the same way one might have, say, ten years ago.
Our writing and reading practices are influenced in so many ways by climate change yet much still stays the same; for one, there is still a divide in perspective as well as experience when and if we consider the Global North and South divide. Geographically, as well as economically, climate change affects the North and the South in different ways. This divide is also becoming explicit in the ways we read and write climate change as a global problem.
The Institute of Humanities and Global Cultures at the University of Virginia recently hosted a conference entitled ‘Oceanic Humanities: Perspectives from the Global North and South’ and as a graduate student in the Oceanic Humanities of the Global South programme I had the opportunity to visit UVA from the 9th of April to the 18th. During that time I attended the conference sessions as well as presented a paper derived from my MA research titled ‘Black Aesthetics and Deep Water: Fish-people, Mermaid Art and Slave Memory in South Africa’.
Notable amongst those in attendance were Amitav Ghosh, author of The Hungry Tide, A Sea of Poppies, and The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Deborah Baker, author of The Last Englishmen: Love, War and the End of Empire, as well as Debjani Ganguly, the director of the Institute of Humanities and Global Cultures. Debjani Ganguly during one of the sessions presented a paper derived from a monograph she is currently completing, and for me, hers was the most enlightening presentation. Ganguly looks in very interesting ways at catastrophic form and planetary realism. Her paper focused on two novels, Ocean Roads by James George and The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh. Ganguly looks at the novels in order to investigate what she refers to as the tribunal of truth in realism; she concentrates on scale and magnitude, humanist epistemologies and human entanglements. I was most interested in her discussion around time, catastrophe and reversals where she looks into “uncanny scapes as the planets alterity”. Working with and though climate change presents us with new ways to speak of genre and form. Ganguly makes a distinction between these two, noting that the visible and the invisible can be determined by scales of contamination where climate change is evoked. The two novels she looks at remap the aesthetics of alterity from a Global North as well as South perspective.
Overall, I did feel though that most of the perspectives at the conference were from the Global North and where the South was concerned it was still a Northern perspective of the South. Recent events in parts of the Global South urge us to consider the overwhelming ways climate change has begun to devastate the South. Indonesia’s capital city, Jakata, sits on the northwest coast of the Island of Java. A report published in the New York Times in 2017 estimated that 40% of the city was below sea level; just recently, the Indonesian government announced that the capital city has to be relocated as it is estimated the city will be submerged entirely by 2050. Zimbabwe and Mozambique have been affected by the devastating cyclone Idai whilst parts of Durban that are closer to the ocean have also been washed up by floods caused by April’s heavy rains. If climate change was a myth that has progressed to the degree of serious speculation to some, it is an ardent reality to many; especially those who live in close proximity to bodies of water. In the context of rising sea levels and climate change the Global South occupies a geographic, ecological, as well as an economic climate that marks it as different, and often lesser than, the prominent and wealthier North. Climate change interestingly brings up the question of survival and here capitalist modes of being become even more amplified. Studies on climate and the ocean from the South do have to practice more independence as we cannot remain a perspective; if recent events show anything it is that we may be climate change’s first victims, even though, eventually, human society in its entirety faces this threat. Finally, studies from the North in as much as they now seek to make economic cases for nature simultaneously have to honestly confront the economies they uphold that have led to the devastation of the natural world.
Writing on slavery and climate change has made it more apparent to me that even though the events (of slavery and climate change) can easily be read as separate and ‘far apart’, what they do share is the element of catastrophe in and by water. Catastrophe emerges not only as a word to make sense of these events but also as a key concept from which form and genre have been influenced. Virginia occupies a sensitive place in American history as well as in my imaginary. My first encounters with the American South were all through books from William H. Armstrong’s Sounder to work by William Faulkner and Toni Morrison. Catastrophe in William Faulkner’s work is a constant especially in the context of slavery and in the familial sense. When thinking of water in the 21st century how can we not re-read his greats in a more watery way; take the mother in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying whose coffin crosses a flooding river with the help of her family and how little Vardaman begins to see his mother as a fish. It is now almost impossible to read the river scene without thinking of Glissant’s notion of deep water as an abyssal womb. Toni Morrison’s character Son in Tar Baby is an impoverished yet strong minded man who literally washes up at a rich estate on a Caribbean Island . And again from Morrison, Beloved, the story of a baby ghost who emerges from the waters that carry the dead. Being in the American South and visiting the Historical Block in Charlottesville allowed me to think of these texts, as a Global South reader interested in water, in ways I had not thought about before. The Historical Block has vast statues of white men on horses everywhere yet slave memory steals itself into the scenario through the very air and the trees and the rocking chairs on porches as well as the cuisine. I enjoyed a Jamaican cuisine of plantain and jerk chicken facing the statues of the founders of the Confederacy and thinking of the books I had read of and about the American South.
I am now finding it interesting to think of the American South as a creolized ecology, because of its slave history it is now home to other South’s in very diverse ways. Virginia is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the east and most of its history is Atlantic ocean based; yet in Charlottesville for example most of the restaurants are Korean, Thai, Indian, and Chinese - Indian Ocean flavours.
To conclude, the conference itself was exciting. I felt that some of the frequently used words such as slow violence, gradualism, temporality, nuclear haunting, magnitude and enquiry do signify to the fact that we are indeed skating on very thin ice. Words are so delicate, so easy to misuse but also quite prophetic. As Kanishk Tharoor beautifully puts it: “[A] new class of dead metaphors has entered the English language. We speak routinely of carbon footprints, of wiping species off the face of the Earth, and of greenhouse gases, but we no longer see the feet, the hands, the faces and the backyard sheds that were once vivid when those phrases were newly coined.” Our dictionaries may need some revision because from the North to the South, the East and the West, all is changing.