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Book examines how African environmental writing shaped global environmentalism

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

LAWRENCE — When legendary South African author Nadine Gordimer died July 13, a significant portion of the news coverage highlighted her criticism of apartheid – a major focus of her Nobel Prize-winning writing.

However, another major theme — environmentalism — is present in Gordimer's novels as well, including "The Conservationist" in 1974 and "Get a Life" in 2005. A University of Kansas expert on 20th century African literature said this theme is inseparable from her focus on political oppression.

"There can be a need to think about the links among injustice, political power, economic processes and environmental degradation,” said Byron Caminero-Santangelo, associate professor of English. "Many African activists and their writing would suggest you can't really separate environmentalism from issues of social justice.”

Caminero-Santangelo focuses on these connections in African literature in his new book, "Different Shades of Green: African Literature, Environmental Justice, and Political Ecology," which is the first single-authored book on African literature and environmentalism. In general, his research interests lie at the intersection of environmental studies and African literary studies, two academic disciplines that have rarely been brought into conversation.  

"I'm emphasizing the ways that we can expand what we understand as environmental writing, but that means also understanding environmentalism through a framework that's drawing on geographic theory and writing by environmental justice activists," he said. "At the same time, by putting this theory and writing in dialogue with literary texts and by putting literary texts in dialogue with each other, I foreground what literary studies can potentially offer to environmental studies and activism."

In "The Conservationist" Gordimer's protagonist, Mehring, buys a farm outside of Johannesburg, where he shows compassion and appreciation for nature but not the black workers there.

"She was quite critical of the kind of environmentalist focus that was prominent among whites in South Africa under apartheid because it couldn't really be separated from apartheid itself," Caminero-Santangelo said. "There was the idea that you need to clean up litter and you need to clean up the environment, and that idea all too often became an excuse for displacement of peoples."

Mehring’s form of conservation really is another means to reinforce his sense of entitlement and mastery, which is also reflected in his lack of humility in relation to ecological processes, Caminero-Santangelo emphasized. When she wrote "Get a Life" after both the fall of apartheid and the rise of the environmental justice movement in South Africa, Gordimer's protagonist offers a much more sympathetic portrait of a conservationist figure.

Caminero-Santangelo said prominent Western ideas about nature writing and environmentalism have been significant contributing factors in the relative neglect of African environmental writing. To address this neglect, he drew on writing by a number of prominent African environmental activists.

For example, Wangari Maathai was the first environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

"She linked environmental issues with concerns about people's health and livelihoods, as well as with the protection of the ground — literally — of the Kenyan nation," he said. "She fought soil erosion both by starting a tree planting movement, made up almost entirely of women, and by fighting deforestation. In the process, she became a thorn in the side of the authoritarian government of Daniel Arap Moi.”

Ken Saro-Wiwa, a Nigerian writer and activist, was executed in 1995 and became a martyr both for writers and environmentalists. As a member of the Ogoni ethnic minority, he fought against the government and oil companies' efforts to extract oil in the Niger Delta with few environmental regulations.

Caminero-Santangelo said that through his efforts to convince Greenpeace to work in Africa and Amnesty International to become involved in environmental projects, Saro-Wiwa became a key figure in the transformation of what environmentalism could be

"In this sense, his writing is a central component of my effort to redefine what environmental writing might mean in the context of African literary studies,” Caminero-Santangelo said. "In essence, environmentalism in Africa is not derivative; it's actually shaped the direction of global environmentalism."

The University of Virginia Press released "Different Shades of Green" in June.


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