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Towards an Africa-Focused Ecocriticism: The Case of Nigeria
AuthorWu, Chengyi Coral
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My dissertation explores early African environmental literary criticism, which I argue, can be traced back to the 1960s. Looking closely at early African environmental literary criticism enables us to recognize the genesis of an Africa-focused ecocriticism, a perspective that emerged in order to critique the impact of colonialism, neocolonialism, and more recent globalization on various African environments. My dissertation also compares the genesis of an Africa-focused ecocriticism to that of early Anglo-American ecocriticism, an environment-oriented approach developed originally from Anglo-American literary criticism in the 1990s in response to “the global Environmental Crisis.” Comparing the genesis of these ecocriticisms enables us to recognize a “rhizomatic,” rather than “derivative,” development of ecocriticism that occurred and prospered in different regions of the world. To understand and approach environmental issues in African literatures, I suggest that we should not explore the extent to which African literatures might respond to global environmental issues using an international ecocriticism defined and practiced in Anglo-American literary studies, but rather, following Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o’s concept of “poor theory,” to look to African literary texts themselves. My dissertation demonstrates how African environmental literature can provide a “theory” for an Africa-focused ecocriticism. How do African authors represent African environments and address African environmental issues through literature? Focusing on the “literary aesthetics” of African environmental literature enables us to see culturally, historically, and geographically particular representations of African environments. In turn, we might question how standard histories of and approaches to environmental writing in Anglo-American literature rely on a definition of nature as pristine and untouched, while in the African context we encounter an idea of nature as interdependent with human culture. My dissertation thus explores how alternative methodologies may be applied to African literature with the larger project of imagining a global ecocriticism that does not universalize but finds its local echoes in a series of complex, lateral relations across the world. In the same vein, I locate environmental tropes and concepts that are unique to the African context. My dissertation focuses on Nigerian novels specifically in an effort to demonstrate how that problematized nation-state might both require very local, historicized approaches while enabling us to come up with new methods for reading more broadly in African literature. These novels include Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), Ben Okri’s The Famished Road (1991), Cyprian Ekwensi’s Burning Grass (1962), Gabriel Okara’s The Voice (1964), Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy (1985), and Helon Habila’s Oil on Water (2010). I pair these novels with a specific environmental trope in each of my body chapters—tropes including the forest, the country and the city, and oil. My dissertation carefully examines these environmental tropes recurrent in these Nigerian novels in order to show the promise, uniqueness, and complexity of an African-focused ecocriticism. While early Anglo-American ecocriticism tends to treat the first two tropes as reflections of universal human conditions, I aim to show how ecocriticism in an African context would question such universalism. As for the third trope, I argue that African writers’ portrayals of the resource wars in the Niger Delta critique Western forms of state-run environmentalism—a colonial legacy in the postcolonial world that includes much of Africa. The conclusion of my dissertation indicates potential challenges an Africa-focused ecocriticism may encounter in contemporary crises related to “Chinese”-driven resource exploitation of the continent perpetrated in the name of global, neoliberal capitalism. Introducing Chinese presence in Africa and its attendant impact on African environments to an Africa-focused ecocriticism reminds us of the limit of postcolonial ecocriticism in approaching environmental crises caused by non-Western sources.