Asian American ecocriticism focuses on providing theoretical frameworks for understanding race and ethnicity in environmental contexts. Attention to Asian American literary criticism can fill crucial critical lacunae in the study of the environment in American studies. Since the early 2000s, ecocritical and environmental studies have conceptualized place, the physical and built environment, not only as an object of study but also as a site from which to launch a critique of how ecocritical studies has centered issues such as climate change and environmental degradation by understanding the intersectional contexts of environmental studies. Asian American ecocriticism in this sense can be understood as a rejoinder to the extant body of work in ecocritical studies in that it demands a vigorous engagement with race, class, and ethnicity in understanding what we think of as the environment.
Anita Mannur and Casey Kuhajda
New Orleans has long been a city vital to the American imagination, known for its deep colonial and cultural history while, at the same time, evolving into the post-Katrina “city that care forgot.” Shaped by Spanish, French, and British imperialisms and situated at the edge of the American South, the Gulf Coast, and the Caribbean, New Orleans is a geography distinguished by transnational crosscurrents and intense meteorological activity; an economically and politically strategic port town, it is a below-sea-level city continuously vulnerable to environmental disaster. Typically neglected in dominant mappings of the city, however, are the area’s Pacific ties that have also helped to make New Orleans. Ever since the mid-19th century, various Asian and Asian American groups have populated southern Louisiana as immigrants, workers, traders, and refugees. After the Civil War, thousands of Chinese and Filipinos arrived in the region as a supposed replacement for slave labor. In the mid-20th century, the US government dispersed numerous Japanese Americans to the area after internment, while since the late 20th century, New Orleans has been home to one of the densest populations of Vietnam War refugees in the country. These migrations spurred the creation of ethnic enclaves and cultural practices that have directly and tangentially defined New Orleans, providing significant labor pools and offering illustrative narratives of post-disaster rebuilding. Given the region’s rich Pacific history and daily environmental vulnerability, engaging New Orleanian culture compels an Asian Americanist ecocritical approach, or one that engages the relationship among space, matter, culture, and critique, and attends to regional details as well as Pacific contexts. Some of the more prominent portrayals of Asian Louisiana, such as those by Lafcadio Hearn and Robert Olen Butler, have tended to exoticize their subject. By contrast, examining works by Bao Phi, An-My Lê, and Anna Kazumi Stahl reveals alternative ecologies of Louisiana that contribute to a stronger understanding of racial relations in the region, further specifies the Gulf Coast’s transnational dynamics, and foregrounds the value of Asian American studies for ecocriticism (and vice versa). These artists’ portrayals of disaster-oriented landscapes show how attention to overlooked Asian American ecologies reveals the fundamental spatial, economic, and environmental precariousness of our times for marginalized communities.
Although largely disregarded since the humanistic turn of ecocriticism at the beginning of the 21st century, nature writing has continued to play an important role in nurturing trans-Pacific, and transnational, literary environmentalism. Euro-American traditions dominate this literary genre, but it nevertheless involves cross-cultural traffic of ideas and thoughts. Its trans-Pacific presence, mostly through American influences on works in Japan, demonstrates in three ways how American nature writing has been cultivating Japanese literary soil and has in turn been nurtured by it, albeit less conspicuously. First, Henry David Thoreau’s influence on Japanese literary environmentalism, especially his philosophy of plain living and high thinking, helped engender a tradition of nature writing in Japan that began with Nozawa Hajime—often called the “Japanese Thoreau”—and has been developed by those who followed, including Ashizawa Kazuhiro and Takada Hiroshi. Second, interactions between pastoralism and a new mode of environmental awareness show that the seemingly American notion of “wild awareness” and the Japanese concept of aware have materialized as a new environmental sensitivity in Japan and in the United States, respectively, reflecting cross-cultural nurturing of environmental ideas, thoughts, and practices. Finally, there has been a subtle yet radical impact of American counterculture on Japanese nature writing, exemplified by Nashiki Kaho’s literary hybridity, based on her integration of the traditional with the radical.
(East and Southeast) Asian Canadian literature has consistently been preoccupied with the transpacific: from its lived spaces, its imagined ones, and its hybrid literary constructions. This body of literature includes narratives of arrival, autobiographical texts, historiographic novels, magical realist fiction, and experimental poetry. While these texts have usually been read through historical frameworks, thinking through them spatially enables us to understand and trace the alternate geographies of mobility, belonging, and cultural change beyond the project of the Canadian nation. These texts are predicated on transnational spaces of commerce and labor, trauma and resistance, refuge and liminality, and mobility and materiality. They reflect and produce the complex and overlapping trajectories of communities and individuals from East and Southeast Asia. From fictions of Chinatown to testimonies of racist dispersal and exclusion, refugee narratives to speculative decolonial futures, Asian Canadian literature has shaped both rural and urban Canadian spaces and their transnational and local textures. Thinking through the transpacific spaces in the literature points to the ways in which racist and exclusionary policies have shaped the landscapes and social spaces of the nation whether through immigration laws or forcible dispossession and internment. Yet, it also gives rise to the possibilities of new collectivities and communities within and beyond the nation-state. In the face of unequal globalization and movements of labor and capital, this mode of analysis points to possible indigenous and diasporic solidarities and place-making. Contemporary texts from Asian Canadian writers also evince a consciousness of Canadian bioregions and the confrontation of extraction economics that allows for a discussion of intersectionality in the context of environmental humanities and ecocriticism.
Animals have prowled literature from its beginnings in the ancient world through medieval bestiaries and out from the margins of the novel in the modern era. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, animals’ literary presence has generated increasing critical interest. Animal studies, a relatively new interdisciplinary field, calls attention to the accelerating exploitation of animals in the period of industrial modernity and questions what it is possible to know about animals’ own experiences. Foundational theoretical approaches to understanding the historical and philosophical condition of thinking about animals—John Berger’s “Why Look at Animals?” (1972), Thomas Nagel’s “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” (1974), and Jacques Derrida’s “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)” (2002)—propose a fundamental aporia or gap between human and animal experiences, and they caution against the projection of anthropocentric categories onto animal lives. Many novels from this recent period likewise treat animals as charismatic strangers. Yet other contemporary literature sometimes reimagines human-animal relationships to insist on affinity and continuity. In such novels, animals prompt diverse and often experimental stylistic choices that put pressure on the novel’s traditional association with everyday life, the individual self, the boundaries of the nation, and empirical observation more broadly. Still, many recent novels remain essentially committed to a realist tradition. Some of these—most notably by J. M. Coetzee—depict relations of care between humans and often vulnerable or dependent animals that prompt reflection on the meaning of ethical action. In novels that purport to narrate from animals’ own perspective, writers likewise meditate on the ethics of interspecies relations as they use language innovatively in an effort to realistically evoke the sensorium of another species. Pushing the boundaries of realism, other novels reinvent the animal fable, using varying degrees of fantasy to imagine wild or domesticated animals as tropes that reflect upon human embodiment, community, and politics. Whether realist or fabulist, the novels of contemporary postcolonial and world literature particularly explore the power and limits of mapping histories of human belonging and domination onto animal figures, even as they often highlight the limitations of these comparisons. Not all of these approaches are equally invested in creating a literature that could materially impact the lives of animals in an era of diminishing biodiversity. However, uniting this varied and ever-growing array of novels is a question of how literature can represent the lives of intimately entangled bodies in a globalizing world.
Latina/o environmental justice literature, prompted by organizing against environmental racism and for ecologically linked social responsibility, emerges in the late 20th century, but environmental justice literary interpretation and critical theory examines texts from any period of Latina/o literature, engaging the nexus of nature, culture, and environmental degradation and justice. Latina/o environmental justice literature includes many genres (fiction, poetry, nonfiction, memoir, testimonio, and performance art, to name a few) and has umbilical connections to a large body of lived experience, longstanding theory and praxis, traditional environmental knowledge (TEK), and environmental justice movement activism. This body of literary poetics that followed the emergence and naming of the environmental justice movement in the 1980s had precursors in the cultural poetics of the civil rights movement and related struggles for justice, equality, nonviolence, feminisms, human rights, and environmental protection. Antecedents to Latina/o environmental justice literature are found in oral literature, pre-Columbian texts, and subsequent Latina/o writing. Definitions of environmental justice within the context of the burgeoning environmental justice movement in the latter decades of the 20th century contribute to interpretations of the literature from this period forward. The last decades of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century saw environmental justice themes emerge in many genres, and Latina/o literature made significant contributions to the broader field. Studies of cultural poetics of environmental justice contributed to that diversity. Contemporary environmental justice literary scholarship summarizes past approaches, traces ongoing work, and offers future directions—redefining and rebirthing environmental justice and climate justice poetics, given global warming and resulting climate change.
Nature has, like love, been an essential topic for authors in every language and every literary form. The first thing to acknowledge about the term nature writing is that it conventionally refers to a distinctive category of nonfiction, not to the entire spectrum of literature about the natural world. The present survey is further restricted to American nature writing, though the genre has also developed in many other countries. The American lineage of nature writing has been especially influenced by the work of Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), who combined journal-based descriptions of the New England landscape and knowledgeable appreciation of science with lyrical prose, receptiveness to nature’s human and transcendent meanings, and a highly personal voice. Thoreau’s own orientation to solitude, wildness, and the music of nature has also been complemented, however, and in some cases forcefully challenged, by subsequent writers focusing on urban landscapes; environmental justice; the impact of gender, class, and race on our visions of nature; environmental justice; food and agriculture; and material culture. Many literary scholars also now prefer to consider nature writing under the multi-genre and international rubric of “environmental literature.” Nevertheless, this particular form remains a vital model for integrating imaginative literature with close observation of natural phenomena. Today’s writers continue to find, with Thoreau, that books “with earth adhering to their roots” may blossom in the human spirit, revitalizing individual lives even as they also address the urgent environmental and cultural challenges we now confront.