“‘Without water we are nothing’: Poetics and Politics of Water in Anglophone Postcolonial Literatures (20th-21st Centuries)”

deadline for submissions: 
November 15, 2023
full name / name of organization: 
Université de Lille, France

13- 14 June 2024

“‘Without water we are nothing’: Poetics and Politics of Water in Anglophone Postcolonial Literatures (20th-21st Centuries)”

Keynote Speaker: Farhana Sultana (Professor, Department of Geography and the Environment, Syracuse University)

The international conference “‘Without water we are nothing’: Poetics and Politics of Water in Anglophone Postcolonial Literatures (20th-21st Centuries)” will be organised by the University of Lille (CECILLE) on 13- 14 June 2024 . This interdisciplinary conference invites papers that will address the poetic and political stakes of water in 20th and 21st-Century Anglophone literatures.

The arrival of a world (fresh)water crisis has been a central concern for many years now. There have been conflicts around the availability of water, and access to it, related to some actors’ willingness to commodify and privatize it. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which will bring Ethiopia hydropower production in great quantities, puts at risk populations downstream in Egypt and Sudan, by greatly impacting the Nile’s natural flow. Severe droughts have hit the Horn of Africa. In 2022, Pakistan was hit by floods of epic proportions. 2022 was also an annus horribilis for eastern Australia which underwent some of its worst floods in recent history. The Australian government now forecasts that the country may face three dry years, after having known three unusually wet years (which, however, did not prevent megafires in some parts of the continental island). The cities of Bangalore (India), Cape Town (South Africa), Mosul (Iraq), and others, are facing the increasingly real possibility of “Day Zero”, that is to say, the day when the taps could run dry. Water stress, for some of these locations, added to conflicts like wars, has led to the relocation of people, the latter having no choice but to be on the move. Water, or lack thereof, has been central in countless scientific reports (IPCC, for example), documentaries, articles, and maybe above all, in literary works (drama, poetry, fiction).

Our aim in this international conference is to delve into what has been described as the “hydrological turn” (Chen, MacLeod, and Neimanis, 2013) and the “blue humanities” (Mentz, 2023) in ecocriticism and environmental humanities. The focus on rain, hail, snow, groundwater tables, glaciers, mudflats, coral reefs, mangroves, pools, ponds, bogs, swamps, (salt) marshes, wetlands, lagoons, lakes, brooks, streams, rivers, estuaries, tributaries, seas, oceans, etc., has been central in postcolonial literatures. This is the case in Nigerian-American writer Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon (2014). It is also the case in Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence (2008), where one of the characters muses over the power of water: “‘[w]ithout water we are nothing’”. (The power of) water is at the very core of some postcolonial literary works in English, whether it be in Indian literature as in the ecological novel The Hungry Tide (2004) by Amitav Ghosh, or in Anita Desai’s The Zigzag Way (2004) and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997), or in Zambian literature as, for instance, in Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift (2019). One could argue that some writers develop what Nigerian critic Sule Egya, in a Nigerian context, calls an “ecopoetics of flooding” (2022), yet in The Book of Not (2006), Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga narrates the devastating impact of a drought on the community she portrays, while in an Australian context, the Indigenous narrator of Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (2006) explains that “[i]t takes a particular kind of knowledge to go with the river”, therefore pointing to the importance of developing awareness in settler and Global North/Western societies (without adopting an extractive approach) of how other ontologies and epistemologies understand humans’ relationship with water bodies of all types. Sudanese writer Leila Aboulela’s River Spirit (2023) also provides a reflection on the aforementioned relationship.

Environmental catastrophes affecting water are central in Nigerian fiction, as exemplified in Helon Habila’s Oil on Water (2010), which takes place in the Southern Delta State. More recently, Nigerian cli-fi writer Osahon Ize-Iyamu has written a short story entitled “More Sea than Tar” (2019), in which water has become a vector of disease and, worse even, death because of extreme pollution in a post-apocalyptic future world. In the field of poetry, Caribbean poet Derek Walcott’s “The Sea is History” in his autobiographical collection Another Life (1973), evokes the biblical character of Jonah, who is swallowed up by a giant fish, and refers to the history of Caribbean people as “locked in them sea sands / out there past the reef’s moiling shelf”. Canadian poet Dionne Brand — born in Trinidad and Tobago — uses water as a recurring motif symbolizing both destruction and renewal. In her collection Land to Light On (1997), she explores the capacity of the ocean to cleanse, transform, but also destroy and overwhelm, while Adam Dickinson, another Canadian poet, places water pollution, and its toxic impact on Indigenous Canadians in particular, at the centre of his 2018 collection Anatomic .

Beyond the management of water as an abstract molecule (H2O); beyond the question of profit made from water management — a utilitarian relationship with water in a capitalist system — one can raise the issues of the Anthropocene (or, rather, Capitalocene) and its discourse of modernity and (postcolonial) progress, anthropocentrism, and epistemic violence. Aquatic ecosystems (including their fauna and flora, among which algae, mosquitoes, etc.) are at risk. With these ecosystems endangered, it is also cultures that are threatened, cultures that have always thought about and with water. This is the case, for example, of some West, Central and Southern African cultures that recognize the importance of the Mami Wata deity. Some of these cultures are based on water-centric knowledges, which can be perceived as decolonial knowledges.

We are calling for a reflection on the poetics of water (Bachelard) and how, in a postcolonial context, this can be related to politics. Among the various questions that can be asked are the following:

- Water crises and literary genres / the writing process;
- Interdisciplinary approach to reflect on the (literary) stakes behind water;
- Postcolonial literary works and the “reparation” of water (Rey, 2021);
- Postcolonial literary works dealing with water and climate justice;
- Postcolonial literary works and other “ways of knowing” water;
- Water knowledges produced by “epistemic workers” (Castree, 2013);
- The modalities of the “rights of nature” in postcolonial Anglophone literary works;
- Postcolonial literary works and the deconstruction of a universalizing (or western-based) conception / interpretation / reading of water;
- Intersection between water-based political issues and gender (and genre);
- Postcolonial literary works: towards a path out of western-based perceptions of water and towards other epistemologies liberated — or not — from the shackles of neo-colonialism;
- …

Abstracts no longer than 300 words in English with a short biography should be sent before 15 November 2023 to the conference convenors, Cédric COURTOIS (Université de Lille) and Fiona McCANN (Université de Lille) at waterpoetics.politics@gmail.com .

Selected Bibliography:

ABOULELA, Leila, River Spirit , New York: Grove Press, 2023.
BAGHEL, Ravi, Lea STEPAN and Joseph K. W. HILL (Eds.), Water, Knowledge and the Environment in Asia: Epistemologies, Practices and Locales, London: Earthscan, 2017.
BOAST, Hannah, Hydrofictions: Water, Power and Politics in Israeli and Palestinian Literature, Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.
BARRY, Andrew, and Georgina BORN, Interdisciplinarity: Reconfigurations of the Social and Natural Sciences, London: Routledge, 2013.
BRAND, Dionne, Land to Light On, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1997.
BUELL, Lawrence, Writing for an Endangered World: Literature, Culture and Environment in the U.S. and Beyond, Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001.
BULLOCH, John and Adel DARWISH, Water Wars: Coming Conflicts in the Middle East, London: Victor Gollancz, 1993.
CASTREE, Noel, Nature, Abbingdon: Routledge, 2005.
—, Making Sense of Nature: Representation, Politics and Democracy, New York: Routledge, 2013.
CHEN, Cecilia, Janine MACLEOD and Astrida NEIMASIS, “Introduction: Toward a Hydrological Turn?”, In Thinking with Water, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013.
CODE, Lorraine., “Feminist Epistemology and the Politics of Knowledge: Questions of Marginality”, In The SAGE Handbook of Feminist Theory, edited by M. EVANS, C. HEMMINGS, M. HENRY, et al., Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2014. 9-25.
CUSACK, Tricia., Riverscapes and National Identities, Sycaruse: Syracuse University Press, 2010.
D’SOUZA, Rohan, Drowned and Damned: Colonial Capitalism and Flood Control in Eastern India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007.
DANGAREMBGA, Tsitsi, 2006, The Book of Not, London: Faber&Faber, 2021.
DELOUGHREY, Elizabeth M., and George B. HANDLEY (Eds.), Postcolonial Ecologies: Literatures of the Environment, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
DE SOUSA SANTOS, Boaventura, Epistemologies of the South: Justice against Epistemicide, New York, Routledge, 2014.
—, “Epistemologies of the South and the Future”, From the European South 1 (2016): 17-29.
DESAI, Anita, The Zigzag Way, London: Vintage, 2004.
DICKINSON, Adam, Anatomic, Toronto: Coach House Books, 2018.
EGYA, Sule Emmanuel, “The Ecopoetics of Flooding in Contemporary Nigeria”, Études anglaises 75.2 (2022): 209-225.
GHOSH, Amitav, The Hungry Tide, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
HABILA, Helon, Oil on Water, New York : W. W. Norton & Co., 2011.
IZE-IYAMU, Osahon, “More Sea than Tar”, [ https://reckoning.press/more-sea-than-tar/ | https://reckoning.press/more-sea-than-tar/ ] , 2 019.
LAHIRI-DUTT, Kuntala, “Imagining Rivers”, Economic and Political Weekly 35.27 (2000): 2395-2397.
—, Fluid Bonds: Views on Gender and Water, Kolkata: Stree, 2006.
—, “Towards a More Comprehensive Understanding of Rivers”, In Living Rivers, Dying Rivers, edited by R. IYER, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2015. 421-434.
LINTON, Jamie, What is Water? The History of a Modern Abstraction, Vancouver: UBP Press, 2010.
MENTZ, Steve, An Introduction to the Blue Humanities, New York: Routledge, 2023.
MORRIS, Steve, and Jacinda RURU, “Giving Voice to Rivers: Legal Personality as a Vehicle for Recognising Indigenous Peoples’ Relationships to Water?”, Australian Indigenous Law Review 14.2 (2010): 49-62.
NEIMASIS, Astrida, “Alongside the Right to Water: A Posthumanist Feminist Imaginary”, Journal of Human Rights and the Environment 5.1 (2014): 5-24.
MULGREW, Nick, Karina SZCZUREK, Water: New Short Fiction from Africa, New York: New York University Press, 2017.
NGUGI wa Thiong’o, The River Between, London: Heinemann, 1965.
OKORAFOR, Nnedi, Lagoon , New York: Saga Press, 2010.
PARSONS, Meg, Karen FISHER, and Roa Petra CREASE, Decolonising Blue Spaces in the Anthropocene: Freshwater Management in Aotearoa New Zealand , Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021.
REY, Olivier, Réparer l’eau, Paris: Stock, 2021.
ROBERTS, L., and K. PHILIPS, Multidisciplinary Understandings of Human-Water Relationships, London: Earthscan, 2019.
ROY, Arundhati, The God of Small Things, New York: Random House, 1997.
RUSHDIE, Salman, The Enchantress of Florence, London: Vintage, 2009.
SERPELL, Namwali, The Old Drift, London: Vintage, 2019.
SCHMIDT, Jeremy, Water: Abundance, Scarcity and Security in the Age of Humanity, New York: New York University Press, 2017.
SILKO, Leslie Marmon, Ceremony, London: Penguin Books, 1977.
STRANG, Veronica, The Meaning of Water, Oxford: Berg, 2004.
—, “Water, Culture and Power: Anthropological Perspectives from ‘Down Under’”, Insights: Journal of the Institute of Advanced Study 3.4 (2010): 2-26.

SULTANA, Farhana & Alex LOFTUS, Water Politics: Governance, Justice and the Right to Water. London & new York: Rooutledge, 2020.

SULTANA, Farhana, "Gendering the Human Right to Water in the Context of Sustainable Development” Oxford Handbook on Comparative Environmental Politics. Eds. Jeannie Sowers, Stacy Vandeveer, and Erika Weinthal. Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK. 538-555.
TANASESCU, Mihnea, “When a river is a person: From Ecuador to New Zealand, nature gets its day in court”, Open Rivers: Rethinking Water, Place and Community 8 (2017): 127-132.
WALCOTT, Derek, The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948-2013, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.
WRIGHT, Alexis, Carpentaria, Melbourne: Bolinda Publishing, 2006.
ZEITOUN, Mark, Power and Water in the Middle East: The Hidden Politics of the Palestinian-Israeli Water Conflict, London: I.B. Tauris, 2012.

Conference advisory board:

Estelle CASTRO-KOSHY , James Cook University;
Jaine CHEMMACHERY , Sorbonne Université;
Thomas DUTOIT , Université de Lille;
Xavier GARNIER , Université Sorbonne Nouvelle;
Vanessa GUIGNERY , ENS de Lyon;
Claire OMHOVERE , Université Paul Valéry-Montpellier 3;
Laura SINGEOT , Université de Reims;
Sandrine SOUKAÏ , Université Gustave Eiffel;
Kerry-Jane WALLART , Université d’Orléans.