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Carmelina Concilio (Università di Torino), Anthropocene: Trees in Anglophone Postcolonial Literature
Carmen Concilio is full professor of English and Postcolonial literature at the University of Torino, Italy. She is former president of AISCLI (www.aiscli.it), has recently co-edited Trees in Literature and the Arts. HumanAroboreal Perspectives in the Anthropocene (Lexington 2021), she published Imaging Ageing Representations of Age and Ageing in Anglophone Literature (Transcript 2018) and New Critical Patterns in Postcolonial Discourse. Historical Traumas and Environmental Issues (Trauben 2012). Her research fields are postcolonial studies, migration and diaspora studies, digital humanities, precarity studies, environmental humanities, ecoliterature and ecocriticism. She is involved in academic journals, such as Il Tolomeo, de-genere, and editorial series, such as AngloSophia: Studi di Letteratura e Cultura Inglese (Mimesis). She is part of national and international research networks in the field of postcolonial culture, ageing studies and environmental studies.
The Anthropocene is not only “a potential geological unit of time” (Zalasievicz et. al. 2019, 1), or the idea of ‘man’ as a geographical and geological agent that would leave a future fossil record (2019, 5), but also, I would say, the era of awareness. Among the various environmental challenges we have become conscious of, there is also a ‘plant turn’ (Coccia 2018, 14). This means that plants and trees stopped being considered as occupying the bottom of a hierarchical natural pyramid, but acquired visibility and agency, while scientific discoveries on vegetal neurobiology also became more widely known, particularly through the works of scientists such as Stefano Mancuso (2017), as far as Italy is concerned, or Daniel Chamovitz (2012), to mention another example.
One possibility to look at life on Earth as an interspecies continuum is to analyze contemporary literary works which stage humanarboreal entanglement, by rewriting Ovid-like narratives of men’ and women’s metamorphoses into trees. The literary works here selected for discussion come from the ex-colonies of the British Empire, where cultural constructions of “otherness” involved race, ethnicities, class and gender, but did not exclude nature.
In particular, the relationship between ‘African’ fairy tales and folklore and contemporary novels will be object of analysis in relation to trees and humanarboreal metamorphoses in South African post-Apartheid literature. On the one hand, becoming-tree might be read in the same way in which philosophers Deleuze and Guattari (1986) read the becoming-animal in Kafka’s famous The Metamorphosis (1915) as ‘a line of flight’. On the other hand, the transformation of a human being into a tree might be read as a practice in radical “plant thinking”, as another way to dismantle metaphysical hierarchies (Marder, 2013).
Ovid’s fables are still extremely important for many scholars. For instance, Emanuele Coccia in his essay Métamorphoses writes that differently from Ovid’s idea of transubstantiation, plants’ metamorphosis is an unveiling, or pealing off of their parts: flowers are nothing but the ‘naked’ plant (Coccia 2022, 82). In her non-fiction prose How I became a Tree Sumana Roy also refers to Ovid, connecting women’s transformations into trees with stories of violence and rape, but also in relation to todays’ hybridizations into cyborgs: “I discovered a grandparent in Ovid. […] The fear of sexual violence had propelled poor Daphne’s desire to turn into a tree. […] That it wasn’t women alone who had turned into plants to escape violence did not make me feel any better of course […] What had changed so remarkably between Ovid and Lara Croft that the urge to become plant like had been replaced by the urge to look like machines? (Roy 2021, 20-21) J.M.Coetzee also refers to Ovid in a more inclusive and holistic vision: “My feeling is that Greek fables like the one about Apollo and Daphne are a later, and in a way more rational, overlay over a deep feeling in primitive religion that all of life is one, i.e., that the life-force is mutable and expresses itself almost at will, unpredictably. The body of a girl (or of a youth) and the trunk of a tree are just different manifestations (metamorphoses) of the same deep force” (Coetzee 2013, 47).
Keeping all this in mind, my presentation will analyze the rewritings of the South African fairy tale “Kamyio of the River” in the novel by André Brink Imaginings of Sand (1996) and of the Arabian tale “Leila and Majnoen” in the novel Kafka’s Curse by Achmat Dangor (1997). Finally, metamorphoses of women into trees will be analyzed through a dialogue between the South Corean novel The Vegetarian (2007) by Kang Han and Sumana Roy’s non-fiction How I became a Tree (2021).
- André Brink . Imaginings of Sand. Orlando: Harvest 1999.
- Silvia Boraso 2021. “Trees in Literatures and the Arts”. Il Tolomeo. Vol. 23 – Dicembre | December | Décembre 2021. pp. 347-352. file:///Users/carmenconcilio/Desktop/Trees%20in%20Literature%20and%20the%20Arts_Review.pdf.
- Daniel Chamovitz (2012). What a Plant Knows. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
- Emanuele Coccia 2020. Métamorphoses. Paris: Éditions Payot & Rivages.
- Emanuele Coccia . La Vie des plantes. Une Métaphysique du mélange. Paris: Bibliothèque Rivages.
- J.M. Coetzee & Berlinde De Bruyckere 2013. Cripplewood. Kreupelhout. New Haven: Yale University Press.
- Carmen Concilio (a cura di) 2021. “Letteratura e alberi. Una tavola rotonda intorno e incontro agli alberi nelle letterature di lingua tedesca e di lingua inglese, InContri, RiCognizioni. Rivista di lingue, letterature e culture moderne, 14 • 2020 (VII), pp. 169-174.
- Carmen Concilio and Daniela Fargione (eds) 2021. Trees in Literatures and the Art. Humanarboreal Perspectives in the Anthropocene. Lanham: Lexington Books.
- Carmen Concilio 2021. “Le mani come radici. Per un’ecocritica che parte dagli alberi spingendo all’azione”. Il portale della ricerca di UniTo: Frida.
- Achmat Dangor . Kafka’s Curse. New York: Vintage, 2000.
- Erica Eller 2020. “Why You Should Read Kafka’s Curse, Achmat Dangor”. Bosphorus Review of Books, may 2020. https://bosphorusreview.com/why-you-should-read-achmat-dangor.
- Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari . Kafka. Towards a Minor Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1986.
- Kang, Han . The Vegetarian. transl. By Deborah Smith. New York: Hogarth, 2015.
- Stefano Mancuso . The Evolutionary Genius of Plants. New York: Simon & Shuster, 2018.
- Nelson Mandela 2002. Favourite African Folktales. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
- Michael Marder 2013. Plant thinking. A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Leonardo Nole 2022. Review of “Trees in Literatures and the Arts. Hunanarboreal Perspectives in the Anthropocene. Ecozon@, pp. 202-204. https://ecozona.eu/issue/view/235. DOI: https://doi.org/10.37536/ECOZONA.2022.13.1.
- Sumana Roy . How I became a Tree. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021.
- Jan Zalasiewicz 2019. The Anthropocene as a Geological Time Unit. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.