Literature and the Environment: A Case of Ubiquity, Absence, and Water

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Editor’s Note: The Scholars-in-Residence Program, undertaken annually at University of Toronto’s Victoria College, is a fantastic research opportunity for undergraduate students in the social sciences. Combining the fascinating disciplines of natural sciences, mathematics and social sciences, the various projects aim to foster creativity and solutions to unique challenges the world is facing today. This article is part of a series, edited by Asad Jessani, written by participants of SiR this past May.

I was fortunate enough to be a part of Scholars in Residence at the University of Toronto this past May, working alongside Dr. Comfort Azubuko-Udah and a team of fantastic undergraduate students to contribute to the project titled “Storying Domestic and Piped Water in Nigeria.” Dr. Udah’s interest in the subject emerged from her literary background. A fan of novels and contemporary African literature, she noticed a recurring issue in most of the works she studied during the course of her PhD: a relative absence of domestic water from plot, setting, and narrative tools. She wondered why such a “ubiquitous” form of water was almost always ignored in literary works, especially when they could contribute largely to the storytelling process and literary themes of the novels, particularly within the realist fiction genre. Dr. Udah also noticed an antithetical issue: portrayal of many African settings within novels typically featured water beyond the home, often carrying it to and from, organizing communities around a well, and more. She was fascinated by this and attempted to understand her findings through an ecocritical lens characterized by “slow violence” and government failure. Udah decided to explore the unknown on her own, in the form of an academic book; hence, this project was born.

Because this was an unusual approach to understanding a lived reality often unexamined in North American contexts, we were swimming in open waters: a large scope with a large net. We spent the first few days orienting ourselves with various coding softwares that would enable us to collate our findings, and we examined primary sources that discussed on-the-ground realities in Nigeria with regards to water access. It was shocking to learn that the absence of water was in part due to governments treating it as an economic good, largely beyond their reach and in the hands of mafia, corporations, and unfair third parties. As Matthew Gandy has noted, “The relative absence of water infrastructure is paradoxically reflected in a jumbled landscape of pipes, open sewers, tankers, water vendors (selling sachets of ‘pure water’)” (Gandy 2014).

While keeping up with this research, we were also tasked with creating our own list of sources to examine; these sources were primarily African realist novels with mentions of domestic water in the forms of showers, boiled water, pipes, and what they represent. In novels like The Famished Road by Ben Okri, water acts as a source of community development and represents hope. In memoirs like Where the Children Take Us, water acts as a daily challenge for children who are used to the British way of life. Finding domestic mentions of water in both literary works and primary sources also invited comparisons to cities like Mumbai and Paris, the former whose access to water helped parallel the urban environment of big cities like Lagos, and the latter whose government structures provided excellent models for future endeavors.

Ecocriticism, that is, evaluating and reviewing environmental concerns within literature, factored heavily into our daily discussions and final presentations, where we found strong links between capitalism and the environment in the form of “hydropolitics” and urban populations’ acquiescence to government inaction. A recurring feature as well was the long-lasting impact of colonialism and alternate forms of history being presented globally as a failure to address “hydropolitics.” This project brought to light, for me, a critical issue of access and how the nature of humanity has inevitably eroded nature itself. Access to and life that revolves around meeting basic needs has thoroughly been disrupted by humans, and a reversal is unlikely. In realist fiction stories, water almost cries out for change and depicts how urban planners misunderstand nature. Instead of being reactive, a pro-active approach to infrastructural needs, urban planning, and understanding sources of water would be helpful to ensure access.

In realist fiction stories, water almost cries out for change and depicts how urban planners misunderstand nature.

I thoroughly enjoyed what I believe was my most unique experience throughout my brief academic journey. SiR involved consistent energy and effort expended towards developing a community of researchers that addressed a variety of societal issues, all the while providing fun experiences like movie nights, socials, family-style meals, and guest lectures that highlighted investigative journalism, legal careers, and academic insight into political and social justice.

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Asad Jessani

Asad Jessani is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto, majoring in Canadian Studies and Political Science. Currently interning at the Network in Canadian History and Environment, his interests include Canadian history, cultural identity-making, and political theory.

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