Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Garden and the World: Jamaica Kincaid and the Cultural Borders of Ecocriticism

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Garden and the World: Jamaica Kincaid and the Cultural Borders of Ecocriticism

Article excerpt

This essay critically analyzes some recent trends in ecocriticism, focussing in particular on ecocritical moves to embrace a more multicultural agenda. Through a reading of Jamaica Kincaid's My Garden (Book):, the essay argues for a more critically nuanced approach to negotiating the (dis) connections between ecocriticism and multiculturalism.

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In the introduction to his 1995 book The Environmental Imagination, Lawrence Buell makes an appeal to the reader: "I hope I do not need to spend many pages defending the reasonableness of [then-U.S. Vice President Al Gore's] claim that 'we must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization'" (2). Buell proceeds from this imperative to the argument that literary criticism needs to devote far more serious attention to environmental issues. His book, along with the relatively new field of ecocriticism for which it serves as a touchstone, challenges the prevailing textual and cultural focus in contemporary criticism, asking: "Must literature always lead away from the physical world, never back to it?" (11). The recent "Forum on Environmental Literatures" in the PMLA testifies to the growing influence of ecocritical ideas: once bracketed-off disparagingly under the categories of naturalism and regionalism, environmental writing and criticism are slowly gaining mainstream curr ency. At the same time, ecocriticism, which, as Cheryl Glotfelty acknowledges in her introduction to the 1996 The Ecocriticism Reader has so far been "predominantly a white movement" (xxv), is expanding its parameters to embrace a more global, multicultural perspective. Nearly all of the fourteen contributors to the PMLA "Forum on Environmental Literatures" raise the issue of the need to make ecocriticism more culturally diverse. This essay is in part an effort to advance that goal through an analysis of the garden writing of Antiguan-American writer Jamaica Kincaid. Focussing on the aspects of Kincaid's writing that seem to defy ecocritical analysis, I also want to highlight some contradictions in the field as it is currently construed, contradictions that inform and, I would argue, may ultimately confound efforts to make ecocriticism more sensitive to cultural difference.

These contradictions converge in a cluster around ecocriticism 's mandate to get back to the physical world, an injunction whose apparent simplicity masks a complex collection of overlapping and sometimes conflicting agendas. On the most obvious level, getting back to the physical world means highlighting what Buell calls the "platial" basis of human experience (Letter 1,091), by considering the ways both that specific landscapes function in narrative and that writers are influenced by local environments. This emphasis on the local is complicated by a widely shared sense of ecocriticism as a global project, one that "encompasses the very earth it studies, assuming its size and shape" (Arnold 1,090). More specifically, ecocriticism assumes that effective ecological restoration can come about only through "networks taking shape across borders," which obey the logic of "natural" rather than "national" boundaries (Dixon 1,094). By thus surmounting arbitrary political borders, ecocriticism is able to think locally and globally at the same time.

The move to make ecocriticism more culturally diverse is frequently incorporated into the broader mandate of subverting artificial boundaries. Thus ecocriticism is described in the introduction to The Ecocriticism Reader as a movement that is "becoming ever more interdisciplinary, multicultural, and international" (Glotfelty xxv). Acknowledging its current limitations, the introduction goes on confidently to predict that ecocriticism "will become a multi-ethnic movement when stronger connections are made between the environment and issues of social justice, and when a diversity of voices are encouraged to contribute to the discussion. …

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