Karsten Levihn-Kutzler

Bathtubs and Hungry Tides: Flood Fiction, Littoral Communities and the Politics of Environmental Precariousness 

With climate change emerging as a prominent concern of contemporary fiction – and even as its own genre, “CliFi” – floods have become a prominent trope of contemporary environmentalist fiction (T.C. Boyle’s A Friend of the Earth, Maggie Gee’s The Flood, Liz Jensen’s Rapture, Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow etc.). In these texts, the submergence of Western metropolitan space serves as a metaphor of the ubiquity and severity of risk from anthropogenic climate change. A postcolonial perspective on the phenomenon of “flood fiction”, however, requires a closer look at the social geography of climate change risk: As global as the threat might be, it is often poor and disenfranchised communities that are most at risk from it.

My paper will position Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide (2004), Helon Habila’s Oil on Water (2010), and Benh Zeitlin’s controversial film Beast of the Southern Wild (2012) as postcolonial “flood fictions” that connect experiences of environmental risk to poverty, social marginalization, and state violence. Instead of urban space, these texts all focus on coastal wetlands: the Niger delta, the Sundarbans mangroves, and a Southern bayou – spaces that are neither land nor sea entirely. Drawing on Meg Samuelson’s notion of littoral space as well as on theories of social abjection, I connect the littoral spaces in these texts to the marginal status of their populations. Just like these coastal wetlands form the liminal margins of national territory, so do its inhabitants figure as the abject margins of the body politic. Ghosh, Habila, and Zeitlin thus all strive to give voice to people and spaces deemed expendable in national and transnational geographies of risk.

The will put a particular focus on the close reading of Beasts of the Southern Wild. Among the three texts, the film offers perhaps the most conflicted exploration of the politics of environmental precariousness: As a cinematic metaphor of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, the film foregrounds the environmental racism African Americans, but it also unwittingly reproduces racist stereotypes about African Americans. Moreover, due to its emphasis on strength and self‐reliance, the film also instantiates a political discourse of resilience that, while emphasizing the agency of communities at risk, potentially devolves political responsibility for recovery and remediation in the wake of environmental disasters from social elites to those who are the least equipped to deal with the pernicious economic and ecological effects of climate change.