A Q&A with comparative literature scholar John Gamber and writer Lilibeth Garcia
The canon of environmental humanities literature – that is, literature about the environment that is most often referenced and assigned in coursework – tends to prioritize white and Western points of view. John Blair Gamber, associate professor in UCI’s Department of Comparative Literature, is on a mission to change that.
Gamber focuses their research on Native American literature as well as the ways that Indigeneity and race intersect with the other-than-human, gender and sexuality, and legal structures. They are the author of Positive Pollutions and Cultural Toxins: Waste and Contamination in U.S. Ethnic Literatures (University of Nebraska Press, 2012), which was a finalist for the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment’s award for ecocriticism. They are currently working on their next book, Deeply Unsettling: Native American Speculative Fiction, which examines the rapidly expanding canon of Native-authored texts of science fiction, fantasy and horror.
Here, they dive into one of their prime scholarly interests: environmental humanities. They discuss their journey into the field and its relationship with literature and Native American studies.
How did you get interested in the environmental humanities?
As a college student at UC Davis, many of the literature faculty were very invested in environmental issues, so I learned to do literary analysis with an environmentally focused lens from the beginning. But I was also always kind of outdoorsy, not in the hiking and backpacking way (though I did a little of that – enough to know I didn’t love it), but just in really liking to be outside. Maybe this was a product of growing up playing in the fields near our neighborhood – I’m not sure. Later, I found myself drawn to the ocean, or really, to the place where the land and the water meet: coastlines, shorelines, beaches. I wrote my master’s thesis on the literature of Monterey Bay from Indigenous stories, missionary accounts and various writers: Ohlone, Spanish, Mexican and Anglo. Anyway, I just felt like there was something special about our connections to the life around us, and I wanted to learn more about what writers had said about it.
What is ecocriticism and how have you contributed to the field?
Ecocriticism is really just an older term (and a little more specific) for what falls under the umbrella of what now gets termed environmental humanities. The latter term coalesced a little over a decade ago – though it’s been around longer than that, when ecocriticism was a more popular term (especially in literary studies) beginning in the 1990s. I came up under the banner of ecocriticism, which was used to describe ecologically-minded literary and cultural criticism. The eco- prefix was meant to nod toward ecology’s emphasis on connectedness and interrelationality, or generally the idea that we can’t study elements in isolation and expect to get a complete picture.
I suppose my contributions to ecocriticism, humble though they are, include a move to include more racial diversity in the field. In ecocriticism’s early days, there was a heavy emphasis on 19th-century environmentalist writings by people like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, as well as an impulse to find earlier environmental writing and philosophy from Europe. My interests have always been more contemporary, and I was thinking about the ways that environmental issues often disproportionately impact communities of color and how authors of color were writing about these imbalances of environmental risk. This emphasis is termed “environmental justice.” So, I was working (and there was a movement of scholars making this turn around the same time) to bring environmental justice concerns more to the front of ecocriticism.
What can your book Positive Pollutions and Cultural Toxins teach us about the impact of the environmental humanities?
That book examines representations of waste and pollution in late 20th-century, urban-set U.S. literature by authors of color. The goal of the project was two-fold. First, it broadened ecocriticism’s focus to include cities and communities of color, two elements that were often, if decreasingly, overlooked by a field still focused on nature writing. Second, it reexamined central concepts like pollution and nature to demonstrate the ways that both relied on conceptual frameworks of purity and rigid distinctions (the natural is that which is not human, for example, but humans are natural, biological entities who are ourselves comprised of other-than-human beings – gut biota, for example). The book thinks through the ways that our ideas of ecological pollution grow out of similar distinctions between us and the rest of the world, but also echo social concepts of racial, linguistic and national purity as well.
The impact I strive for in terms of environmental humanities, and really all my scholarship (including my teaching), is to shape our philosophies, worldviews and practices away from hierarchical frameworks and toward more egalitarian ones that honor and celebrate the profound diversity of our world.
What role does Native American literature play in the environmental humanities?
This is a little tricky. One of the first things people will think of here is the host of stereotypes of Native American people as what has been termed the “ecological Indian”: Native people as wise environmental sages who are “closer to the earth” and can save non-Native people from themselves, ecologically speaking. There’s a way that this stereotype furthers the image that Native American people and peoples exist only in the past, in some pre-industrial purity, that Native people don’t still exist. Or if they do, it’s as corrupted versions of what they once were. We want to avoid adding fuel to that stereotype, which exists at least in part to allow settlers to feel like we’re not current occupiers of Indigenous lands and waters.
However, we can also note that Native American communities, and Indigenous communities broadly and globally, are defined not in terms of race, but in terms of cultural connection to a physical space that spans huge expanses of time. Such a relationship is fundamentally different from what we see in settler colonialism, where our ancestors at some point in time, came to an already populated space in order to claim it for themselves. In short, settler colonialism enacts violence onto place.
Something that Native American literature can offer is different relationships to the spaces that have (relatively briefly) been known as the United States. In many Native traditions, human beings maintain relationships with other beings and species, as well as with the land itself (including specific geologic and hydrologic features) as kin. These traditions and the stories that grow out of them and maintain them provide unique philosophies from which humans can make sense of their place in the world. Of particular importance to me and my work, they also offer insights on ethical action in regard to the life and lives of the world.
What are you currently working on?
In my current book project, I read recent works of speculative fiction, sci-fi and fantasy by Native American authors, looking specifically at the ways these texts construct and imagine what it means to be human, definitions of humanness and humanity, as well as peoplehood in relation to the other-than-human. At the same time, I’m looking at what these texts configure as the opposite of the human. Whereas in English and Euro-American philosophy we have the concept of “nature” as that which is not human – a binary between humans and everything else in the universe, these texts don’t really work within that same framework. Instead, the opposite of the human is not the unhuman, but the inhuman, the monstrous or the monsters that we can become if we fall out of balance, out of the relationships we are supposed to maintain.
Gamber is teaching CompLit 150, “Native American Literature,” this spring 2022.