English seminar: Martyn Bone (UCopenhagen), Environmental Disaster and Racialized Disposability in the Plantationocene: Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing
Over the last fifteen years or so, Jesmyn Ward has laid strong claim to being the most significant U.S. writer of her generation. Ward’s prolific output since 2008—three novels, two non-fiction works, an edited collection, and numerous essays—explores an array of temporal and spatial scales, including a regional history of racial exploitation that encompasses old and New Jim Crows; the local impact of global capitalism in the neoliberal present; and environmental issues amplified in and by the Anthropocene.
In this presentation, I will focus on the environmental concerns of Ward’s two National Book Award-winning novels, Salvage the Bones (2011) and Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017). Salvage the Bones dramatizes spectacular “natural” disaster in the form of Hurricane Katrina, in August 2005, but it also depicts older forms of environmental racism and “slow violence” long experienced by black southerners. In doing so, Salvage the Bones constructs a counternarrative to the “biopolitics of disposability” vividly exposed by Katrina, and which Ward’s novel situates within a longer history of black southern lives being treated as waste.
Most of the presentation will focus on my current chapter-in-progress, which concerns Sing, Unburied, Sing. Ward’s most recent novel also depicts a spectacular environmental disaster—the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in April 2010—at the global scale of energy capitalism. Like Salvage the Bones, Sing, Unburied, Sing also registers the longer durée of racial and environmental exploitation at the regional scale of the U.S South, but more explicitly figured in this novel as a prime site of the Plantationocene. First, one of the novel’s three narrators, the ghost of the dead black boy Richie, recounts to another narrator, thirteen year-old Jojo, his experiences in the 1940s at the Mississippi state penitentiary, the notorious neo-plantation Parchman Farm. Jojo’s transgenerational encounter with Richie at Parchman opens up the longer duree of black immiseration that extends across the southern Plantationocene: a temporal and spatial scale at which black lives have rarely mattered. Second, Sing, Unburied, Sing returns to Parchman in the narrative present because Michael, Jojo’s white father, has been imprisoned there for dealing meth. Michael’s addiction and incarceration connect back to his traumatic experience of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the extractive (il)logic underpinning which eerily echoes—without being crudely equivalent to—plantation slavery.
Martyn Bone is Associate Professor of American literature at the University of Copenhagen. He was previously an associate professor of English at the University of Mississippi, and a lecturer in American studies at the University of Nottingham. He is the author of Where the New World Is: Literature about the U.S. South at Global Scales (University of Georgia Press, 2018) and The Postsouthern Sense of Place in Contemporary Fiction (Louisiana State University Press, 2005). He is also the editor of Perspectives on Barry Hannah (University Press of Mississippi, 2007) and coeditor of the University Press of Florida mini-series Creating Citizenship in the Nineteenth-Century South (2013); The American South in the Atlantic World (2013); and Creating and Consuming the American South (2015). He is currently on a SLAM fellowship at the University of Sydney, enabled in turn by a 2022-23 monograph fellowship from the Carlsberg Foundation in Denmark supporting “Matters of Black Southern Life and Death: The Writing of Jesmyn Ward”:https://www.carlsbergfondet.dk/da/Forskningsaktiviteter/Bevillingsstatistik/Bevillingsoversigt/CF21_0131_Martyn-Bone
Contact: Liam Semler (email@example.com)