2021 ASLE Graduate Student Paper Award Winners

Congratulations to the three applicants whose scholarship presented at the 2021 ASLE Virtual Conference, “EmergencE/Y”, were chosen for the ASLE Graduate Student Paper Award.  This year’s field was especially deep, with more than 80 submissions for the judges to evaluate. Here is a bit more about the winners and their work.

Tori Bush, Louisiana State University
“Eco-Orientalism: Constructing Climate Migration on Isle de Jean Charles”
In 2016, $48 million federal tax dollars were allocated to move the entire indigenous community of the Isle de Jean Charles Biloxi-Chitimatcha-Choctaw Band. The island community was widely dubbed the first “American climate refugees.” Although many scholars have pointed out that this nomenclature others marginalized people and places them on the periphery, it still it used widely by journalists when describing this community. For a small island with a current population of less than thirty people, there has been much written about it: The New York Times and The Guardian have all written multiple pieces. Elizabeth Rush’s Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, a finalist for the Pulitzer, centered in part on the island and Behn Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild was filmed there. Teen Vogue even wrote an article about the last teenagers on the island. I argue that these texts can create an eco-orientalizing discourse which separates the community from the nation by repeated literary tropes and rhetoric that define this place as peripheral and far from centers of power. I define eco-orientalism as a discourse developed through environmental writing and writers which separates or disconnects people and places vulnerable to global warming and its rising seas. This discourse, like orientalism, has profound material impacts on place, however, it posits the global north’s tradition of environmentalism as the source of power in which “peripheral” places are constructed and made vulnerable.

Tori Bush is a writer, teacher and PhD candidate in the English department at Louisiana State University currently working on her dissertation entitled, “Eco-Orientalism: Tracing Colonial Legacies within the Contemporary Climate Imagination.” She has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction and is co-editor of the anthology, The Gulf South: An Anthology of Environmental Writing published by University Press of Florida in 2021.

Esthie Hugo, University of Warwick
“A Violence Just Below the Skin: Racial Ecologies and Atmospheric Toxicity from West Africa”

Focusing on the uneven experience of global environmental crisis, this paper is interested in mapping new directions in the Gothic through analysis of West African forms of cultural production in which the site of Gothic terror becomes reconfigured and located in atmospheric racism. I chart the evolving politics and aesthetics of racial toxicity by focusing on the mobilisation of atmospheric terror in the writings of Nigerian author Ben Okri, as well as in the artistic portraits of Beninese photographer Fabrice Monteiro. Comparing these works allows for the interrogation of how different African artistic mediums draw on Gothic aesthetics to give shape to the racist history of toxic exposure, and, in the process, enable us to model a new analytic framework for understanding global environmental crisis as a political and ecological project that distributes life and death unevenly.

Esthie Hugo is a final year PhD student based at the University of Warwick’s Dept of English and Comparative Literary Studies. He PhD forms part of a Leverhulme-funded project entitled Commodity Frontiers and World-Literature: the Ecology of the ‘Long’ Twentieth Century. Esthie’s project investigates ‘peripheral’ forms of world-literature through the prisms of globalgothic and commodity frontiers. She has published articles in Social Dynamics (2017), and book chapters in Literary and Cultural Production, World-Ecology, and the Global Food System (Palgrave 2021), Gothic in the Anthropocene (U Minnesota Press, 2022) and The Edinburgh Companion to Globalgothic (2023).

Emery Jenson, University of Wisconsin – Madison
“Blood Like Dew: Ecosemiotics and Interpretation in The Confessions of Nat Turner

Published just after Nat Turner’s execution in 1831, The Confessions of Nat Turner has long elicited readings focused on problems of authorial attribution. This talk shifts critical attention away from historiographic problems of attribution to focus on the meteorological and astronomical landscapes central to the text, considering what practices of reading such landscapes might engender. I argue that Turner understands the violence of the plantation as materially inscribed in plantation terrains and atmospheres. These landscapes are themselves semiotically active and give off signs in the form of thunder, lightning, and dew. Elaborating Turner’s interpretive mode, this talk hones in on the phenomenon of condensation, which functions to entangle historical, meteorological, and affective events in Turner’s reading. In addition to engaging scholarship on the centrality of non-print media to Black resistance and environmentalism, this presentation contributes to new, post-Saussurean accounts of signification. Instead of Saussure’s “arbitrary” signs, Turner shows the complex dialectical relation between earth systems and human history that registers in nonhuman and human signs. Read in this way, I propose that The Confessions offers a novel understanding of both nature and signification, one in which natural phenomena emerge as “hieroglyphic characters” inflected by the dominant political order. Ultimately, this talk argues the importance of Turner’s interpretive system for an expanded account of semiosis, one attentive to the mutual imbrication of word and world. In our current moment of environmental crisis, such an expanded account contributes to ongoing attempts to read the weather in all its political and ecological affordances.

Emery Jenson (they/them) is a writer, researcher, and artist from Durham, North Carolina. They are currently a PhD student in Literary studies at UW Madison. Since graduating from Duke University in 2018, their research has focused on topics in the environmental humanities. Recently, they’ve been preoccupied with atmosphere and meteorology, asking questions like: what is the place of weather in history? How does the study of weather change our understanding of complex systems and their representation? And, do you think this jacket will be warm enough today?