Ponce de Leon Alejandro

ASLE’s Scholar of the Month for August 2023 is Emily Zong.

Emily Zong is an Assistant Professor in Environmental Humanities and Literary Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong Kong. Her research focuses on ethnic ecocriticism, migrant and refugee ecologies, and multispecies ethics, specifically in Asian Australian and Asian diasporic literature and culture. Her work has appeared in ISLE, Ariel, LIT, Critique, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, The Cambridge History of the Australian Novel, among other venues. She is the curator of Waterborne: A Climate Art Exhibition (2022, Hong Kong) and Bovine Touch: A VR Immersive Story on Eco-vulnerability in Hong Kong (forthcoming, 2023).

How did you become interested in studying ecocriticism and/or the environmental humanities?

My journey into ecocriticism and the environmental humanities has been channeled by some life and academic experiences. Living as a doctoral student and Chinese migrant in Australia, connecting to a beautiful and fragile landscape of complex setter and indigenous histories, negotiating a sense of place between Chinese eco-aesthetics and Australian culture, and coming to know issues embedded in the land’s multiplicities. This motivated my current research on inclusive forms of environmental imagination among Asian Australian narratives of place, species, and climate change. I now reside on the urban fringes of metropolitan Hong Kong, among mountains, wetlands, and roaming cows and buffalos that coexist with humans yet are vulnerable to imminent property development. This lived experience resonates with my research interests in multispecies ethics and motivates my exploration of storytelling and creative practices that contribute to respectful relations to the nonhuman world.

Teaching the environmental humanities in classrooms and connecting with a wider ecocritical community through the ASLE conferences and networks have thoroughly inspired me. My university’s Anthropocene Studies research group has a cohort of ecocritics and it organizes annual symposiums, which provides a supportive intellectual community. I have learned from many colleagues that environmental humanities is also about “doing” and aligning academic research with one’s beliefs and lived experience.

Who is your favorite environmental artist, writer, or filmmaker? Or what is your favorite environmental text? Why?

There are many. During my postdoctoral research, I spent a long time contemplating Filipina Australian writer Merlinda Bobois’s cli-fi Locust Girl (2015). Its otherworldly setting, allegorical openness, and visceral depictions of climate materiality, refugee migration, and nonhuman metamorphosis respond to the many social and ecological issues facing humanity under climate change. I gravitated toward the novel’s imaginative capacity and nomadic ethics and published an article about it in Ariel (2020). The environment within Asian diasporic literature is often depicted in less direct ways and the many texts that I study require an ecological re-reading. It was exciting to see such a compelling and environmentally themed novel by an Asian Australian author.

I also recommend Chinese-Malaysian Australian artist Shuan Tan whose surreal graphic art narratives The Arrival (2007) and Tales from Outer Suburbia (2008) explore interspecies kinship between immigrants and animals. Another environmental text that I revisit frequently is Rachel Carson’s The Sense of Wonder. It is a lucid book reminding us to explore nature with feelings and the senses, to place the foundation of learning in what we love, and to cultivate a lifelong sense of wonder and response-ability through “seeing eyes” attuning to the joy, mystery, and vitality of the natural world.

What are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on a chapter titled “Refugee Thick Mobility: More-than-Human Emergence at Oceanic Borderlands” for my book project on migrant ecocriticism. I look at some recent cultural narratives of refugee ecologies in the context of extinction, including documentary film Island of the Hungry Ghosts and Behrouz Boochani’s memoir No Friend but the Mountains. I explore how more-than-human frameworks open up eco-social and interspecies modes of refugee political mobility against the abstraction of refugee bodies by state, media, and capital. A preliminary version of this chapter is delivered as an ECR Keynote address at the ASLE and ASLEC-ANZ conference, Melbourne, July 2023.

I’m also working on a project on the environmental imaginations and affects of invasive species in Australia, and how they intersect with colonial discourses of race, animality, and belonging. This includes an article on the role of dark humor in telling stories of invasive species and extinction in Australian cartoons and films. Besides research, I’m developing three ecocritical courses, including Environmental Humanities: Key Concepts, Climate Change Literature and Culture, and Posthuman Futures.

What is something you are reading right now (environmental humanities-related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally? Comment briefly on why or how it inspires you.

I’m reading Kazim Ali’s memoir Northern Light: Power, Land, and the Memory of Water (2021). It is about a second-generation South Asian immigrant coming to terms with his family’s historical involvement in building a hydroelectric dam on the Nelson River in Canada and the damage it caused to the local Pimicikamak Cree people. This book’s depiction of Asian-Indigenous decolonial dialogue resonates with me. I presented an initial analysis of it in a talk titled “Decolonising Waters: Asian-Indigenous Collaborative Hydropolitics” at 2023 ASLE conference in Portland. I argue for decolonial modes of learning with as a way of reflecting on Asian diasporic relationships with settler environmentalist hegemonies on land and sea.

My teaching also leads me to read many emerging sci-fi, cli-fi, and solarpunk narratives by Asian, Asian diasporic, queer, and indigenous writers. I recommend Chinese sci-fi writer Chen Qiufan’s climate story “The Girl and the Sea,” which addresses climate change and shrinking ice caps in the Arctic, indigenous politics, science and technology, and most importantly, the ocean as origin and future of life.

Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you? Why?

It is hard to name one scholar. I have been inspired by the work of many scholars in the environmental humanities and ecocriticism, such as Ursula Heise’s work on planetary environmental imaginations; the work by Serpil Oppermann, Stacy Alaimo, and Serenella Iovino on ecomaterialism; the work on water and critical ocean studies by Elizabeth Deloughrey and Astrida Neimanis; Asian American ecocriticism by Jeffrey Santa Ana, Xiaojing Zhou, Mel Chen, Hsuan Hsu, and Amiee Bahng; and Nicole Seymour’s work on environmental affective dissent. I’m also deeply inspired by the work of environmental philosophers like Val Plumwood, Deborah Bird Rose, and Elizabeth Povinelli. I have learned a lot from their work.