Alexander Menrisky: July 2020 Scholar of the Month

ASLE’s Scholar of the Month for July 2020 is Alexander Menrisky. 

Alexander Menrisky is a Lecturer jointly appointed in English & Communication and the Honors College at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. His first book, Wild Abandon: American Literature and the Identity Politics of Ecology, is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press in January 2021.

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

I grew up queer and closeted in a conservative community that happened to back into a rich stretch of forest that had reclaimed old farmland. “Wilderness retreat” was, for me, very deeply ingrained in the process of safely coming to terms with my identity. But as I explored texts and options over the course of my undergraduate and graduate degrees, I became interested in critically considering those ideas of retreat and identity together, as well as, more broadly, how the stories we tell about selfhood and group identity get entangled with stories about environment. For that reason, even though my work doesn’t always announce itself as “queer ecology,” it always comes from a place of suspicion toward the ways various folks (myself included) have at times sought to naturalize their identity narratives. And as I’ve continued reading, writing, and teaching, I’ve come to understand the act of parsing (though not destroying) cultural narratives of identity/environment as central to my environmental justice activism and teaching as a necessary form of autocritique—especially with ecofascism on the rise among a variety of environmentalist communities.

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

Because it’s impossible to pick one (even of each!), I’m just going to say that, for me, this is a very “depends on the moment” kind of question. Right now, I can’t get enough of the Kumeyaay poet Tommy Pico in general, and his book-length Nature Poem and Feed in particular. He’s really adept at taking a single aspect of environment—food, for example, or the idea of “nature” writ large—and teasing out ways those words and ideas proliferate and evolve across a variety of cultural fields, all while being bound up with other ideas about race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and age. But if I had to pick some other, enduring favorites, I think I’d go with two that don’t immediately announce themselves as “environmental,” though I’ll always argue they centrally are. First, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek isn’t my favorite of her “environmental” texts—it’s An American Childhood, which to my mind just as thoughtfully considers a place where she lived, worked, and played. And then second, and more passionately, I’d nominate Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things. Again, not necessarily a work that announces itself as “environmental,” but I don’t think I’ve ever read anything else that so movingly and memorably takes on the question of what it means to live in a certain place.

What are you currently working on?

Currently, two big things: one at the end, one at the beginning. My first monograph, Wild Abandon: American Literature and the Identity Politics of Ecology, is forthcoming in early 2021 from Cambridge University Press. The book examines how, starting in the late 1960s, (mostly white) environmentalists have variously borrowed rhetorical strategies from social movements organized along lines of race, ethnicity, and gender to frame ecology as an identity position rather than a scientific philosophy. At the moment, I’m just beginning to put together the proposal for a follow-up project, Threshold Objects: American Consumption, Contemporary Climate, and Cultural Narrative. The new book considers how economic and literary practices of consumption (of food and drugs as well as commodities) help give shape to what I’m calling “everyday ecofascism,” or casual as well as overt environmentalist expressions of anti-indigenous and anti-immigrant thinking. But what’s got me even more excited is a class I’m prepping to teach in the UMassD Honors College next spring: a service-learning environmental humanities course on “500 Years of Climate Crisis: Race, Colonization, and Environment.” We’ll read a lot of interdisciplinary stuff, and we’ll be working with regional environmental justice organizations to prepare educational material for local high schools based on students’ own disciplinary backgrounds (for example, English students might collate literature of local Indigenous displacement, while engineering students might evaluate and provide background on environmental racism in local city planning).

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.

At night, I’ve been casually reading a book called Appalachian Ways, published in the 1970s by the Appalachian Regional Commission. I picked up the book expecting it to be some reductive, diagnosis-type approach to the region where I grew up. It ended up being a series of vignettes detailing the everyday lives, crafts, and political struggles of folks from Mississippi to New York, with surprising (although, to my mind, far from satisfactory) attention to Black and Indigenous residents, who are often left out of Appalachian “hot takes” even today. It’s the vignette organization that I find so compelling—far more evocative and descriptive than a generalistic take ever could be. To my mind, that’s the best way to capture environment: in a piecemeal yet intimate way, because anything making broad claims about “place” or “environment” or “community” is always going to shore up one thing at the expense of others. Though the text is far from perfect, it doesn’t just avoid but also actively discredits the sort of broad-strokes racism and classism typical of the era’s literature on Appalachia, and which I expected. I find the book reminding me how powerfully a series of vignettes can make an argument about community and environment without lapsing into crypto-nationalism. Even though nothing like environmental justice was on those writer’s minds, the text anticipates the movement’s coalitional presence in Appalachia today.

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

My knee-jerk reaction was Sarah Jaquette Ray, so that’s who I’m going to go with, even though I could name so many people! Her work on race, class, (dis)ability, and environment has been a model for me in how to express complex intersections among a variety of social indexes clearly and compassionately, with a focus on history yet with an eye always toward a more just future for all folks involved. And lately, her Field Guide to Climate Anxiety represents, for me, a sort of ideal fusion of research with pedagogy. She tackles climate justice through a host of interdisciplinary approaches in a practicable way. I could give it to any one of my students, as well as others in my life with whom I often struggle to communicate crisis effectively and compassionately.

Editorial note: For more on A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety, see Sarah Jaquette Ray’s recent feature: “The Power of a Picnic Table: How the Environmental Humanities Shaped A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety.” Alex is also currently curating ASLE’s Teaching Resources Database, and we are always looking for more good resources for teaching in the environmental humanities to share there!