Alok Amatya: October 2020 Scholar of the Month

ASLE’s Scholar of the Month for October 2020 is Alok Amatya. 

Alok Amatya is a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His research develops the intersections of environmental humanities, global literature, and indigenous studies, with a focus on narratives of conflict over natural resources. His work has appeared in Environmental Humanities and Modern Fiction Studies.

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

My work in the environmental humanities is inflected by postcolonial and materialist criticism, and an influential read early on was Ramachandra Guha’s journal article “Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third World Critique” (1989). For a relatively concise article, Guha’s piece shows that the environmental humanities can pose questions with larger implications relating to the global and social distribution of natural resources. Guha’s piece also addresses contradictions between multiple currents of environmentalism around the world, showing that environmental thinking is varied and multifarious, not monolithic. Further, I was interested in the way that Guha leverages the perspective of marginal communities for a critique of dominant branches of environmentalism. In some ways, this style of critique appealed to my experience coming from a resource-poor part of the world, where equitable access to water, electricity, and other necessities are big issues.

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

For a long time now, I’ve admired the works of Amitav Ghosh, including his essays, novels, and lectures. While there are several dimensions to his oeuvre, his essay “Petrofiction: The Oil Encounter and the Novel” (1992) is now considered to be a pathbreaking contribution to the energy humanities. There is a radical intellectual honesty in the way that Ghosh takes on difficult topics in his works, showing us what has been elided in cultural history and public discourse. His Sundarban novels have placed marginal characters from a corner of South Asia in the midst of global dialogues about climate change, resource equity, and citizenship. On top of it all, I found him to be a terrific person when we exchanged pleasantries briefly after his lecture at the University of Miami’s Center for the Humanities. Despite his intellectual stature, he was down-to-earth and easy to approach, which impressed me deeply. He asked me – a graduate student at the time – where I was from and what I thought of his lecture.

What are you currently working on?

At the moment, I’m revising an article titled “Itineraries of Struggle: Spatial Meaning-Making as Indigenous Resistance in Documentary Cinema,” which is going to appear in a multi-author volume called Mapping the Environmental Humanities: The Emerging Role of GIS in Ecocriticism. In the article, I write about documentary films that feature indigenous activists leading resistance struggles against the expansion of oil and mining corporations, including Sanjay Kak’s Red Ant Dream (2013) and Christopher McLeod’s Standing on Sacred Ground (2013). Concurrently, I’m working on a book manuscript, titled Resource Conflict Literature: Reading Indigenous Struggles, which studies narratives of struggle against resource grabs in the context of global literature and environmental humanities. In the main, this book develops a comparative framework for studying literary narratives of indigenous resistance, calling for more scholarly attention to this genre of texts in the global discourse of environmental humanities.

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.

Currently, I’m reading Nina Lakhani’s book Who Killed Berta Cáceres: Dams, Death Squads, and An Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet (2020), which puts in context the immense contribution of Berta Cáceres as a leader of her community in Honduras. The assassination of Cáceres in 2016 had a chilling effect on activists around the world, and I have deep respect for the work of Lakhani and other journalists who write about the compelling environmental stories of our day. Reading Lakhani’s book is additionally poignant at the moment since I’m teaching the memoir of Ken Saro-Wiwa, who played a pivotal role in extending the discourse of indigeneity around the world. His prison memoir A Month and A Day (1995), which my students are writing about, was published in the immediate aftermath of his execution by General Sani Abacha’s regime in Nigeria.

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

I look up to Nick Estes very much for his scholarship on the history of indigenous struggle in the United States, and for his active contribution to The Red Nation podcast.