Fazila Derya Agis: March 2021 Scholar of the Month

ASLE’s Scholar of the Month for March 2021 is Fazila Derya Agis. 

Fazila Derya Agis is an adjunct online instructor at the University of the People who also enjoys her online volunteer job as she teaches refugees and many others who cannot afford high tuition fees around the globe. She has been working on ecolinguistics, environmental cultural anthropology, and environmental politics and history and is writing a monograph on animal and plant metaphors and beliefs in various cultures from an ecolinguistic perspective.

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

I got interested in studying ecocriticism, thinking about the environmental changes from medieval times through today, before choosing my dissertation topic in Italian Studies. I read many articles suggested to me by Professors Ufuk Ozdag, who was in my dissertation committee, and Nevin Ozkan-Speelman, my dissertation advisor. Moreover, I had started to read about the lives of female saints: Gertrude of Nivelles, a seventh-century abbess, is the patron saint of cats; later I noticed that also some other male saints were believed to protect nature, such as Saint Francis of Assisi (1181/82-1226), the patron saint of ecology; Saint Giles (650–710), a vegetarian, living with a red deer in a forest; and the patron saint of dogs, that is, Saint Roch (1295–1327). This ecological hagiography made me start to think about what happened in the Renaissance, as well, and after reading Alfred W. Crosby’s The Columbian Exchange (1972), I decided to write a dissertation on the perception of nature by Amerigo Vespucci instead of by Christopher Columbus. I have been interested in the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, the American Indians, and Arctic peoples. I decided to explore the ideas of Amerigo Vespucci on the natives of the Americas and what he had learned from them. My dissertation provoked other ideas for me: as an interdisciplinary scholar with a B.A. and Ph.D. in Italian Language and Literature, a M.S. in Social Anthropology, and a M.A. in English Linguistics, environmental humanities attracted me as I could work not only on the history, but also on the literature, culture, and medical beliefs of the Indigenous peoples who defend the environment. Besides, I am interested in animal behavior and social life.

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

My favorite environmental artist is Janel Houton, as she underlines the importance of nature by describing birds, bees, trees, etc. on a green forest background. She emphasizes that the extinction of animals such as bees can transfer the whole earth into ruins.

As writers, I like André Gide for his work Isabelle (1911), as the castle in Normandy visited by the protagonist for his doctorate reveals what nature offers to humans, who must not destroy it, through nature metaphors such as ideas that are like flowers. I also like Nnedi Okorafor for her ecofeminist work Who Fears Death (2010), as she defends not only women’s rights but also environmental protection when she talks about the scarcity of water by creating a desert world. This desert metaphor refers to the need for gender and racial equality in a peaceful world where women can be employed with salaries equal to those of men, and they cannot be regarded as sexual objects. This is especially meaningful since women still cope with underemployment or unemployment due to their gender for the same reasons in many developing countries where precautions are rarely taken against the destruction of the environment, but wars and economic crises are present. However, the protection of the environment requires the collaboration of all human beings: one plants crops, another person waters them, and another person carries them to a factory. However, each human being needs nature and thus these crops and water to survive. In addition, Gina Lagorio’s Tosca dei Gatti [Tosca, the Cat Lady] (1983) is about the life of an old and lonely lady living with numerous cats, alluding to the importance of having true and sincere friends who can never cheat humans just like animals that are more compassionate than humans.

Regarding movies, I appreciate the emphasis put on nature in the series version of the Turkish female psychiatrist Gülseren Budayıcıoğlu’s story titled “Çöp Apartmanı” [“The Apartment complex of Trash”] (2004) that appeared in in her collection titled Madalyonun İçi [Inside the Medallion] (2004); thus “The Innocents” in English but “Masumlar Apartmanı” [“The Apartment Complex of Innocents”] (2020-2021 (going on)) in Turkish. In the series, an obsessive-compulsive lady cannot go out because of her mother’s pressure on her when she was an adolescent girl; she wanted to become a physician, but her mom made her leave high school after seeing her with a male classmate, and she obsessively cleans the house and believes that she is hardly clean since her mom told her that she was a dirty unluck carrier before passing away; her boyfriend returns after twenty-two years, hires a room in a hotel looking through her flat, and tries to convince her to go out and enjoy nature by making her observe the seagulls in the Istanbul skies and not to hate animals such as cats by saying that cats approach the ones who need them most. Furthermore, I suggest that the fact that she washes every vegetable or fruit with natural soap is a metaphor for humans’ need for organic food raised without any dangerous chemicals that may even lead to the formation of unknown viruses that can make humans ill.

What are you currently working on?

As an expert in cultural anthropology, I got interested in the lives of animals and plants, including cats, birds, and trees. Some animals have become my inspiration just like muses as I usually feed stray or street cats and birds that come to my window, and some plants have become my inspiration, as they feed humans. I take their photographs and observe them in different weather conditions. Accordingly, I have been writing a book on the ecolinguistic aspects of animal and plant idioms, proverbs, and tales in many cultures; my new work intersects between environmental humanities and medical humanities as I have been working on a book project investigating beliefs about animals and plants in the Turkish, Italian, Spanish, French, and English-speaking cultural groups, dealing with the psychology of animals and herbal cures from ecolinguistic perspectives.

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.

As a classical book, I am reading Pliny The Elder’s Natural History as it explains what nature offers to humans and why. I understand the origins of the medical lore of various cultural groups and their herbal cure recipes necessary for me to decipher idioms and proverbs from an ecolinguistic perspective. As a modern book, I am reading Elizabeth Marino’s Fierce Climate, Sacred Ground: An Ethnography of Climate Change in Shishmaref, Alaska (2015) because I am curious about the ways in which Iñupiaq Eskimos deal with climate change.

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

I admire the work of Ursula K. Heise, Scott Slovic, and Lawrence Buell. These scholars’ works on environmental literature inspire me because I appreciate how they warn academia about environmental issues. I recommend Heise’s Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species (2016), Slovic’s Going Away to Think: Engagement, Retreat, and Ecocritical Responsibility (2008), and Buell’s Writing for an Endangered World (2003).