Fernando Varela: May 2021 Scholar of the Month

ASLE’s Scholar of the Month for May 2021 is Fernando Varela. 

Fernando Varela is currently finishing his doctoral degree in Spanish and Portuguese at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN. He defended his dissertation with honors on April 1. His professional interests include hemispheric studies, critical race studies, ecocriticism, and environmental humanities. Starting August 2021, Fernando will be an Assistant Professor of Spanish at Texas Lutheran University (Seguin, TX).

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

In a way, my personal background influenced my decision to study ecocriticism and environmental humanities. I grew up on the outskirts of Asunción, Paraguay, in a small and poor neighborhood next to the Paraguay River. As a child, my friends and I used to play in the streets with stray dogs and cats, and I remember getting bitten by two dogs and two cats at different moments of my childhood (and getting rabies vaccine four times). At age 15, my family and I moved to West Palm Beach, FL – which was a huge change for us. During my high school years, I was involved in the school’s Environmental Science Academy and I used to go on field trips with my classmates to nearby park reserves. I also remember going with the academy to Seacamp in Big Pine Key, FL, which is a marine biology educational center in the Florida Keys. That experience was mind-blowing for me because, born and raised in a landlocked country, it was my first time of hands-on interaction with marine biology. It definitely sparked my interest in zoology and environmental science on a long-term basis.

However, I noticed that my teachers did not really discuss the cultural dimensions of environmental science beyond public awareness about environmental conservation. The concept of environmental racism, for instance, was not really discussed in the classroom, while innovative concepts such as “queer ecology” (or “ecocriticism,” for that matter) were nonexistent in my high school program. So I found myself at a crossroad: I wanted to study the humanities in college, but I also wanted to keep alive my interest in environmental studies.

I completed my associate of arts degree at Palm Beach State College and my bachelor’s degree in Spanish at the Wilkes Honors College of Florida Atlantic University, and right after I enrolled in the Spanish and Portuguese PhD program at Vanderbilt University. As a PhD student, I had the opportunity to return to my interests in ecocriticism and environmental humanities. After long conversations with my advisor, my other professors, and my colleagues, I decided to write a dissertation on fossils, critical race studies, and literature in the nineteenth-century Americas. (You can read an abstract here.)

As an educator, I aspire to create conversations between ecocriticism and environmental humanities with ethnic studies, critical race studies, and gender and sexuality studies inside and outside the classroom.

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

What a difficult question! I would say that an author whose writings I sincerely enjoy is Reinaldo Arenas, a Cuban writer who was born in 1943 and committed suicide in 1990 as an exile in New York. Although he is not traditionally categorized by Hispanic studies as an environmental writer, animals, minerals, and plants figure prominently in his work. As a teenager, Arenas was initially enthusiastic about Fidel Castro’s Revolution but was later disappointed when the new communist government turned out to be violently homophobic during its first decades. He was imprisoned, beaten, and ultimately exiled in the Mariel boatlift in 1980. Despite his difficult life, however, he managed to generate a tremendous number of novels, plays, essays, and poems. I did my undergraduate thesis on his posthumously published autobiography Antes que anochezca (Before Night Falls, 1992) and its engagement with sexuality in the Cuban Revolution. One of my main research aspirations is to analyze Arenas’s works in light of current scholarship on queer ecologies and, more broadly, ecocriticism and environmental humanities.

What are you currently working on?

I’m currently revising my dissertation into a book manuscript. It analyzes a selection of authors from Latin America and the United States, arguing that they created a poetics of display (what I call “museum writing”) around fossils. This poetics of display, in turn, permitted them to examine the history of race as well as the history of humans in the Americas.

I am also working on two articles that focus on ecological criticism. The first studies a film named La caza (1966) by Spanish director Carlos Saura, examining how the movie approaches and portrays myxomatosis and nuclear destruction. The second focuses on the novel Biofobia (2015) by Santiago Nazarian, who is a well-known contemporary Brazilian writer. Specifically, I examine how his novel may contribute to important theoretical discussions in literary studies about biophilia and ecophobia.

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.

There are two works that I am currently reading, and they are helping me tremendously in my research. The first is Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman, which focuses on stones and their major force in medieval literature. Cohen’s fascinating study specifically helps me to conceptualize a similar scenario for fossils in literature of the Americas. The second one is actually a special issue in the journal Poetics Today, titled “Contemporary Ekphrasis.” Edited by Renate Brosch, the issue explores expanding notions of ekphrasis by emphasizing its performative potential as a cultural agent. Both Cohen’s book and the special issue’s contributing authors help me a lot as I think about the inhuman ecology of fossils and their ekphrastic performance in the works that I examine in my book manuscript.

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

There are several scholars in the field that inspire me, especially those who bring Luso-Hispanic studies into conversation with ecocriticism and environmental humanities, a field that has largely been confined in English. Scholars such as Carolyn Fornoff, Mark Anderson, Laura Barbas-Rhoden, Jennifer French, Gisela Heffes, Jorge Marcone, Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, Luis I. Prádanos (Iñaki), Charlotte Rogers, Elizabeth Pettinaroli, Victoria Saramago, and Patricia Vieira have endorsed ecocriticism and environmental humanities as serious fields in Luso-Hispanic studies. As a result, they have created a strong space so that future generations of scholars (like myself) can feel comfortable and validated when saying, “I study ecocriticism and environmental humanities in Luso-Hispanic literature and culture!”