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Ecocriticism and Culture

May 4, 2016

Associate Professor Christine Marran developed an interest in Japanese culture at a young age. She grew up on the west coast, but she decided to spend a year in Sendai, Japan attending an all girls high school when she was just fifteen years old. Although she inevitably felt lonely and struggled with the language barrier at first, Sendai eventually started to feel like home. Living overseas helped Marran understand the Japanese language and way of life firsthand. She reluctantly returned to the United States a year later, but her interest in Japanese culture never waned. She went on to earn a PhD in modern Japanese literature from the University of Washington.

In 2004, Marran left her first tenure-track job at Princeton University to join CLA’s then new Department of Asian Languages and Literatures. She collaborated with her new colleagues to forge a new approach to area studies. She says that the drive of her colleagues in CLA inspires her and benefits her work: “The faculty here in CLA are theoretical and inventive. They’ve helped me hammer out ideas on many occasions.”

Marran has several specializations, including ecocriticism and gender studies. Her interest in environmental issues sprouted during a trip to Japan while she was conducting research for her master’s thesis. She discovered a book by Michiko Ishimure on mercury poisoning in Minamata, Japan. “The novel of such a tragic event was so powerfully written,” Marran said. “I didn’t know I was going to pursue ecocriticism at the time, but that book stuck with me.”

Her interest in the subject compelled her to do research and produce several publications about the environment, including a book slated to be published in 2017 with the University of Minnesota Press called Ecology without Culture.  This work is a response to Timothy Morton’s Ecology without Nature, in which Morton describes how European romantic concepts of nature get in the way of thinking ecocritically. Marran disagrees. In her book, she draws upon texts and films produced by activist authors and filmmakers to argue that attachment to essentialist cultural claims impedes environmental thinking.  “We tend to talk more about cultural interests, when global storytellers are asking us to think about our material connections to animals, trees, water, and the rest of the non-human world, especially in this industrial age,” she explained.

This semester (Spring 2016), Marran is teaching a course on Japanese literature ("Post-war Japanese Literature in Translation"). Students read a range of narrative perspectives on environmental issues whether it be the local impact of large-scale engineering projects like dam construction, the impact of advanced technologies like nuclear bombs and power, or animal and insect symbolism in graphic novels.

Many of the authors and filmmakers Marran studies are Japanese citizens who are very critical in their writing about Japan. They focus not on cultural practice, but on ecological connections that bind humans to the material world in today’s society. “The recent Flint water crisis and the continued water and land contamination in the wake of nuclear reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant make such storytelling and filmmaking more relevant than ever,” she said.  

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.