Sea Narratives: Cultural Responses to the Sea, 1600-present

This week I have been busy finishing my edited collection Sea Narratives: Cultural Responses to the Sea, 1600-present which will be published in early May. Brief details are now up on the publisher’s website at the link above but I wanted to provide some more information about the individual chapters that make the collection.

Sea Narratives began with the symposium of the same name in January 2014. The book collection started with the impetus to explore the relationship between the sea and culture, from the early modern period to the present, through the lens of the ‘sea narrative’. While narratives of various kinds are oft-used in cultural studies of the sea I felt that, with the exception of a handful of genre-specific studies, no one has really focused on the ‘sea narrative’ as a concept, as it crosses through a diverse array of genres – letters, diaries, films, newspapers, novels, poems, plays, scientific and political documents, material artefacts and travel writing – and as it travels through cultures, across historical periods. What is a sea narrative? In what ways does it make sense to speak of the ‘sea narrative’ as a form? What draws together this diverse corpus of material and makes it distinctive?

This collection, then, seeks to explore how might we understand the relationship between narrative and the sea. The essays here each foreground, in various ways, the relationship between sea and narrative form as central to, rather than the backdrop of, their enquiries. In doing so, they show not only how cultures have come to represent the sea, but also how narratives find their very forms shaped, challenged, reinvented, in the process.

My introduction to the book charts out some of these threads, situating the work in relation to recent cultural studies of the sea, as well as broader currents of socio-geographies of the sea that particularly inform the transnational theorising of the volume. In this I seek to theorise the ‘sea narrative’ as a form, looking especially at the idea of narrative as a process in these works. The collection then moves onto the nine chapters that each take a different historical period and cultural context to elucidate further on these themes, as outlined in the authors’ abstracts:

A Need to Narrate? Early Modern French Accounts of Atlantic Crossings. Michael Harrigan (University of Bath)

Harrigan offers a new reading of processes of narrative transmission within the early modern Atlantic basin in a trajectory moving from the social, or human interactions, to the supra-human, or perceptions of interactions with environment, the ocean, and beyond. Through the analysis of four rarely-studied seventeenth-century narratives in French (François Pyrard, Guillaume Coppier, Antoine Biet, Jean Mongin), this chapter explores the generation of narrative through accelerated and collective human displacements and cultural disruptions, the narrative as a vector of new and familiar cultural capital and the text as repository for circulating narratives and popular rites, and assesses the role of human agency within the anthropocentric ocean narrative.

‘A sea of stories’: Maritime imagery and imagination in Napoleonic narratives of war captivity. Elodie Duché (York St John University)

Whilst a growing interest in prisoners of war has shifted the lens of investigation towards a cultural appreciation of their ‘low literature’, little attention has been given to the use of landscapes, particularly mnemonic and imaginary seascapes, in voicing forced displacement in times of war. In this chapter, Duché addresses this issue by exploring, in unison, how French and British captives of the Napoleonic Wars mobilised and circulated sea-inspired tropes not only to express their situation in reference to the ‘sea voyage’ genre, but also to retrieve a lost everyday and to converse with the societies surrounding their seclusion. Drawing on diaries and objects produced by detainees, this chapter re-evaluates the role of the sea as a site of narration and memorialisation of coerced mobility.

‘Through Dustless Tracks’ for African Rights: Narrative Currents and Political Imaginaries of Solomon Plaatje’s 1914 Sea Voyage. Janet Remmington (University of York)

Remmington provides a rich analysis of black South African journalist Solomon Plaatje’s under-studied sea narrative written en route to imperial London as part of the African National Congress’ 1914 deputation to protest against the Natives’ Land Act. The chapter, drawing in part on Gilroyan and Foucauldian conceptualisations, examines Plaatje’s figuring of the open sea-scape, the integrated ship, and an idealised cosmopolitan destination as symbolic of freedoms across colour lines against the backdrop of South Africa’s increasingly racially constrained socio-political landscape. It explores Plaatje’s navigation through the darker historical and metaphorical territory of the ocean – slavery, colonial conquest, shipwrecks – and his negotiation of maritime domains claimed by white mastery – management of sea sickness, time, travel. Published in South African newspapers, the narrative situates Plaatje’s maritime journey as part of a larger mission for African rights at home and within the imaginary of a ‘world empire’.

‘From Icy Backwater to Nuclear Waste Ground’: The Russian Arctic Ocean in the Twentieth Century. Eva-Maria Stolberg (University of Duisburg-Essen)

This chapter provides a ‘technological narrative’ of Russian exploration of the Arctic Ocean, arguing that in contrast to previous centuries when sailing ships struggled with the masses of ice, technology of the twentieth century offered another imagery of the Arctic Ocean to emerge, associated with the breakthroughs by crews of icebreakers and Arctic pilots. This chapter falls into two parts: the first tells of the advance of the Arctic frontier by technology under Stalin (1930s-1950s), and the second enlightens a new epoch after World War II, the Atomic age in the Arctic Ocean. The chapter shows how Soviet propaganda turned the former icy backwater into a site at the forefront of Soviet technological modernization.

Shores of history, islands of Ireland: Chronotopes of the sea in the contemporary Irish novel. Roberta Gefter Wondrich (University of Trieste)

The article investigates the most significant patterns than can be traced in Irish contemporary  fiction’s interest in the sea and its related maritime topographies,  and argues how the most resonant associations of the sea imagery lie in the vexed relation between the historical past and communal and personal identity in the modern nation. Using the critical framework of the ‘chronotopes of the sea’ (‘at once geographies and topoi’, Cohen) and most notably the seaside/shoreline and the ship, in its analysis of novels by John Banville, Colm Toibin, Neil Jordan, Bernard Mac Laverty and Joseph O’Connor the chapter focuses on the association between memory, creativity and trauma, the sense of the past and the search for re/generation, and the trope of insularity as always referring to the identitarian tensions of Ireland.

Women at Sea: Locating and Escaping Gender on the Cornish Coast in The Loving Spirit and Frenchman’s Creek. Gemma Goodman (University of Warwick)

Goodman examines two of Daphne du Maurier’s Cornish novels – The Loving Spirit and Frenchman’s Creek.  The marketization of ‘du Maurier’s Cornwall’ by the tourist industry feeds both a version of Cornwall as romantic and picturesque and the pigeon-holing of du Maurier’s novels as over-simplistically romantic. The chapter problematizes constructions of the Cornish coast and of gender in the novels through exploring the experiences of the novels’ female protagonists. Janet Coombe and Dona St Columb look to escape social constructions of gender and the sea functions as a space of possibility for such an escape. Yet freedom is always ultimately denied. The Cornish coastal site can be understood as both suggesting and denying freedom from gender within the context of its ambiguous relationship to England.

Travelling across Worlds and Texts in A. S. Byatt’s Sea Narratives. Barbara Franchi (University of Kent)

The sea is an ocean of intertextual relations in A. S. Byatt’s fiction: in her neo-Victorian diptych Angels and Insects and the postmodern novel The Biographer’s Tale, Victorian maritime travel is juxtaposed to the seas of literature and creative relations across worlds and texts. This chapter examines how, through the deployment of intertextual strategies, Byatt’s sea narratives juxtapose the imperial seas of the north to the postcolonial crossings of civilizations in the Mediterranean and the South of the Atlantic. Franchi argues that the colonial seas are rewritten into a postcolonial and postmodern sea of words, through the recurrence of the myth of Ulysses and the powerfully transformative image of the maelstrom.

Unveiling the anthropo(s)cene: Burning seas, cinema of mourning and the globalisation of apocalypse. Sayandeb Chowdhury (Ambedkar University, Delhi)

Indian filmmaker Aparna Sen’s 1995 film Yugant offers a surprisingly prescient reading of what is now understood as signs of the arrival of Anthropocene. One of the earliest films from the Global South to have invoked the marauding ecological effects of globalization, Yugant resists easy categorization as feminist, national or leftist cinema. Primarily a sea-narrative in complex, understated ways, the film is about an urbane and estranged couple despondently attempting and failing reconciliation while on vacation on an Indian east-coach beach. The film reads their climactic and catastrophic dénouement as symptomatic of the violence against the planet and the sea as both a contrarian participant and spectacular casualty of it. Interrogating the film from the two-decade distance, the paper also foregrounds how the film manages to raise a range of questions that humanities can bring to the climate-change debate.

The Tolerant Coast. Isaac Land (Indiana State University)

Land uses readings of Lawrence Durrell, Amos Oz, and Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff to introduce the concept of coastal exceptionalism.  The tolerant coast may be a utopian space, a permissive arena for expatriate Europeans, a zone of nostalgia, or a centre of synergy.  The chapter examines the examples of the Levant and the West Coast of the United States in some detail. The belief that there is a specific local quality that makes port towns uniquely tolerant places offers an interesting counterpoint to recent debates about the universal values of cosmopolitanism, multiculturalism, and superdiversity.  Land concludes with a discussion of Steve Jobs and Silicon Valley as a coastal expression of Saskia Sassen’s neoliberal global city, both hosting innovative firms and marketing itself as stylish and transgressive.

Sea Narratives will be available in ebook and hardback from 11 May 2016.

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