FES event connects literature to the environment

“It’s a rare day that in an academic institution a facilitator hands you a maraca and encourages you to cheer for your professors,” says Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES) master’s student Penny Beames.

The maraca, noisy cheering and a lively discussion about great literature and its connection to the environment were all part of Beames’ experience in the Faculty’s first FES Reads! event, part of an introductory master of environmental studies course (ENVS 5100) directed by environmental studies Professor Ravi de Costa.

Modelled on the popular CBC program “Canada Reads”, FES Reads! encourages community members to explore the key role literature plays in environmental understanding and politics. It is coordinated by the FES Sustainable Writing Lab directed by Canada Research Chair in Sustainability & Culture Catriona Sandilands, FES doctoral candidate Amanda Di Battista, and Ella Soper-Jones, a postdoctoral fellow in environmental literature, sustainability & culture.

Left: FES Dean Barbara Rahder reads from The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels as Professor Illan Kapoor and Professor Ravi de Costa look on

“From the Romantic poets, to animal welfare classics like Black Beauty, to contemporary environmentalist fictions by the likes of Don DeLillo, Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan – the history of the environmental movement can be traced through literature,” says Sandilands.

Literature is a catalyst that can unleash the impact and complexity of environmental issues, she explains. However, in order to lead to real understanding, those issues need to be discussed – whereas literature is often now enjoyed in relative isolation.

FES Reads! is intended to break down that isolation and create a shared literary experience for FES community members. “The goal is to create an environmental public sphere around a literary work by choosing one book that will be read by all FES community members,” says Sandilands. “Once everyone has read the book, they have a relationship with it – and can engage in discussions about the issues it raises.”

Part one of FES Reads!, held last fall, used a participatory approach to choose the book for this shared experience. The event took the form of a competition between four York environmental studies professors, each championing a work of fiction they thought best engaged with issues related to environmental studies. Professor Ilan Kapoor presented his case for The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy; Professor Justin Podur advocated for Freedom TM by Daniel Suarez; FES Dean Barbara Rahder for The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels; and de Costa argued for Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden.

The professors used analysis and theatrics to sway the crowd, which was encouraged to vote with noise – thus the maracas. “Each defended their book with passion and wit,” says Beames. “It was really energizing to see some of my role models insisting on what they cared about.”

After a last round of debate was waged between finalists de Costa and Rahder, the book chosen for FES to discuss in the next FES Reads! event was Three Day Road. On Thursday, Feb. 10, from 12:30 to 2pm, in 140 Health, Nursing & Environmental Studies Building, the community will meet again to talk about Boyden’s award-winning book. The discussion will be facilitated by de Costa, Sandilands and Soper-Jones, and they hope the discussion will demonstrate how the shared experience of the book can create political community and environmental understanding.

Everyone in the York community is encouraged to come to Thursday’s FES Reads! session to share their opinions of the novel and how its insights might be relevant to work done in the Faculty. Given the novel’s subject of the fictional experiences of two Oji-Cree snipers in the First World War, as well as those of the aunt that raised them, participants are particularly encouraged to reflect on issues of colonialism, violence, gender, wilderness, and war as they continue to be relevant in the early 21st century.

For more events dealing with literature and environmental studies, look for the Sustainable Writing Lab workshops that are held throughout the year in the Faculty of Environmental Studies.