Recommended Readings for a Radical Life
Write for the world you want, not the world you’ve got.
We here at Edge Effects asked six of our favorite environmental thinkers to recommend one book we should read this summer, and they returned an exciting array of titles from a variety of perspectives. Ranging from critical Indigenous studies to biology to experimental writing about the Black Diaspora, the books below suggest new ways of living ethically, living beautifully, and living well with human and nonhuman others. These are books that nourish, challenge, and disorient as they do the difficult work of inviting new worlds to emerge.
Cleo Woelfle-Erskine, Assistant Professor, School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, University of Washington
Recommendation: This Accident of Being Lost: Songs and Stories by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (House of Anansi Press, 2017).
If you believe, as I do, that environmental studies is most powerful when it centers Indigenous thought, then read (or reread), This Accident of Being Lost. Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar, musician, poet, and activist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s collection traces everyday acts of resurgence and speculative accounts of Indigenous futures. In the present, songs and poems invoke love for land, between human lovers, and for animals, enmeshed with sharp and sometimes bitter anger at settler colonialism’s violence and erasure. “Plight,” about guerrilla-tapping street maples in a pretentious liberal neighborhood, bristles with sarcasm and aches with love for queer NDNs black leather motorcycle jackets, breastfeeding, stencils, manifestos and all. In two speculative fiction stories, Simpson rejects Anthropocene narratives of settler control. In “Big Water,” Lake Ontario, personified as Chi’Niibish, floods Toronto while texting furiously. In “Akiden Boreal,” two Nishnaabeg people spend their life savings on three hours in the Earth’s last cedar grove and tap into a circuit of relation, “a waterfall filling up that want almost faster than I can desire.” Simpson’s songs and speculations re-center environmental politics around Indigenous, feminist, queer dreams.
Alexis Pauline Gumbs, poet, author, and independent scholar
Recommendation: Interdependence: Biology and Beyond by Kriti Sharma (Fordham University Press, 2015)
“Interdependence” is a buzz word in a contemporary moment when people see an urgent need to come together but don’t know quite how. Kriti Sharma’s brilliant (and slim) text points out that even our current ideas of “interdependence” depend on constructed ideas of separation and imagined stability. In this eloquent meditative philosophical and biological exploration, Sharma invites us all to be biologists by asking the complicated question: What does life depend on? Step by step, she walks us through the assumptions and contradictions that underlie our scientific and common understanding of life itself. In a time when the consequences of climate change are impacting billions of people, Sharma takes us to the level of one-celled social creatures to undo the binary between existence and environment. And not a moment too soon.
Ashanté Reese, Assistant Professor of Sociology & Anthropology, Spelman College
Recommendation: A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging by Dionne Brand (Vintage Canada, 2001)
I love this book for a number of reasons but the primary one is the form and style. Reading it, I felt disoriented, and I could feel myself wanting to grasp for something, anything, that would feel like I was reading linearly. But that is exactly why the book is so powerful: in form and style, Brand models the various ways people in the African Diaspora experience disruptions and graspings for moments of respite (which occur) and explanation. I am awed by the ways Brand clearly and meticulously disrupts notions of geography, home, and history that we are indoctrinated with very early on. In these disruptions, there are spaces for us to re/consider how we are connected to each other, to the earth, to the histories that shape but not unilaterally define us.
Nadia Chana, Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology, University of Wisconsin–Madison
Recommendation: As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (University of Minnesota Press, 2017).
What did the land beneath our feet—and I am assuming a North American “we”—look like hundreds of years ago? Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson answers this question “not as a mourning of loss, but as a way of living in an Nishnaabeg present that collapses both the past and the future.” Thus begins As We Have Always Done, a book about Indigenous resistance and explicitly political resurgence. By resurgence, Simpson means a flourishing of Indigenous place-based practices, something that requires land and therefore threatens settler states. This stands in stark contrast with depoliticized forms of cultural resurgence whereby “story, song, dance, art, language, and culture” are delinked from land and co-opted by a multicultural rhetoric that leaves intact larger settler colonial structures. Simpson does not mince her words, nor does she waste time convincing, centering, or fighting with settlers. With brilliance, eloquence, and—dare I say it—love, Simpson courageously writes towards the world that she wants to see, unapologetically foregrounding and enacting Nishnaabeg thought and theory.
Elena McGrath, Visiting Assistant Professor of History, Carleton College
Recommendation: Earth Politics: Religion, Decolonization, and Bolivia’s Indigenous Intellectuals by Waskar Ari (Duke University Press, 2014)
The Bolivian Indigenous Intellectuals that Waskar Ari introduces us to in Earth Politics were inheritors of a long tradition of political struggle in defense of communal land rights, but who have largely been left out of histories of Bolivian intellectual life and political innovation. Earth Politics follows four leaders of the Alcaldes Mayores Particulares (AMP) movement who built a robust social movement long before “social movements” were an object of study for social scientists, and at a time when many Bolivian politicians were lamenting the exclusion of the “Indian” from the modern world. During the early 20th century, Aymara- and Quechua-speaking intellectuals made a claim for an autonomous politics built on shared Andean religious practices, demands for educational autonomy, and resistance to colonial forms of racial discrimination and assimilation. These activists rooted their practices in local landscapes and wide-reaching community networks that crossed linguistic and national borders. These networks influenced the course of Bolivian history without ceding power to the Bolivian state, even after the National Revolution of 1952 tried to co-opt and disarm them. For AMP activists, defense of land was also about asserting a right to generate and maintain their own forms of culture, religious practice, knowledge. Writing a counter-history of the Bolivian 20th century, Ari offers a genealogy of the intellectual currents that would later come to characterize much of Indigenous Latin America in the 21st century.
Rob Gioielli, Associate Professor of History, University of Cincinnati Blue Ash College
Recommendation: Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country by Traci Brynne Voyles (University of Minnesota Press, 2015)
This groundbreaking book explores how race is constructed spatially in settler colonial societies, and the devastating human and environmental impacts of that project. Voyles argues that environmental racism is a cultural process, that the dominant group constructs particular places as “wastelands,” thus legitimizing their destruction, and the attendant harm to the people that inhabit those places. Although the focus is on the Navajo lands in the American Southwest, the concepts are useful to anyone working broadly in environmental injustice and racism. This book helps readers who are unfamiliar with the landscapes of the Southwest—such as those who live in (post)industrial cities like Cincinnati, where I teach—make connections between mining on Navajo lands and their own immediate experiences of environmental racism and injustice. It is complex, but also artfully argued, and is a model of interdisciplinary scholarship. Voyles pulls together ethnic and feminist studies, history, and geography to make a thoroughly original contribution.
Featured image: A hand grasps a plant, evoking the reminder from Angela Davis that “radical simply means grasping things at the root.” Image available via pxhere, 2018.