“you are part of the river, even if you have forgotten it”: The Politics of River Writing in Contemporary Indigenous and Canadian Literatures

Thumbnail Image
Mendicino, Jordana
contemporary literature , environmental , ecocritical , decolonial literature , Indigenous literature , canadian literature , decolonization , river writing , environmental literatures , allyship
My dissertation examines the complex and layered representations of rivers within Contemporary Canadian and Indigenous literatures, revealing the important intersection between rivers, ecocriticism, and Indigenous cultural resurgence. Using criticism by scholars such as Leanne Simpson, Glen Coulthard, and Astrida Neimanis, I examine the different positionalities and voices at the heart of primary texts such as Katherena Vermette’s river woman, Rita Wong’s undercurrent, and Christine Stewart’s Treaty 6 Deixis. Moving between Indigenous, European settler, and diasporic writers currently living on the lands known as Canada, I investigate the practice of ethical allyship and the important connection between literature and life, or art and praxis. As such, my work is just as concerned with politics, and emphasizing the ambitions for decolonial praxis central to many of the works, as it is with examining more conventional literary aspects of river writing. My thesis situates various urgent literary and political issues and focalizes these concerns within the site of Canadian rivers. By putting these texts in conversation, I analyze rivers and their relationships to broader political, cultural, and literary discourses such as second-wave ecocriticism’s preoccupation with incorporating Indigenous knowledges and their sustainable relationships to the land into contemporary environmentalism; decolonization and its re-situation into original political and cultural contexts; the water crisis and the physical and cultural centrality of water to both Indigenous and settler cultures; and contemporary Indigenous Cultural resurgence. Ultimately, cultural representations of rivers reveal that decolonization is inextricably bound to any movement toward ecological sustainability. My dissertation treats the rivers that I discuss as both real—physical, geographical, chemical, environmental, tangible—and symbolic—metaphorical, symbolic, cultural, spiritual, abstracted, theoretical. By keeping a consistent focus on cultural positionalities in my analysis of these texts and their relationship to systems of power, I contend that rivers are a complex literary site because they are important to Indigenous, settler, and diasporic cultures. As such, I determine that rivers are not only a key environmental concern, but they also represent a key dialogic space since they are central to the cultural and social narratives of Indigenous Peoples and settlers alike. Ultimately, I argue that understanding rivers through a more nuanced, non-western, and decolonial lens can help facilitate opportunities for environmentally sustainable and socially just futures. Guided by words like those from Fred Wah, who says “you are part of the river, even if you have forgotten it,” my project seeks to expose the ways in which examining our relationships to rivers can help to create decolonial and sustainable futures.
External DOI