Slow Violence in Contemporary American Environmental Literature: Richard Powers's Gain, Ann Pancake's Strange As This Weather Has Been and John Grısham's Gray Mountain
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Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, published in 2011, has undertaken an important mission in the Environmental Humanities; Nixon coined the term “slow violence” for the hitherto unnamed environmental disasters that escape the public eye. According to Nixon, slow violence is dispersed across time and, as such, goes unnoticed. Given that the people most exposed to slow violence are disempowered people, it becomes even harder for the environmental degradation to become visible. Even though violence is typically associated with momentary events, an event does not have to be momentary to be fatal. Although violence is associated with instant events, the consequences of slow violence can be even more fatal. Rob Nixon has inspired many scholars, and a good number of studies have been carried out addressing slow violence in the global South. The novelty of the present dissertation, however, is the application of Nixon’s concept of slow violence to three contemporary American environmental novels on disempowered people who are exposed to the scourge of slow violence. In Gain (1998), the first novel under focus in this dissertation, the environmental damage wrought for more than a century by the Clare Company is evident, its long-lasting harm exemplifying what Nixon refers to as slow violence. A Nixonian analysis of Gain reveals that a product of Clare, Inc., has caused Laura Bodey’s cancer—a manifestation of slow violence. The fact that many people and organizations collaborate with Laura and participate in the struggle against Clare expresses the significance of the solidarity which Nixon calls “the environmentalism of the poor.” Powers’s drawing attention to the toxicity in Illinois, warning people about slow violence – which would otherwise have gone unnoticed – embodies the significance of Nixon’s “writer-activism.” The fact that Superfund sites were established in Illinois after the publication of Gain proves the impact of such literature on environmental hazards. The second novel under focus, Strange as This Weather Has Been (2007) is significant in its embodiment of all the Nixonian concepts. Ann Pancake, as a writer and lecturer born in the region who struggles against strip-mining and the ensuing environmental hazards, exemplifies writer-activism. The fact that the characters Lace and Bant experience a revelation and become environmentalists embodies the environmentalism of the poor. The plot features numerous instances of slow violence: the degradation of Appalachia after four decades of mountaintop removal, and the illnesses and deaths caused by coal mining, such as when Corey died after falling into a pond created by the industry. The procedure of mountaintop coal mining creates toxicity in the water, soil, and the air; thus, people continually suffer from respiratory illnesses, the scarcity of potable water, and sludge rains and floods. Gray Mountain (2014), the third novel, focuses more on the legal issues related to coal mining. A lawyer by training, Grisham reveals the corruption of the legal system in Appalachia and the dishonest alliances between multinational corporations and authorities. The long-term wreckage goes unnoticed in Appalachia, rendering its slow violence invisible. However, although slow violence is relatively concealed, its consequences are fatal, black lung disease being the principal one. Further, the violence mainly hits the disempowered people in Appalachia, since multinational corporations’ development target locations tend to be inhabited by disempowered people who are unable to defend themselves. It is examined that in both Strange as This Weather Has Been and Gray Mountain, slow violence appears in the form of black lung disease, accidents related to coal mining, loss of housing, unemployment, and depression. A study of the three contemporary environmental novels makes visible what went unnoticed over a long period of time, illustrates the vulnerability of ecosystems, as well as the vulnerability of human health. The dissertation proves that the concept of slow violence has become one of the defining factors of a collective awareness of the suffering that emerges out of prolonged environmental catastrophes.
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