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Chapter Seven ‘Our only physical and psychic home’1 : Ecology and community in The Whale Caller In this chapter I filter Mda’s fictional preoccupations in The Whale Caller through the arguments of other writers who explore ecological issues, because I believe that in this novel Mda has designed a powerful ecological allegory.2 My theoretical frameworks are recent ecological debates both in South Africa and in America, since Mda as writer and academic is linked to both traditions. American universities — and Mda is Professor of Creative Writing at Ohio — have experienced a recent flowering of cross-disciplinary ecological criticism and environmental scholarship, the aim of which is ‘to bridge the gaps between scholars, artists, students and the public’.3 Moving from framing debates to a discussion of the novel itself, I will focus on the consciousness and reactions of the main protagonist. The richness and complexity of his story invites comparison with the stories of other contemporary writers who are concerned with communicating the urgency of environmental issues. I argue that The Whale Caller, for all its satire and humour, is the bleakest of Mda’s novels because it depicts a dysfunctional human community that ensues in ecological catastrophe. While The Madonna of Excelsior, The Heart of Redness, and Cion all reflect Mda’s interest in environmental issues, these novels are far less pessimistic than The Whale Caller since all three affirm the possibility of communal action, which this novel denies. 1 The phrase is William Kittredge’s. 2 Brian McHale points out that in the last quarter of the twentieth century ‘the romantic prejudice against allegory has been lifted, and it has once again become possible to call a work allegorical without being pejorative’ (McHale: 1987, 140). He notes that ‘the revival of allegory in postmodernist writing can … be related to postmodernist poetics … Like metaphor … allegory offers itself as a tool for exploring ontological structure and foregrounding ontological themes, so in a sense we should hardly be surprised at the contemporary resurgence of allegory’ (Ibid, 141). 3 This phrase occurs on the inside cover of the journal ISLE — Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment — connected with the Department of English at the University of Nevada, Reno, and edited by Scott Slovic. Jacklyn Cock emphasises that America has become the centre of ecological studies that link the environment to social justice. Dance of Life 126 The South African theoretical framework for this chapter originates in three recent journal editions of The English Academy Review, Current Writing and the Journal of Literary Studies. All three editions are dedicated to ecological issues; they attest to the burgeoning of ecological discourse in South Africa.4 The American theoretical framework I adopt originates in a conference I attended in October 2009 at Goedgedacht Farm, near Malmesbury in the wheatlands of the Cape. Titled ‘The Literature and Ecology Colloquium’, it was attended by a small number of delegates in a beautiful and inspiring agricultural setting.5 One of the plenary speakers was the American ecologist Scott Slovic, whose book What’s Nature Worth? Narrative Expressions of Environmental Values, co-edited with Terre Satterfield, I have used in the American debates section of this chapter. In my reading, Slovic and Satterfield’s book raises many ecological challenges dramatised in The Whale Caller. What’s Nature Worth contains interviews with 12 writers working in the genres of non-fiction essay, short story and poetry (and making reference to novels). The book is about ‘biologically significant systems, treasured landscapes and/or threatened species’ (Slovic & Satterfield: 2004, 5). Its editors point out that ethicists ‘have led the effort to counter the trend towards monetary expressions of value by defining both anthropocentric 4 South African environmentalists emphasise that ecological discourse in this country, though expanding, has yet to attain the sophistication of its equivalents in Britain, Europe and America. Sandra Swart remarks, ‘The “animal turn” in the southern African social sciences, and within the historical guild in particular, is still very small’ (Swart: 2007, 280). Dan Wylie notes that ‘the words “ecology” and “ecocriticism” are notably absent from [the papers he has collected]’ and remarks ‘nationally, we are apparently still at a stage of considerable theoretical naïvety’ (Wylie: 2006, 5). Julia Martin comments: ‘[Q]uestions of ecology, place and situatedness [are discussed] by a growing body of teachers and researchers internationally, although [they remain] … marginal in South Africa’ (Martin: 2003, 108). Yet the number of special journal editions recently devoted to ecological issues, with hundreds of pages of...


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