Toward a Decolonial Ecocriticism: Review of Angry Planet by Anne Stewart

Toward a Decolonial Ecocriticism: Review of Angry Planet: Decolonial Fiction and the American Third World by Anne Stewart

Kelly McKisson

Under Review:
Angry Planet: Decolonial Fiction and the American Third World. Anne Stewart. University of Minnesota Press, January 2023.

The 2022 United Nations Climate Conference, COP27, concluded with a decision to establish a loss and damage fund: financial support for those countries most vulnerable to impacts of climate change. Though this resource might be put to good use (as in building sea walls to protect coastal communities), the announcement falls short of the larger demands around the phasing-out of fossil fuel use. The fund sidesteps the infrastructures whereby capitalist states in the global north engage in colonial practices of invasion and exploitation to extract fossil fuels from countries in the global south—colonial-capitalist models that continue to impoverish the lands and peoples of the world and enrich the fossil fuel beneficiaries. A redistribution of funds is necessary, but it papers over ongoing asymmetric extraction networks. And it outright neglects the agency of the earth: it ignores the messages sent by a planet crumbling under our feet and rising over our sea walls in protestation of our actions.

Anne Stewart’s Angry Planet: Decolonial Fiction and the American Third World foregrounds these messages, assembling an archive of terrestrial instability from US literary and historical works that includes “the motion of earthquakes, of droughts and lightning and insect swarms, … hard-to-explain disasters like car crashes, and towns that tumble into the sea”. Stewart shows how this archive of planetary agency inspires and abets human resistance to status-quo structural conditions resultant from colonial terraforming of Turtle Island—a term that some Indigenous traditions use to name North America and that Stewart uses to make visible the colonial condition.

The book offers four chapters that investigate how terrestrial upheaval disturbs and de-normalizes taken-for-granted colonial organizations of land, with each chapter comparing two novels around a scholarly concept. In Chapter 1, entanglement describes the interconnection of U.S. colonial terraforming practices with geophysical sites on the earth; Chapter 2 illustrates withdrawal as a process by which resistant acts, such as earthquakes, materially disrupt civic order to create new spaces of alternate relations; Chapter 3 figures delinking as a further process by which the earth decouples itself from colonial entanglement and offers new possibilities for human relations; and in Chapter 4, apocalyptic narratives suggest that resurgence follows the path of delinking to move toward a decolonial future. While it can sometimes be difficult to track these connections between the readings, the disparate chapters together illuminate a historic and literary undercurrent moving toward decolonial thought at the end of the twentieth century.

The frustrations of reading a book like this, as Stewart acknowledges, are the shortcomings of achieving real, material change. All these texts of angry planet literature reach an impasse in the project of imagining otherwise, which centers on the inability to transform the relationship between human beings and land.

Angry Planet offers novel literary pairings and timely critical confrontations for scholars of utopian and decolonial thought, environmentalism and ecocriticism, and American studies. The book charts developments in the allyship of human and nonhuman agents across a period historicized as “the long 90s”: the years between the end of the Cold War and the attacks on the US World Trade Center. As such, the book recovers an imaginary of revolutionary destruction that would be made “taboo”—in fact “suppressed and discredited”—in the wake of September 11, 2001. Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water (1993), Linda Hogan’s Solar Storms (1994), Héctor Tobar’s The Tattooed Soldier (1997), Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist (1999)—these texts join familiar staples of US environmental criticism, such as Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead (1992), Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993), and Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange (1997), to make the case that a cohort of multiethnic US literature is drawing a connection between a legacy of environmental injustice and a tradition of social activism. A standout surprise is John Edgar Wideman’s Philadelphia Fire (1990) about the MOVE bombing of 1985, in which Stewart reads the direct violence of the US state as a response to a city’s withdrawal from prescribed democratic order.

Angry Planet will be especially instructive to those readers who seek to learn more from Indigenous frameworks and to move toward a decolonial environmental criticism. The substantial introduction explains the theoretical framework, which draws together material ecocriticism and Indigenous theorizing to read for an agential earth. The archive is innovatively positioned, as the novels both predate the new materialist turn in scholarship (roughly around 2000) and also continue a tradition of decolonial theorizing. Here, Stewart offers a productive staging of the frictions and intersections of critical decolonial thought, including the Latin Americanist project of modernity/coloniality/decoloniality, with dominant conversations in new materialist, posthumanist, and object-oriented scholarship. In its own investigation, Angry Planet aims to center the Indigenous theory of land put forward by Glen Sean Coulthard in Red Skin, White Masks (2014), and extends Vine Deloria Jr.’s thinking in God is Red (1972)—a theorization of land as ontologically prior to, or pre-existing, the production of knowledge and thus central to the conditions of possibility for decoloniality. This theoretical concept is “grounded normativity”, and Angry Planet instructively, if imperfectly or at times too-abstractly, reads its archive through this concept to re-frame a hidden history of revolution.

The frustrations of reading a book like this, as Stewart acknowledges, are the shortcomings of achieving real, material change. All these texts of angry planet literature reach an impasse in the project of imagining otherwise, which centers on the inability to transform the relationship between human beings and land. Decolonial futures have not yet arrived, and likewise the project of angry fiction is not over in 2001. The conclusion helpfully identifies a wealth of twenty-first century literature that continues the efforts of the genre-diverse archive of Angry Planet, from N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth (2015-2017) series to Rebecca Roanhorse’s Sixth World (2018-2019) novels. As international coalitions begin to distribute the economic support that will shore up infrastructure under climate change, angry planet fiction urges a different imaginary, one divorced from capitalist logics and settler agendas that brought the world to its current state. “While no one has decided to turn freeways into antiracist, anticapitalist cooperative living spaces yet,” Stewart admits, the hope of Angry Planet is that “telling different stories can bring different worlds into being”.

Kelly McKisson (she/her) is a PhD Candidate in English at Rice University, and her research focuses on feminist ecology and contemporary American literature. Her scholarship has been published in American Literature, and you can also find her reviews on Correspondences, a digital platform for environmental conversations.

Transparency Statement

This review was commissioned by an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly calls for review. The author and editors had no prior acquaintance. It was edited by Misha Grifka Wander and copyedited by Jake Casella Brookins. ARB did not arrange an advance copy for this review.

ARB is a affiliate and may receive a portion of book sales purchased through links on this page. Please visit our Support & Transparency page to learn more.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s