Hearing From Our Fellows: Lucy Rowland
I am currently in the final funded year of my PhD at the University of Leeds in the School of English, and the time has gone very quickly. It’s been two and a half years of intensive reading, writing, conferences, and fascinating discussions. I’ve learnt a huge amount about myself, as well as about the world of academia and how it operates. So much has been crammed into these last few years, though, that sometimes the original ideas, interests and questions that sparked my thesis proposal and prompted me to undertake the PhD project in the first place feel quite distant or intangible. When I saw the call for applicants for the ‘Under Her Eye’ Fellowship, I felt that this would be a perfect opportunity to both connect with others working on climate change, and reconnect with the fundamental goals of my PhD project: to amplify the voices of women authors writing about climate change, and provoke conversations over how women can offer unique contributions and even solutions to environmental issues. Taking part in the first training weekend for the Invisible Dust ‘Under Her Eye’ Fellowship in April allowed me to do this, and much more.
Top: A few of the fellows and Invisible Dust enjoying a break, Left: Looking over to Scarborough castle, Bottom right: Prof Julie Doyle (all my photos)
In a supportive and inspiring women-only space, I felt able to openly and enthusiastically discuss the reasons I had for beginning my research, which in turn reignited my interest in the possibilities of interdisciplinarity, creativity, and women working together to navigate the complexities and uncertainties surrounding our climate-changing world (things that are, in essence, at the heart of my research). From reading a range of fiction dealing with environmental issues – beginning with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake trilogy, it goes without saying – throughout my late teens and early twenties, I began thinking about climate change as a holistic, gradual and all-encompassing phenomena. I thought about how the women in science/speculative fiction and eco-dystopias always seemed to suffer the worst effects of the new world orders, and why some novels reproduced typical apocalyptic narratives of Western scientists saving the world from impending doom: were there no alternative stories being told?
From these questions, I eventually arrived at my thesis. Entitled “Tortured Ecologies”: Environmental Disaster and Climate Discourse in Contemporary Women’s Speculative Fiction, my research considers women’s fiction from the last few decades that deals with climate change and/or environmental disaster, and analyses the ways in which these women authors write back against hegemonic and often damaging narratives perpetuated in the media, political spheres and fiction, that frame our responses to climate change. My thesis focuses on women writers of different cultural and geographical origins, and I take a feminist ecocritical approach to the texts. This approach highlights the patriarchal power structures that uphold damaging attitudes towards our environments, and exposes the ways in which women, people of colour and those living in poverty are worse affected by the consequences of climate change. My research explores how authors can complicate, challenge and resist these attitudes, and how they provide alternative epistemologies that can allow us to apprehend and comprehend climate change and its related disasters in a more effective way.
Conversations I had at the Under Her Eye Fellowship weekend rekindled my interest in other creative approaches to climate change scenarios, alongside fiction. Over the course of four days, we heard from artist Gayle Chong Kwan about her installations, sculptures and photographic artwork, and how she approaches issues of environmental damage and waste. Activist and academic Julie Doyle encouraged us to think critically about how we present and disseminate our ideas and messages, and which modes of communication can be helpful or detrimental when it comes to engaging others in a dialogue on climate change. Speaking with other fellows was just as fascinating: a combination of PhD candidates and practicing artists from across the arts and sciences, produced some great exchanges on how we can bring our different areas of expertise to the table, and collaborate with each other in order to build connections across disciplines and strengthen our message.
This was also challenging, of course: after nearly three years working in an academic environment, it took time to adjust to thinking in terms of the wider world, in terms of public engagement, and in terms of a more artistic worldview. Explaining my research to a group of like-minded academics is one thing, and presenting at conferences have given me a little bit of practice in that area so far. However, coming up with creative and artistic ways in methods for public engagement during the workshops for the ‘Under Her Eye’ Summit was something I found difficult, and even intimidating at times. How could I create an effective dialogue with others and share some of what I’ve learnt through my studies – for example, the role of language and narrative and their nuances in manipulating public sentiment – without seeming dogmatic or out of touch? Hopefully, through working as part of an exciting sensory workshop at the ‘Under Her Eye’ Summit, I will be able to arrive at some answers to these questions, and explore my own – and others’ – research and practice through a completely new perspective. I am really looking forward to hearing from such an inspiring and powerful set of women at the conference, and learning a huge amount more about how women can participate and shape the discourses, policies and cultural attitudes surrounding climate change and its very real, very present challenges.
Lucy Rowland is a third-year PhD candidate at the University of Leeds, based in the School of English and funded by the AHRC’s White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities (WRoCAH). Her research interests include climate fiction, feminist ecocriticism, and contemporary literature. She is part of the Environmental Humanities Research Group, and assists on the Land Lines: Modern British Nature Writing project.