Welcome to NYU, Isabel! You’re a scholar of Francophone Caribbean Literature and Environmental Humanities. What drew you to these fields?
I started out in Cultural Anthropology, but I arrived at a moment when scholars in the discipline had, for some time, been reckoning with its origins as a handmaid to colonial projects. The atmosphere was one in which everyone was still experimenting with how to salvage methods from their rotten foundations. Studying “other cultures” from within the field eventually became too fraught for me, because I couldn’t let go of how Anthropology’s suppositions and definitions effectively manufacture alterity, legitimate a certain kind of subject, and reproduce particular fields of power. At the same time, I was also learning French, Haitian Kreyòl, and Spanish. Thinking in these languages sustained an expansiveness, epistemologically, that worked to disorient any totalizing vantage point or “system of thought” that might have taken root in my mind. (Still, I do profoundly appreciate my Anthro training).
Looking back, I made my way to the Caribbean because the forms of expression coming out of the region were characterized by both an effervescent linguistic landscape (that I adored for purely aesthetic reasons at first—I had yet to encounter the term “creolization”!) and also because I sensed it was key to unraveling the big epistemological and ethical knots that had confounded me in Anthropology. As ground zero of modernity-coloniality, as many scholars have pointed out, Caribbean realities offer a very stark picture of what today’s world has inherited from centuries of uneven knowledge production and material exploitation. At the same time, these spaces emanate uncapturability, unpredictability—or “opacity” if you will; they resist the transparent regard of the colonial administrator, twentieth-century occupier, or academic researcher. Learning the histories of the Caribbean revealed much about my own positionality. And I adopted a “Francophone” focus because I saw that thoughtful consideration of French- and Creole-language Caribbean literatures and critical thought was often missing from conversations coming out of Latin American and Caribbean Studies or those oriented towards the anglophone Caribbean. Finally, I couldn’t seriously attend to the textural richness of Francophone Caribbean literature without being absolutely converted to reading “landscapes”—or configurations of the nonhuman—as active “main characters,” which is often how their authors write them, so that’s where the Environmental Humanities piece comes in.
Something I really admire about your work is how adeptly you move between and among frames and scales—your book project powerfully exemplifies the strategy of honing in on something small (manioc root, in this case) in order to elucidate big patterns and dynamics.
Like you, I am drawn to what lies behind encounters with the “ordinary”! And because I am a big picture person, paradoxically, I came to think with the archipelagos and mainlands of the Caribbean. In this geographically compact yet conceptually expansive zone, you can trace the overlapping designs of European empires, certainly—but also an entire spectrum of creative life unfolding in defiance of these colonial and neocolonial enterprises. Francophone Caribbean thinkers draw from their everyday surroundings to do the immense work of decolonizing global (and planetary) imaginaries; they offer a wealth of vocabularies and concepts to wrestle with and undo the default subject-object positions of fields like Anthropology. French- and Creole- language literature from the Caribbean troubles clear species boundaries, disrupts linear time and mappable space, and radiates a remarkable polyphony. (And by literature, I don’t mean exclusively written texts! Literature is rhythm, because rhythm is knowledge and epistemology, as Souleymane Bachir Diagne reminds us; literature is orality and creole poetics, as theorists of oraliture like Patrick Chamoiseau have argued; and literature is living landscapes, taken seriously as non-static repositories of histories “from below,” as Édouard Glissant shows.)
Tell me a bit about what manioc signifies and how its histories, uses, and energies shape the book you’re writing.
In the book project, the tuber we know as manioc, cassava, or yuca serves as a lens through which to interrogate the foundations of “climate coloniality”. Rather than presenting a sociological case study of what Jean Casimir calls the “counter-plantation,” the book hinges on the signifying work done by the materiality of this root vegetable under different epistemologies or “cosmovisions” in the context of French colonization in the Caribbean. (For instance, to Caribbean first peoples, manioc bridged the physical world and that of ancestors and spirits. To colonial governors and agents of habitations, it represented a pillar of plantation subsistence. To Africans and their descendants enslaved to cultivate monocultures, it offered camouflageable energy and toxins sustaining calculations of freedom and resistance.) Through the root’s many faces, I trace the construction of racialized humanities and extractable “nature”, while also illuminating practices and philosophies that resisted plantation taxonomies of life to nurture “économies du vivant,” as Felwine Sarr might call them.
Above all, the project is guided by Francophone Caribbean authors’ resolve to conceptualize human freedoms alongside and through nonextractive relationships with vegetal life. Glissant enjoins us to listen to the landscape; in the early stages of the project, I was preoccupied with the question of how to embody this sensibility, how to align my research practice with an attention to the ways plants “speak of” or bear witness to the past. Whose voices might we become attuned to by, figuratively, putting an ear to the ground? What could a starchy, tuberous, toxin-filled entity tell us about different human groups creating, building, surviving, and telling stories outside the dominant logics of their time and place (and ours): the colonial-capitalist devaluing of life and labor? In my research and writing, this means juxtaposing twentieth-century novels, visual art, colonial natural histories, and plantation records.
It is a fascinating exercise to frame human imaginaries as powerfully inflected by plant life, to think about historical contingencies as shaped by growing nonhuman beings! A root tuber like manioc has no stake in human activities, in some ways; it follows its own life project of ontogenetic thriving. But in other ways, it is totally imbricated in structures of domination and in fabrics of freedom, enabling not only acts of dispossession and dehumanization, but also certain kinds of temporal navigations, mobilities, and futurities.
Your work is clearly very much in tune with current directions in Environmental Humanities. In what sense is this project particularly inflected by a French/ Francophone framework or archive?
Scholars like Malcom Ferdinand have shown that Francophone postplantation societies have much to contribute to Environmental Humanities, especially to vibrant conversations seeking to hone the concept of “Plantationocene”! The eco-poetics of the French- and Creole-speaking Caribbean reflect the accumulated expertise of communities that have spent many painful centuries navigating the intricacies of communal living, refining the place of the human in relation to the nonhuman, and troubleshooting questions of ecological and social equilibrium. The “Plantationocene” is concerned with the differential vulnerability to the present climate crisis produced by colonial extractivism and racialization. If we look closely at how the coloniality of climate is felt in France’s Caribbean departments and in Haiti, and how literature creatively reckons with these lived experiences, we might shift towards conceptualizing terms like “biodiversity,” “sustainability,” or “subsistence” differently—beyond a biocentric framework—to seriously consider unique alternatives to (failed) western environmentalisms. As Aimé Césaire writes in “Poésie et connaissance,” “la connaissance poétique nait dans le grand silence de la connaissance scientifique”!
Do you have other projects on the horizon?
I’m currently working on an article for a special issue of the Journal of Ecohumanism centered on “Ecologies of Cognition, Cognitive Ecologies.” Actually, this project is also the result of a tropical plant catching my attention! I’m playing with holding together two vocabularies: emerging scholarship in plant neurobiology, on one hand, and principles of Afro-Caribbean sensing spiritualities, on the other (both view sessile plants as intentional, animate, and feeling beings). Through these insights, I’m reading Marie Augustin’s 1892 novel, Le Macandal, which is set in colonial Saint-Domingue and very loosely inspired by the activities of the visionary herbalist and resistance leader, François Mackandal. I’m especially interested in Augustin’s fixation with the strangler fig, or “figuier maudit.” This species of tree demonstrates “extended cognition” in the language of western science—which means it can manipulate its environment, including other living organisms. And trees are also important dwelling places for spirits of the Haitian Vodou pantheon—the forest is a sacred place that can alter human consciousness. So, the article will attempt to read Augustin’s novel and the natural histories she cites through both epistemological frameworks to explore counter-Enlightenment and plant-based conceptions of freedom surrounding the Haitian Revolution.
You’ll be teaching a graduate seminar this spring titled “Germinations: Radical Thinking and Growing in the Francophone Caribbean.” What are some of the texts you’re most excited to teach in this seminar, and what are you most hoping students will gain from the course?
I’m really excited to teach Sagesse des lianes, a gripping set of essays by “Afropean” philosopher Dénètem Touam Bona. The text is incredibly poetic and theoretically vigorous. Its formal elements follow the twisting and unpredictable movements of the liana, or vine, as Touam Bona theorizes impenetrability as a decolonial gesture, articulating histories of fugitivity through a plant’s motion. He then finds echoes of this movement in textiles and choreography—in fact, the collective exhibit “La sagesse des lianes” at the Centre Vassivière included many works by visual and performing artists. I think students will appreciate his discussion of the concept of lyannaj, which holds that a gesture at the heart of plantation exploitation might metamorphose into a gesture of solidarity. We will also look at some translated texts, like Fugitive, where are you running? Touam Bona’s robust engagements with French, Caribbean, Indigenous, and anglophone theorists—from Montaigne to Édouard Glissant to Davi Kopenawa to Donna Haraway to Emmanuele Coccia—make good entry points for students who might not be familiar with these thinkers, and he is also a guide to the resonances between them (he is not Caribbean but reveals the planetary significance of Caribbean thought). In the “Germinations” course and in all of my courses, I’m hoping to make students aware of a fount of Francophone Caribbean creative-conceptual work, one that offers clear-eyed and creative—even diagnostic—engagements with the urgent issues they/we face today. I hope students will see that this particular literary tradition is not folkloric, fixed, anachronistic, or exotic. Rather, Francophone Caribbean literature is a really valid place to look for timely insight into infinite social and environmental concerns. At the same time, we want to avoid taking a utilitarian or extractive view of these nuanced and enigmatic texts.
Most of us who become professors had a teacher along the way who particularly inspired us, who believed in us or who served as a model. Was there someone like that for you?
I was homeschooled until high school, so my mother was my first teacher and inspiration. She is Socratic by nature and forever questioning the status quo. And when I was in my early teens, one auspicious summer, I opened Haiti: The Aftershocks of History and discovered Laurent Dubois. The stories Laurent tells are unshakeable. I never could have imagined that he would become such an essential part of my own journey to becoming a storyteller, but I’m so lucky he did.
When I was growing up—before I became obsessed with French literature-- I wanted to be a violinist. Did you always know academia was the path for you?
This department is so musical! I also played the violin, though I never thought of it as a potential profession. And it’s also true that I rarely pictured myself actively pursuing an academic vocation. But in some way or another, I have always been a humanistic thinker. The interior-facing reflective and creative aspects of academia are actually a really good fit for me; as long as I can remember, I have been comfortable reading, excavating, illuminating, weaving stories, bringing things into relation. I love long hours of solitary archival research and being transported by novels. And I am learning to appreciate the diplomatic, didactic, outward-facing side of academia, although I still prefer the background to the spotlight. But at its best, I think this profession can lead to creative, energizing, hopeful, and communal thought and praxis.
Do you have any advice for graduate students approaching the dissertation stage, and who maybe feel a little daunted by the enormity of the thing? What are your writing strategies? (Do you write in timed intervals, or with a writing buddy, or at certain times of day, etc.?)
The thing is enormous indeed. I don’t have any wisdom, but I have some paradoxical thoughts to share after going through the process. I would advise anyone planning a dissertation to find an anchor—conceptual solid ground that won’t shift when you try to chart a coherent course of arguments. This might be a relationship, an object, a corpus, a gesture… Mine was very tangible and material. It kept my thinking rooted even when I felt tempted into gratuitous abstraction or esotericism. I even interacted with it in non-conceptual ways; once, some friends helped me cook it for dinner when I got tired of reading about it. I felt my thinking get clearer once I let the dissertation cohere around a single (but not simple) axis.
That said, writing the dissertation was also a bit of a revelatory experience for me! So, while anchors are important, I think it’s also valuable to take detours, because sometimes stumbling upon a certain perspective or argument can only happen circuitously. If you leave no margin for the unexpected or unplanned, you are probably foreclosing the emergence of some exciting revelations.
Also—as I had the opportunity to learn while dissertating during the pandemic—remember that we are not brains in jars. We are multifaceted and situated beings affected by all sorts of stress, material precarity, political volatility, existential dread, unpredictable incidents, and other (human and nonhuman) people.