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Over onsWaar vindt u onsdr. V. (Vera) Alexander

dr. V. Alexander

Universitair docent

Anglophone Garden Literature: Relations, Growth and Identity Formation

I am in the process of completing a monograph which reads a disregarded genre, garden books, as a form of life writing which engages with space, place and sustainability as well as growth and creativity. 

Gardens are of significance to many people and the subject of an immense body of writings ranging from practical 'how-to' books to philosophical analyses, garden memoirs and ecocritical literature. Despite the popularity of the garden subject, there is as yet no such field as 'Literary Garden Studies'. This book suggests ways of writing garden literature into literary studies. It closes the gap between different genres of garden writing and proposes methods of how to analyse garden fiction and life writing as relational literature.

Arguing that the significance of the garden as a living space goes beyond the functions of a literary motif or setting, the book suggests an interdisciplinary approach to the relation between the imaginary and the real which may be adapted to other motifs (e.g. music). Using concepts from postcolonial and ecocritical cultural and literary studies, narratology and life writing criticism, the book examines the potential of the garden to act as a spatial 'partner-in-dialogue' for human identity formation. The garden is thus read as a human-made nature space with interactive potential. Texts about gardens record and reflect on the challenges experienced in the human encounter with gardening. The garden as elusive living space is found to exert a formative impact on human gardeners, shaping their views on how human beings relate to their surroundings and to nature.

The garden has been labelled a heterotopia (Michel Foucault), a real space which encompasses both a utopian dimension – gardening articulates visions of an imaginary improved environment --, and a real, subversive one which questions and destabilises notions of power and control in the human-nature encounter. The garden space is thus located on the dividing line between the imagination and reality, with roots and branches in both. Textual representations of this hybrid site contemplate both dimensions. My book traces the tension created by its ambiguous position and its impact on human identity formation in garden writings from a variety of geographical regions.

The book adapts the concept of 'relationality' or relational writing (Kenneth J. Gergen) to the humanised space of the garden to explore how and to what ends the space of the garden is anthropomorphised. While defined by containment, the garden eludes human control. The garden encompasses both a concrete physical reality and the imagination; idealised as a paradisal location its vision is never quite realised as it is subject to continuing transformation and growth. It confronts human individuals with something living, yet outside the grasp of language. The liminal experience of otherness experienced and related by garden writers is in conflict with the emotional dimension of belonging and ownership and the gardeners' impulse to identify with the gardens they have made.

Both real gardens and the gardens written into textual existence share a negotiation of ideas about how human beings place themselves in their environment and conceive of their active role in shaping their surroundings. The garden has strong emotional associations of being a space of both childhood and growth. It frames the stories of human formation and becoming in a variety of subtle ways which may be seen as a dialogic process. In Anglophone literatures, the struggle for control in the garden mirrors other processes such as imperial expansion and colonial control. Combining these considerations into a conceptual approach I label as relational, the book suggests ways in which garden literature can be redefined as an environmental genre connecting fiction and life writing.

Figures of Mobility: Representations of the Visitor in Anglophone Writings


Located at the intersection between different writings of mobility, this project formulates a new approach to literary representations of place and identity by analysing the figure of the visitor in contemporary Anglophone writings. The project argues that focus on visitors and acts of visiting complements present theories of mobility, place and identity. The visitor enables a specific perspective on place as a contracted site of destination and focuses attention on specific transformative moments of encounter and their consequences for travellers, migrants and residents and their perception of place.

Reading the visitor as a figure that unsettles routine perceptions of place, identity and residence, I will examine the dynamics created by visitors in a corpus of postcolonial writings (fiction and life writing) produced by contemporary authors that bridge regions and countries such as the Indian subcontinent, the Caribbean, Africa, Canada, Europe, Britain, the Pacific and Australia. Connecting the global scope of travel with local identity and specificity, this project will theorise how visitor figures affect our evolving sense of place as examined in postcolonial writings of mobility.

Visitor discourse is at home in tourism/hospitality studies. In transferring this figure into the realm of literary criticism this project seeks to fill a gap in how the contact zone between migrant and travel writing is theorised. The project will identify the effects of the visitor's gaze on representations of place, history and the self-image of residents, examining the tensions created by privilege, otherness and relationality. Building on ongoing investigations of migration discourse at local and international level, I will establish a discourse of mobility that clarifies the parameters of how perceptions of what is familiar and what is strange or 'other' are shifting. I aim to contribute to a more nuanced exploration of how the factors of time and duration affect conceptualisations of mobility and the idea(l)s of place, home and belonging which they revolve around.

Purpose and relevance

Mobility, place and identity are key concerns in present day society (Appadurai; Cohen; Croucher). Mass migration, tourism and a general acceleration in transportation, communication and interconnectivity have led to a globalized modernity where place itself seems to have become mobile (Casey; Foucault; Heise, Miller). National and other boundaries are giving way to a transnational, border-erasing world map with fluctuating contours. The category of place is increasingly perceived as uncertain (Massey; Morton). Its capacity to provide stability for human identity is in doubt. While global connectedness opens up many practical, economic, transcultural and political opportunities, its consequences for human beings include a sense of crisis about place and belonging. Remote places represented by iconic images in the media may seem more familiar to people than locations within their physical proximity (Low and Lawrence-Zuniga). There may even be confusion about whether a place is actual, or a product of virtual reality. Places and societies are changing rapidly or threaten to disappear. Prompts to go see the Great Barrier Reef, the Amazon rain forest, Aztec temples and other sites/sights eroded by humanity "before it is too late" are motivated by a contradictory sense of nostalgia and apocalyptic sensationalism. Globalization discourse with its focus on commerce and commodification fails to respond to a widespread longing for locatedness and a sense of connection as well as fears about time, age and impermanence.

Many contemporary writers, especially those with migrant backgrounds, address these issues of mobility, place, and identity and offer innovative models of how to come to terms with the fluidity of place and identity. Migrant narratives and travel writings construct a discursive field in which national, ethnic, linguistic, and cultural boundaries and affiliations are constantly being questioned, reconsidered, renegotiated. In analysing the role of visitors as represented in contemporary Anglophone literatures, this project contextualises these narratives and foregrounds their vital insights for some of the pressing concerns of global society.


Using a methodology that combines literary studies, postcolonial theory, and cultural studies, the project will compare representations of mobility in Anglophone writings from Europe, the Caribbean, Canada and the Indian subcontinent. The project takes its departure in a relational approach to narratives of mobility and space adapted from sociology (Gergen; Donati) and life writing criticism (Eakin, Stanford Friedman; Couser) as well as Glissant, and developed in my monograph on garden writings. This relational form of enquiry focuses on the interplay of material, emotional and metaphoric aspects of how place affects human identity formation. Rather than speak of mere connections or dependencies, this approach accounts for the ambivalent power of affective identifications with place by focusing on sites and moments of mutual transformation. I will take this approach to a new level by comparing the interactions between both visitors and residents and place, developing visitor studies into an emerging transcultural field in global literature.

Laatst gewijzigd:10 maart 2017 13:50


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