Representing Postcolonial Disaster: Conflict, Consumption, Reconstruction

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: School of English


From the South Asian Tsunami to the Haitian Earthquake, the last decade has witnessed a significant rise in the number of catastrophes experienced worldwide. These have highlighted the challenges and vulnerabilities faced by communities in the face of environmental hazards, inspiring sustained reflection on global responsibilities for prevention and aid. This project seeks to position such events in historical perspective as part of a much broader array of post-World War II crises and catastrophes - both social and environmental, chronic and acute - which have had disproportionate effects on the world's poorest communities, many of which are still grappling with the legacies of western colonialism. Departing from conventional methods of studying disasters, which tend to focus on North American and European examples, the project compares how a wide range of global catastrophes are portrayed in postcolonial literature and film. It argues that, taken together, these texts have much to reveal about how we think about disaster, providing new insights into vulnerability reduction that respond to local cultural contexts and to global processes that can heighten as well as mitigate risk.

The project is situated in relation to the growing body of disaster representations produced in recent years by writers and filmmakers as diverse as Tahmima Anam, Dionne Brand, Kamau Brathwaite, James George, Tareque Masud, Raoul Peck, Kamila Shamsie, and Indra Sinha. These depict the everyday human consequences of catastrophes and their deep-lying causes, and require critics to focus as much on past and present experiences of real-world disasters as on future apocalyptic scenarios (such as those presented in The Road or The Day After Tomorrow). The perspectives generated by creative texts are especially valuable for disaster risk reduction when read alongside social science-based approaches. This is because researchers across numerous academic fields are now identifying a clear need to humanize and add cultural and historical depth to our understanding of disasters' social and environmental effects, and to look at how creative narratives and aesthetic forms shape different interpretations of catastrophes.

The project will establish the extent to which postcolonial texts challenge, reject, or reconfigure key disaster studies concepts such as resilience, risk, adaption, sustainability, and vulnerability. At the same time, it will explore how disaster studies insights can help frame and inform textual readings of specific disasters. It will contribute to Care for the Future's core aim by providing historicised analyses of how aesthetic works can help us think through the tensions between continuity and change in the wake of real-world catastrophes. The primary output will be an academic research monograph and related articles focusing on the following case studies: the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict; Pacific Nuclearisation; the Bhola Cyclone and the Bangladesh Liberation War; the Bhopal Gas Disaster; the Rwandan Genocide; the Montserrat Volcano Eruptions; and the Haitian Earthquake. The project also includes a number of collaborative and exchange activities that will create links between literary scholars and disaster studies specialists from across multiple disciplines (especially anthropology, geography, history, political ecology, and sociology), and will demonstrate research applications to cross-sector stakeholders such as government, private sector, civil society, and third sector representatives. In particular, it seeks to impact on non-academic policy and practice by showing how humanities-based perspectives can help critique and contribute to disaster management and sustainability planning. The project will also engage the public through a series of commemorative activities in 2014 in conjunction with writers, critics, and charity representatives, a website, and a short film produced in collaboration with an independent filmmaker.

Planned Impact

The project has the potential to benefit three distinct groups beyond academia:

1) International Policy Makers, Governmental Bodies, and Disaster Relief Agencies

The project will critique and contribute to understandings of disaster management in relation to culturally localised forms of disaster risk reduction and environmental legislation. It aims to complement and build on connected research in this area by establishing how literature and film provide unique perspectives on community-driven recovery efforts, along with the tensions produced by technocratic disaster management approaches. This involves highlighting the voices, narratives, situated histories, and subject positions that are often subdued in empirical disaster research. These findings will be of interest to international policy makers, governmental bodies, and disaster relief agencies because they help illuminate how prolonged vulnerability is embedded in a combination of human-environmental relations, historical processes (including colonialism), and social factors (class, gender, ethnicity, disability, and religion). By demonstrating how these findings differ from those generated in mainstream disaster studies, the project will provide fresh insights into disaster risk reduction, recovery, and reconstruction, and address some of the legal questions surrounding environmental victimisation and violence. In so doing, it will augment policies that seek to increase social cohesion and security in states that are most vulnerable to hazardous events globally. The project will also identify pathways for humanities-based research to be integrated into the policy and practice of agencies such as the UN's Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, and seek to impact on economic decision-making processes by showing how imaginative depictions of disasters dramatise the extent to which preventative measures might be considered more 'cost-effective' than post-disaster response strategies (UN/World Bank 2010). This has important UK-based ramifications as such measures directly affect the level, distribution, and effectiveness of international aid contributions.

2) Charities and the Creative Industry

The project will build on initial links with charity representatives established as part of my AHRC-NWO research network by extending consultations to include the planned collaborative and capacity building events at Keele and at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, Munich. Benefits of this include: access to academic reviews of representational politics, with perspectives drawn from postcolonial studies and the environmental humanities in particular; opportunities to foreground academic research findings as part of promotional material; and possibilities to collaborate on commemorative events. The project will also involve producing a short film in collaboration with an independent filmmaker, which will contribute to creative industry growth and establish grounds for more sustained impact activities in this area.

3) The general public in the UK

The project will involve collaborations to commemorate the anniversaries in 2014 of several major disasters: the Bhopal disaster (1984), the Rwandan genocide (1994), and the South Asian tsunami (2004). The resulting consciousness-raising event will include screenings, possibly a small exhibition (including visual and narrative material), podcasts, and public talks in relation to these disasters, in addition to project publicity and website access to summary findings. The short film will also help share research insights with the general public (initially through online distribution on the project website and on YouTube, and through festival entries), and will help nurture interest in creative texts dealing with specific disasters. The aim here is partly to raise the profile of international authors whose work on relevant topics has so far gained only limited visibility within the UK.
Description Innovative Training Networks (ITN)
Amount € 3,144,654 (EUR)
Funding ID 642935 
Organisation Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions 
Sector Academic/University
Country Global
Start 03/2015 
End 02/2019