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Megan O’Neill

May 4, 2017

Dr. Castellano

ENG 612

“Hope, Maybe”: Island Communities as Refuge from Oil in Oil on Water and Marrow Island

Theorists and literary scholars writing in the age of the Anthropocene continue to knock

against a familiar wall: what comes next? In this newly labeled geological age of ever-rising

carbon emissions and ever-degrading ecological communities, we struggle to find an impetus to

push us into actually enacting change. Amitav Ghosh has labeled this mindset as ‘The Great

Derangement,’ where “our lives and our choices are enframed in a pattern of history that seems

to leave us nowhere to turn but towards our self-annihilation” (Ghosh 149). Such a future seems

disenchanting, to say the least, and, perhaps, also counterproductive. Timothy Morton argues that

the common ‘end of the world as we know it’ mentality pervading environmental discourse is

“one of the most powerful facts that inhibit a full engagement with our ecological coexistence

here on earth…[we need] to awaken…from the dream that the world is about to end, because

action on Earth (the real Earth) depends on it” (Morton 7). This awakening needs to occur in

order to push us into an active present bent on formulating an adequate response to living in a

damaged world. However, simply locating this need to be awakened does not formulate a

potential solution to determining how to move forward. We are so steeped in our oil-based

culture and economy that it is incredibly difficult to see a way out. Our relationship to oil, as

Stephanie LeMenager points out, is “ultradeep,” and we spend “every day in oil, living within

oil, breathing it and registering it with our senses” (LeMenager 6). The visceral and global
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effects of oil are inescapable. So, then, the question repeats: what comes next? How do we begin

to locate and implement change?

One potential answer comes, perhaps surprisingly, from two very distinct, separate

novels: Helon Habila’s Oil on Water and Alexis Smith’s Marrow Island. Both of these novels

begin locating a hope for a future, Anthropocenic survival in resilient, local island communities.

However, this hope is not an uncritical one, and these islands do not contain any sort of perfect,

utopic solution to climate change. Though these two novels have rather striking differences—Oil

on Water is a historicist novel about oil corruption Nigeria and Marrow Island is a futuristic

novel set in the US—they hold fundamental similarities: both novels are set within the crime

fiction genre, and their journalist protagonists venture into the local landscapes and witness

moments of resistant sustainability and communal persistence. Both of their islands remain

focused on building their communities despite the continued and surrounding presence of both

slow and spectacular violence on these spaces by the petroleum industry. They exemplify, in a

way, Donna Haraway’s concept of ‘staying with the trouble,’ that she outlines in her book

Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene: “Staying with the trouble requires

learning to be truly present…as moral critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of

places, times, matters, meanings” (Haraway 1). Instead, then, of this perfect, hopeful, idyllic,

utopian island paradise, what Habila and Smith demonstrate through Irikefe and Marrow Colony

respectively are spaces of ‘critical utopia,’ aware that in order to fully achieve the sustainable

and remedial actions necessary to begin mitigating the damaged effects of climate change, they

must focus on the present moment and illuminate the conflict and change one must undergo to

attain such goals.


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Island communities have a long history with utopian ideals, reaching all the way back to

the early 16th century with Thomas More’s Utopia. Chris Ferns’ book Narrating Utopia:

Ideology, Gender, Form in Utopian Literature charts the tradition of utopian narratives, dividing

them into two main categories: dreams of order and dreams of freedom. He argues that despite

the “problems and contradictions which bedevil” utopia as a narrative genre, it has continued to

survive decades of use and critique; it is this survival that remains key, for despite the myriad

ways utopias have been shown to fail, people still purposefully seek them out and attempt to

create them (Ferns 6). Oil on Water and Marrow Island both demonstrate this desire, creating

utopic-seeming communities on Irikefe and Marrow Colony. But it is this ‘utopic-seeming’

quality that remains significant for both of these islands.

In the second section of his book, Ferns moves away from the traditional, ordered utopian

form, and moves towards the idea of a ‘critical utopia,’ a term he borrows from Tom Moylan’s

Demand the Impossible. A ‘critical utopia,’ according to Ferns (through Moylan) contains an

“awareness of the limitations of the utopian tradition…[rejecting] utopia as blueprint while

preserving it as dream;” in other words, these critical utopias recognize the “conflict between

utopia and reality…in which utopia is neither a static alternative, remote from reality, nor the

inevitable destination of a linear historical process, but rather a disputed territory, to be fought

for in the here and now” (Moylan 10 qtd. in Ferns, Ferns 203). Ferns, though writing nearly two

decades before Haraway, seems to posit critical utopia as a space for ‘staying with the trouble’

because of its qualities as being necessarily in the present and as something for which to be

fought. Both Habila’s Irikefe and Smith’s Marrow Colony embody instances of critical utopia

that do ‘stay with the trouble’ as they fight against the dominant, capitalist narrative put forth by

the oil-based economic industry and culture.


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Persistent Rebuilding: Irikefe’s (Peaceful) War on Oil

In Oil on Water, the island community of Irikefe can almost be overlooked, for Habila’s

preoccupation lies prominently with exposing the visceral consequences of the exploitative,

corrupt oil economy in the Niger Delta. Passages on the Irikefe community and its inhabitants

remain relegated chiefly to the margins of the main narrative, living in between these scenes of

oil-driven violence. However, Irikefe’s inclusion remains and remains significantly; it even

arises amidst this violence. Before reaching Irikefe’s location in Habila’s narrative, one first

encounters scene after scene of oil-based destruction. On a quest to find a kidnapped white

woman, Rufus and Zaq, both journalists on assignment to find her and report on her condition,

navigate the intricate river system of the Niger Delta with two local guides, constantly arrested

by the grotesque images and stenches of the inescapable oil pollution:

The atmosphere grew heavy with the suspended stench of dead matter. We

followed a bend in the river and in front of us we saw dead birds draped over tree

branches, their outstretched wings black and slick with oil; dead fish bobbed

white-bellied between tree roots. (Habila 9-10)

What was once, presumably, a thriving, multispecies environment, filled with birds, fish, and

other critters, now exists only as a place of oil-caused death. And as Rufus notes, each “village

was almost a replica of the last,” where what “patch[es] of grass growing by the water” exist,

they do so only to be “suffocated by a film of oil, each blade covered with blotches like the liver

spots on a smoker’s hands” (Habila 10). This environment of the Niger Delta that Rufus

describes has been completely altered by the oil industry; everything is afflicted—every single

blade of grass is bespeckled with oil residue, consequences of the effects of what Rob Nixon

terms ‘slow violence.’ According to Nixon, slow violence consists of “a violence that occurs
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gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and

space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all” (Nixon 2). These

multispecies casualties of the oil industry’s slow violence, unable to survive decades of

increasing oil pollution, victims that would normally only inhabit the peripheral marginalia of a

narrative, become center-stage in Habila’s narrative. Critics like LeMenager note briefly the

victims of this violence—“mostly nonwhite or nonhuman and dead”—but beyond that

acknowledgement, even she spends the rest of the space devoted to her argument on Habila’s

novel discussing exactly opposite of Habila’s intents: the kidnapping of Mrs. Floode, an

attractive, white, British woman (LeMenager 127). Habila means, instead, to move our focus

beyond this typical, Western concern over the fate of a white woman, and, instead,

unapologetically depicts and highlights the myriad, ever-present consequences of unchecked,

dependence-inducing, and corrupt oil-based capitalism.

When scholars like Stephanie LeMenager comment on our inescapable dependence on

oil, depicting us, as noted above, as spending “every day in oil, living within oil, breathing it and

registering it with our senses,” they do present an accurate picture (LeMenager 6). However, that

picture is a privileged one, right down to an examination of LeMenager’s book title: Living Oil:

Petroleum Culture in the American Century; her perspective, history, and commentary all come

from an American (read: white, Western, and privileged) paradigm. In fact, her quotation on

‘living’ and ‘breathing’ oil is prefigured by the phrase “as modern Americans” (LeMenager 6).

Her depictions, then, of a constant immersion in oil ring, if not false, then at least a bit off. As

American citizens, while we are draped in and constantly involved with oil, such involvement

comes mainly in comfortable and comforting forms: clothes, fuel to power cars, smart phones,

and the list goes on. We intrinsically benefit from our oil dependence. On the other hand, an
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opposite narrative exists, one that Habila portrays in Oil on Water, where the people in Nigeria, a

country in the global South far less privileged than the United States, literally and physically

cannot escape oil and its pollutants. The characters in the novel constantly describe their clothing

as oil-drenched, unable in many instances to go from one point in the country to another without

having rancid petrol constantly soak through their shoes and trousers. Habila reveals the

physical, violent, and violating effects such a petroleum-based culture and economy has outside

the Western world. Certainly, petroleum culture is a global occurrence, but, as Habila

demonstrates, the effects of this culture remain negatively disproportionate depending on one’s

positionality or situatedness. It is amidst these descriptions, however, that Habila seeks to put

forth Irikefe as a possible salve. Rufus’ oil-ridden experiences occur both before and after his

stays on Irikefe; these scenes thus surround Irikefe, depicting it, even narratively so, as an island

refuge from oil.

Naman, one of Irikefe’s inhabitants, describes the island’s origins in language that bears

striking resemblance to similar rhetoric throughout the novel on oil:

The shrine was started a long time ago after a terrible war…when the blood of the

dead ran in the rivers, and the water was so saturated with blood that the fishes

died…The land was so polluted that even the water in the wells turned red. That

was when priests from different shrines got together and decided to build this

shrine by the river. The land needed to be cleansed of blood, and pollution.

(Habila 128)

This history of violence, pollution, and death that surrounds the Irikefe community echoes the

continuous, present violence inflicted throughout the rest of the novel. In a way, then, we can

posit that Habila uses this island community to articulate a hopeful future post-oil. This ‘future’
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echoes Bill Ashcroft’s articulation of created utopias within postcolonial literature. Ashcroft

argues in Utopianism in Postcolonial Literatures that postcolonial utopianism consists of an

“anti-colonial” effort which moved into a “vision” of “the persistent belief in a transformed

future,” where “hope, anticipation, and future thinking” become “fundamental features of

postcolonial writing” and postcolonial utopia (Ashcroft 4). Like in other utopia narratives, he

notes that the key function of this sort of utopia is to critique the society that causes utopia to

become feasible and desired; for the postcolonial utopia, this involves a critique of the “present,

not just the colonial past” (Ashcroft 8). Irikefe and its origins engage in such a critique, turning

away from their own history of violence and death likely caused, at least in part, by the oil-based,

capitalist industry. By functioning inherently as a critique of the rest of Nigerian society, Irikefe

funnels Haraway’s impulse to ‘stay with the trouble,’ actively demonstrating a more effective

alternative to the corrupt oil economy that runs rampant throughout the rest of the text.

Habila’s inclusion of Irikefe also remains physically and descriptively in stark contrast to

the polluted environments that dot the rest of the Niger Delta. Rufus’ first encounter with Irikefe

is one filled with multispecies life: “[O]utside I could hear the faraway call of roosters

accompanied by insects ushering in the day…it had been years since I’d heard such morning

sounds” (Habila 89). Gone is the silence from the first few pages of Habila’s narrative, the

silence caused by oil death; it is replaced instead by the crooning and buzzing life of an (almost)

healthily inhabited space. This first description of Irikefe paints it as an island oasis, a type of

utopia where the water is “glittering” and the air feels so “pure” that the island worshippers claim

it “alone will heal you” (Habila 90. 92, 91). Irikefe’s setting seems almost unbelievable when

contrasted alongside another of the islands that Rufus visits, one of the most polluted and

industrially-infused landscapes:
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It looked like a setting for a sci-fi movie: the meager landscape was covered in

pipelines flying in all directions, spouting from the evil-smelling, oil-fecund earth.

The pipes crisscrossed and interconnected endlessly all over the eerie field. We

walked inland, ducking under or hopping over the giant pipes, our shoes and

trousers turning black with oil. (Habila 38)

However, this contrast serves to further illustrate and underscore the sort of critique that

postcolonial utopias argue for: why would anyone choose such a pipeline-infested landscape

when the alternative contains such a peaceful, healing, multispecies arena? Irikefe, then, exists as

a potential, hopeful space of communal persistence beyond and despite surrounding oil-based

corruption.

As part of their effort of reparation, healing, and critical engagement, the community

enacts a return to a sustainable lifestyle through both local agricultural efforts as well as through

a strong religiosity. When Rufus travels across the island to leave Irikefe for the first time, he

sees the landscape shift into this local cultivation where “behind every compound was a little

field of vegetables and cassava, their climbers circling over one another, aspiring upward, using

slender sticks stuck into the earth as crutches” (Habila 92-3). Outside of these local gardens,

Habila notes that the “villagers were fisherman, mostly, making their living on the river” (Habila

115). Within these vivid, picturesque scenes, the Irikefe community is engaging in a resilient

survivance, where their main locus of sustenance comes from their own nurturing of local plants

and vegetables, an action that puts them relatively outside the oil-based, capitalist economy of

the Niger Delta.

This divorce from oil dependence is deliberate, for not only is it tied to this local,

agricultural effort, but it is also linked to the island’s religion. Irikefe itself is consistently
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narrated through this connection to religion, characterized centrally through its shrine, sculpture

garden, and seemingly inherent, natural healing properties. Principally, though, are these

sculptures, assemblages linked both to the island’s history and ancestors as well as to the now-

cleansed river. Naman describes how “each day the worshippers go in a procession to the river,

to bathe in it, to cry to it, and to promise never to abominate it ever again” (Habila 128). Rufus

asks how effective such an action is, and Naman responds positively, for they have

“managed to keep this island free from oil prospecting and other activities that contaminate the

water and lead to greed and violence” (Habila 129). These island inhabitants, then, have a

distinct, purposeful connection to their environment, in a way, a reflection of Rob Nixon’s

‘environmentalism of the poor.’ Because of Irikefe’s history—a history that, again, reads quite

similar to the rest of Nigeria’s present—the local community decided to push back against the

corruption inherent within an oil-based, capitalist economy; in their very essence, they engage in

a critique of the “present, not just the colonial past”—they continue to “stay with the trouble”

(Ashcroft 8, Haraway 1). Instead, then, this island has created a space of resilience outside the

dominant, global system, enacting efforts of reparation on their island that can also be read

doubly as a potential future for the surrounding Niger Delta—and one that can, possibly, also be

pushed even more widely to encompass a global effort. This future appears perhaps idealistic,

but it occupies the only truly hopeful space within this novel, one Habila seems to suggest can

contain this outward reflection.

However, the islanders’ efforts at removal from the global system are not without risk,

and not wholly successful. Naman explains to Rufus that “[they] try as much as possible to keep

out of their [the rebels] way, and they leave us alone. With don’t talk to them, or to the army”

(Habila 137). Though, as Habila reveals later in the novel, the worshippers have had several
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interactions with the rebels, with Mrs. Floode staying on the island for a short time after she’s

initially been kidnapped. Despite these interactions, however, Irikefe’s inhabitants seek, as much

as possible, to distance themselves from the oil industry, the corruption, and the violence

associated with both. They describe themselves as “a holy community, a peaceful people. Our

only purpose here is to bring a healing, to restore and conserve” (Habila 137). They see

themselves as “custodians of the land,” taking on the responsibility of attempting to engage in a

sort of remediation and care for a land living in precarity. In Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the

End of the World, she follows another precarious move away from a capitalist economy, one that

shows the “cracks in the global political economy,” through the matsutake mushroom industry,

an example of “precarious livelihoods and precarious environments” (Tsing 4). She uses this

industry and its foragers to demonstrate the “knots and pulses of patchiness” that remain

“[u]nencumbered by the simplifications of progress narratives” (Tsing 6). In other words, these

foragers constantly live in a state of precarity; they never know precisely when or from where

their livelihood will come, they function outside of the fictional, grand narrative of capitalistic

progress, and, yet, they continue surviving and persisting. Irikefe, too, exists in a similar way: as

the each of the islands surrounding them slowly becomes an oil wasteland, one gets the sense

that Irikefe cannot remain such an idyllic space forever—and it doesn’t. Towards the end of the

novel, Irikefe is bombed, and destruction reigns on what appeared, at least on the surface, to be

an otherwise uncontaminated place, but, instead of simply giving up and becoming the exact sort

of wasteland Habila describes numerously throughout the rest of the novel, Irikefe rebuilds.

Irikefe’s rebuilding really becomes the central aspect that cements its position as a critical

utopia. Rufus observes the islander’s reassembling the sculpture garden after the bombing and

notes that “an uninformed observer would never be able to guess that only a week ago the figures
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had been knocked down and broken…Even the chips and holes in them only added to their

dignity” (Habila 234). These statues, a symbol of the island’s religiosity, are no longer a perfect

representation; neither is Irikefe an unassailable utopia. One aspect of the critical utopia involves

its “narrative strategy” to “foreground both the connection between utopia and reality, and the

essential conflict between them” (Ferns 209). By having Irikefe bombed, a scene of spectacular

violence that “erupt[s] into instant sensational visibility,” the island is confronted by an

immediate interaction with reality, and must act accordingly (Nixon 2). Rufus notes one of the

results of the bombing, that there “were over a dozen new graves…their mounds rising like

freshly prepared furrows in a field, raw and dark and fecund, waiting for seeding” (Habila 236).

This image, a preparation for new growth and rebirth, illustrates Irikefe’s commitment to its

local, resilient community, continuing to fight—albeit peacefully, with their ‘fighting’ mainly

coming in the form of a refusal to surrender and, thus, perish—against attacks of both

spectacular and slow violence. In choosing to rebuild, Irikefe’s inhabitants both highlight the

instability caused by the conflict between the outside world and this inside community as well as

demonstrate their own determination to continuing to grow and act outside corruption. Irikefe, its

inhabitants, and its sculptures now have cracks and chips on their surface, but their efforts at

rebuilding demonstrate their continued persistence to remain stoically poised against oil-based

capitalism and the petro-industry.

Inoculating Mushrooms: Resistance Through Bodily Degeneration

Alexis Smith’s Marrow Island occupies a much more privileged space than that of

Habila’s text, with Marrow Colony located off the northwestern coast of the United States. While

not focused on the inherently racialized and disproportionate effects of the oil-based, capitalist

economy, Smith also depicts post-oil disasters, but her central focus shifts instead to the Marrow
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Colony, a self-sustaining, communal effort of reparation on Marrow Island itself. Like Irikefe,

the Marrow Colony enacts its resistant sustainability through a local agriculture linked with a

communal sort of religion; however, while the agriculture and religion on Irikefe are necessarily

overlapping in intent, they remain two separate functions. For the Marrow Colony, their

reparative efforts inextricably link both their religious and agricultural efforts. Such a

comparison, however, between Irikefe and Marrow Colony remains incredibly significant for the

way, despite great distance and vast difference, the two islands still occupy a remarkably similar

space in their actions against the petro-industry and oil-based capitalism: a space of critical

utopia.

Years after an oil disaster that caused the death of Lucie’s father, she returns to Marrow

Island to see her childhood friend Katie and becomes immersed in the Colony’s efforts to

remediate the island that had been considered uninhabitable. Marrow Island also occupies a

space reminiscent of Tsing’s interaction with the matsutake industry, for mushrooms represent

one of few survivors in post-environmental disaster areas. Tsing identifies the primary usage of

landmasses in a capitalistic system in their dependence on a “singular asset,” and when “its

singular asset can no longer be produced, a place can be abandoned” (Tsing 6). For Marrow

Island, that asset, initially, was oil; after the explosion at the oil company, however, the island

was deemed uninhabitable and any attempts to obtain their oil asset were stopped. Tsing, still,

notes that “these places can be lively despite announcements of their death,” and, as Smith

illustrates, Marrow Colony is certainly lively (Tsing 6). Lucie comes to Marrow Island with the

memory of the oil ruins in her mind, expecting to find exactly what has been described: an

uninhabitable wasteland. What she finds instead is a thriving community, where the inhabitants

live sustainably on and with the land. Lucie discovers the unique way that the Colony has
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effected such drastic changes towards the recovery of the island’s environment in mushrooms,

not Tsing’s matsutake, but in psychedelic mushrooms—Mycelium, to be more exact. Katie’s

husband Tuck takes Lucie out to see their work, and Lucie’s subsequent experience of viewing

these mushrooms is filled with a sort of overwhelmed awe:

[T]he forest floor was alive; up and down the hillside, ferns, mosses, grasses, and

young trees issued from the singed earth beneath, a vivid chartreuse layer over the

decay…and there they were, right in front of me: mushrooms—buoyant clusters

of chocolate caps on slender eggy stems…I could see them everywhere. (Smith

95-6)

Her awed sentiment about these mushrooms mirrors Tsing’s own discovery of the matsutake:

“How could this be possible? There had been nothing there—and then there it was” (Tsing 14).

This sense of wonder and surprise pervades Lucie’s discovery of and subsequent education about

the mushroom’s abilities. Too, this picturesque scene, in a way, echoes back to the gardens of

Irikefe. Here, Marrow Colony enacts its own subsistence-based agriculture, for all of its

inhabitants ingest these mushrooms as part of their daily meals. These mushrooms also work as

medicine for the island’s damaged environment, “inoculating” the soil in a way that breaks down

“petrochemicals, plastics, complex chemical compounds” and “absorb[s] heavy metals so they

can be…removed from the ecosystem” (Smith 96, 106). In this way, the colonists, too, act as

“custodians for the land,” as the worshippers on Irikefe do for their island (Habila 43). The

Colony’s residents are thus engaging in a unique sort of rejuvenation for the island, one in which

they donate their lives—in more ways than one—in order to repair and remediate the land from

the toxic aftereffects from the oil disaster.


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For these people, too, like those on Irikefe, their efforts of environmentalism are

intrinsically linked with a sort of spirituality. Sister J., a former nun and the colony’s leader,

celebrates the colony’s accomplishments over one of their collective meals. “Look at what we

have built!” Sister J. applauds, “Could ignorance build this? Could ignorance take this burnt,

poisoned crust of land and make it green again, and make it live again? We have witnessed a

resurrection! We are living a resurrection!” (Smith 144). Sister J.’s words reflect the mentality of

the colony; these people have all congregated on this island in order to engage in a spiritual

environmentalism, where they dedicate their bodies, abilities, and lives to an effort of curing the

island of its oily disease. Lucie describes her feelings upon grasping such an impulse as “hope,

maybe,” perhaps a similar sort of hope that Habila seeks to generate through Irikefe (Smith 164).

It is this uncertain hope that Lucie feels that fully locates for Marrow Colony as space within the

critical utopia. For, as Lucie discovers, this utopic-seeming environment on Marrow Island also

exists between and highlights the conflicting space between utopia and reality, where the

inhabitants display the effects of that conflicts in their own bodies.

For these colonists, however, their bodily dedication to the island is not merely

metaphoric; it is also literal. Because the mushrooms they ingest are poisonous, the colonists put

themselves at an increasingly high risk of developing terminal cancer, but they have a system in

place for this, too. When one of the colony members dies, they bury the body in a field where

baby mushrooms grow, and the body then becomes a (literal) part of the Marrow Island, aiding,

even after death, the Colony’s reparative efforts: “Most of the graves had the small, wavy-capped

brown mushrooms, but others, the older ones, had only a few shaggy-topped white and brown

fruits” (Smith 177). This grave scene also has a partner scene in Oil on Water, near the end of the

novel when Rufus notes the addition graves as a place for rebirth. Both novels highlight the
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cyclical nature of life and death, and use such a process somewhat to their advantage, opening up

the space as a place for remediation and new growth. Lucie later confronts the colonists about

these actions, “So everything here is part of the project? Even your bodies?” To which Maggie

responds, “We have an opportunity to use the oldest of the earth’s medicines against the newest

of the world’s diseases” (Smith 183). These inhabitants, like those in Irikefe, occupy Haraway’s

space of ‘staying with the trouble;’ they recognize that Marrow Colony is but one example of

many environmentally degraded locations that suffer from the aftereffects of an oil disaster.

They, too, exist in the “truly present” moment, instead of a “vanishing pivot between awful of

edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures” (Haraway 1). Neither Marrow Colony nor

Irikefe offer visions of a perfect, ‘salvific’ solution for the Anthropocene problem, but they

instead inhabit this space of critical utopia, aware of and critiquing the problematic reality that

surrounds them while simultaneously seeking to effect remedial change to the damaged

environments that surround them.

Though, for Marrow Colony, Smith likely was not seeking to reproduce the colonists’

exact dedication to the island, she seems to be gesturing towards a similar impulse as Habila—

and, notably, this also isn’t to say that Irikefe, though claiming to be cleansed of blood, isn’t also

an island full of people living in and ingesting their surrounding toxic environment. Rather, what

these two authors seem to locate in their island landscapes is a parcel of hope. Their hope is,

once again, a critical one. According to Ferns, another facet of the critical utopia involves

“stress[ing] not peace and security—the simplified bliss of a utopia to which one might dream of

escaping—but rather the lessons to be learned from a utopia which is more than merely a dream

or an abstraction” (Ferns 210). Both Marrow Colony and Irikefe offer up their communal, local,

subsistence-based lifestyles as examples and, even, lessons for the rest of the global system.
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They occupy spaces of sacrifice, where their inhabitants hold a sort of recognition, either

conscious or unconscious, that living in a toxic environment comes part and parcel with effecting

change in the present environmental moment. Little to no space exists that is truly

uncontaminated by the oil-based, capitalistic economy; instead, as these island communities

demonstrate, our focus needs to hover on these contaminated spaces, recognizing them for what

they are, and moving towards a critical, remedial effort that may involve engaging with the

environment in a way that is not necessarily healthy for a person’s body or livelihood.

For Smith, this hope comes in a different sort of interrogation of grand narratives,

positing that nature does not necessarily equate to health, and that the damaging effects of toxic

environments may even be considered beautiful. Katie writes Lucie a letter before she returns to

Marrow Island for the last time, telling Lucie of the cancer she’s grown inside her body as a

direct result of all the ingested mushrooms:

[T]here are so many tumors they won’t be able to find them all. They want to take

everything out of me…but the cancer is everywhere….But here’s the beautiful

thing…the tumors looked like Clavaria—like coral fungi. They are growing in

me, breaking me down, sending me back to the earth. (Smith 233)

Going against the traditional narrative of ‘battling’ cancer in the hopes of surviving, Katie all but

embraces hers, calling it beautiful as it connects her back to the earth. She embodies, literally,

Haraway’s model, not only of ‘staying with the trouble,’ but also her concept of sympoiesis.

Haraway begins explaining this term with the simplest of definitions: sympoiesis is “making-

with” (Haraway 58). She sees a system of sympoiesis as being made up of “holobionts,”

“symbiotic assemblages, at whatever scale of space or time” that are like “knots of diverse intra-

active relatings in dynamic complex systems” (Haraway 60). These internal effects on Katie’s
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body are the result and simultaneous continuation of Marrow Colony’s sympoiesis. All of the

Colony’s critters existed as ‘holobionts,’ interacting with one another, feeding off one another,

and they have entered Katie’s body—as they also did to the bodies of all the colony’s members.

Haraway describes the necessity for sympoietic systems in order to continue thriving and

persisting in the Anthropocene(/Chthulucene—Haraway’s renaming of the Anthropocene).

These “decisions and transformations [are] so urgent in our times for learning again…how to

become less deadly, [and] more response-able” (Haraway 98). Haraway, then, sees sympoiesis as

potentially part of a working salve for the continued inaction of people when faced with only

increasing environmental degradation. Marrow Colony—and Irikefe, too—appears to be an

example, albeit fictional, of this salve. For the inhabitants of Marrow Colony, becoming less

destructive and more responsible has to do with the donations of their bodies: they ‘stay with the

trouble’ to the point of bodily degeneration; instead of leaving, they, like the worshippers of

Irikefe, live within the disaster.

It is not necessarily surprising that both of these novels locate such a potential, future

hope of resilience and persistence in island communities. The isolated nature of the island has a

long history of engagement with utopian ideas and attempts. What remains striking in these two

instances, then, is not the connection to island utopias or their myriad differences, but the manner

in which these two novels illustrate a remarkably hopeful and similar solution despite those

differences. And these differences are key, with Marrow Island as a representative of the

privileged, white, global North, and Oil on Water of the global South, these texts together posit a

solution to the Anthropocene problem that could, theoretically, be applied globally. They both

move against mainstream jargon that necessitates a capitalist, oil-based society. Even more

radical, they both appear to assert that in order to begin a reparative effort, we may need to
O’Neill 18

accept that in some instances, nature might not equate to health, that in some of our efforts, we

may be interacting with environments that are inherently toxic to us. But, as Habila and Smith

seem to argue, this does not mean that the world has ended or that all hope is lost. Instead, it

means the opposite; we can, and we need to find a way to hope—as long as that hope remains

critical, for idealistic and unrealistic hope only contributes to the problem—in order to begin

assuaging our current environmental crisis.


O’Neill 19

Works Cited

Ashcroft, Bill. Utopianism in Postcolonial Literatures. New York: Routledge, 2017. Print.

Ferns, Chris. Narrating Utopia: Ideology, Gender, Form in Utopian Literature. Liverpool:

Liverpool UP, 1999. Print.

Ghosh, Amitav. The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Haryana, India:

Penguin Books, 2016. Print.

Habila, Helon. Oil on Water. New York: Norton, 2010. Print.

Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke

UP, 2016. Print.

LeMenager, Stephanie. Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century. Oxford: Oxford

UP, 2014. Print.

Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World.

Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2013. Print.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge: Harvard UP,

2011. Print.

Smith, Alexis M. Marrow Island. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016. Print.

Tsing, Anna. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist

Ruins. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2015. Print.