Feminist Water Politics and Climate Change Fiction

Fiction can shape our understanding of water. Ashley Cahillane discusses how two novels narrate the relation between water infrastructure, privatization, climate change and gender, telling stories of oppression but also of resistance. This study was presented at the workshop “(En)Gendering Transboundary Water Governance: Feminist Perspectives on Water Conflict and Cooperation” hosted by IHE Delft last September.

This blog post considers how an ecofeminist perspective is evident in two recent twenty-first century novels: Karen Jayes’ For the Mercy of Water (Penguin, 2012) and Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus (Riverhead, 2015). Both novels address climate change and environmental injustice through an exploration of the gender dimension of drought. They show water scarcity as presenting particular challenges for women – women take on undervalued care duties, all the while being denigrated and subjected to sexual violence due to prevailing sexist attitudes and patriarchal practices. As ecofeminists like Val Plumwood argue, environmental injustice is underpinned by hierarchical ways of viewing humans, nonhuman others and physical landscapes – sexism, racism, and speciesism often intertwine to position the physical (often feminised) environment and feminised or racialised bodies as inferior to the seemingly dominant white, masculine, human subject. Literature can be a way to challenge environmental injustice; not only does it frequently represent hidden narratives of ecological exploitation and oppression, but it engages and expands our imaginative capacities so that we can think outside of male and human-centred frameworks.

For the Mercy of Water and a war over women’s bodies

For the Mercy of Water depicts a near future unnamed country (largely resembling South Africa) struggling with increasingly intense and frequent droughts—a place in which any remaining water been privatised. The plot centres around how, once the water company took water from a rural community, the village is pushed into water poverty and the men move to the city to find work. The women who are left behind have to put themselves at risk travelling very far for water that is as yet uncommodified. When, as an alternative, the women tamper with the water company’s pipes in order to reroute water to their own village, the water company guards start regularly raping the young village girls to break their spirit of resistance: ‘The local guards employ messy shortcuts to coax the grandmothers into giving up the water. They target the little girls’.

What’s being suggested is an overlap between the company’s objective to control and secure water and therefore profit, and the company’s assertion of control over women’s bodies. One of the authority figures in the village, Mother, claims that this is not just a water conflict, but ‘a war over our bodies, over every piece of life in all of us’. What Mother is implying here is that the commodification of this water demands that its previous owners be dehumanised and hence the company’s strategy of sexual violence. The novel’s suggestion is that sexual violence arises easily from a long cultural and historical association of the feminine with the corporeal and the natural. Recalling her rape by the guards, one of the young girls says ‘I remember when he looked at us, and when all of them looked at us, it was as if we were a nuisance, like we were rats’.

Water-inspired optimism in For the Mercy of Water

Though For The Mercy of Water is quite dark and dystopian, and it depicts relentless and graphic instances of drought-induced misery and gender-based violence, instances of hope and possibilities for change emerge throughout which suggest that (i) water is not as scarce or as manipulable as it is generally believed to be in this drought-stricken land and (ii) sexism and sexual violence is not a natural accompaniment to water conflict and women do not have to be reduced to objects or bodies. This representation complements ecofeminist perspectives which see water scarcity as embedded in power relations and which advocate justice through recognition of the social and ecological value of water. Throughout the novel, water has its own logic which undermines the agenda of the water company to totally control and manage it. This is hinted at in the beginning, when a water guard talks about the company being lost trying to find water with maps and instruments, and being perplexed at how the native villagers could drink water from dew dishes and have dreams which actually lead them to water. The villagers have a less technocratic approach to finding water and use their generational knowledge and lived experience to find it in unlikely places. Water frequently appears in unexpected places, and it rains at unexpected times, leading the protagonist to surmise at the end that ‘for the mercy of water the life is still here’. The novel doesn’t naturalise scarcity or victimhood, but rather endorses an understanding of energy and ecology as bound up in colonial and capitalist processes but not reducible to them.

This water-inspired optimism is evident in Jayes’ depiction of the recovery of one of the village girls. Due to the love and support of Mother, and with the help of the protagonist, she confronts her rapist and gets revenge. She enacts some of the physical violence on him that he has done to her, but it is clear that her purpose is to assert her agency and integrity. She forces him to view her scars: ‘Look at what your men did to me’; ‘See how this war you make is in us’; ‘You are speaking about men come together to hunt women and children because of this thing you are calling a war, when it is not a war at all, but an invasion, a theft’. The girl is aware that her suffering is a result of the water company trying to denigrate her and her community in order to secure water – crucially, she gives her own account of the water conflict, and defends herself in the face of someone who has Othered her. This is how she recuperates her confidence and has the potential to heal.

Gold Fame Citrus and the ecological foolishness of 20th century hydroengineering

Gold Fame Citrus depicts a near future southwestern United States that is decimated by drought, with the city of Los Angeles being almost deserted and its residents climate refugees forced to travel across the Mojave Desert. It opens with a quote from the famous water engineer William Mulholland, who orchestrated the great Los Angeles aqueduct which turbo-charged the city’s development and capitalist economy at the expense of a nearby rural farming community whose waters were redirected by the pipeline. This gestures towards a critique of Reclamation – the dominant approach towards water management in the mid-twentieth century southwestern United States which championed large dams and megaprojects yet disregarded the natural aridity of the landscape and concretised social inequality by stealing waters from indigenous and poorer communities. The novel mocks the grandeur and ecological foolishness of Reclamation by imbuing it with connotations of human exceptionalism and sexism; the beginning states ‘Nature had refused to offer herself to them’, hinting at the gendered assumptions underlining large-scale hydroengineering. The novel’s protagonist, a young Mexican-American Luz Dunn, is loosely based on a real girl, Baby Dunn, who was adopted by the Bureau of Reclamation as a mascot for the abundance and security that hydroengineering was supposed to bring for Los Angeles’s future generations. Her birth coinciding with the opening of the California aqueduct, fictional Luz Dunn was supposed to symbolise that ‘all the children born this day and ever after will inherit a future more secure, more prosperous and more fertile than our own’. The novel undermines this publicity stunt by featuring a series of headlines which simultaneously mark milestones in Luz’s life and the deteriorating water situation in California: “BABY DUNN STARTS KINDERGARTEN TODAY WITHOUT GREEN FIELDS TO PLAY IN”, and “BERKELY HYDROLOGISTS: WITHOUT EVACS BABY DUNN WILL DIE OF THIRST BY 24”. Moreover, Luz herself suffers from the way that her role as mascot dovetails with sexism in society at large. For Luz becoming a model/mascot means that she is objectified and sexually assaulted; and when later she becomes a mother she loses her individuality and is expected to be ‘a good woman’.

Gold Fame Citrus and the hidden agency of the desert

The dystopian aspect of Gold Fame Citrus doesn’t actually come from the terrifying environmental circumstances of the drought, but from the heroine Luz’s doomed attempts to find independence and fulfilment during an apocalyptic drought. That’s the central tension of the novel: the heroine wants to create a safe and happy life for herself and her child, but her efforts are constantly undermined through ominous imagery, set-backs and side characters who come in and overpower her. For a short period, however, Luz finds contentment and freedom living in the Mojave Desert and discovering the unique flora and fauna which abounds in the purportedly ‘empty’ desert. This isn’t done to evoke a ‘natural’ connection between her and nature, but to intuit a connection between the false conception of the desert as barren and thus lacking agency and variety and the patriarchal culture which has turned her into a symbol, making it so hard for her to have confidence and control over her circumstances.

The novel conveys that the desert has been falsely construed as an inferior, empty, passive space, and that this has underlined its exploitation by colonial and capitalist technologies: ‘Inhospitable, they say, as through nature should offer you a cup of tea and a snack. Barren. Bleak. Empty — my favourite’. To counter this, the desert is granted mystery and agency. The novel features a giant sand dune which is encroaching on Los Angeles; this dune is not just a physical threat, but a beautiful and hypnotising force possessing a ‘magnetic incandescence’ – it constantly bewitches, frightens, and directs the characters. It instigates a reverse pattern of the migration alluded to by the title ‘Gold Fame Citrus’; where once white settlers moved West seeking security and prosperity in the irrigated desert, the underestimated agency of the arid landscape is driving them back eastward. The dune also dictates the structure and the plot of the novel – the human story of the heroine starts to become more submerged the more time she spends in the desert and the narrative mode starts switching arbitrarily—one minute it’s a film script, next it’s a report, next it’s a piece of nature writing. This narrative instability draws attention to the way that framing determines meaning and implies that the desert thwarts authoritative narrative modes. There’s a parallel between the hidden agency of the desert and the hidden agency of the heroine, but the novel suggests that dominant narratives and power structures are not built to allow such agencies to thrive.  The heroine commits suicide in the end, and it is suggested that the government will try to destroy the encroaching sand dune with a nuclear bomb.

Linking (and resisting) patriarchal and infrastructural violence

Both of the novels convey a link between the environmental injustices of water infrastructure and gender norms. What is shown is that the attitudes of human mastery over nature that underlay water privatisation and colossal hydroengineering projects intersect with sexist attitudes towards and representations of women – and this has ramifications for the material world. To counter the overlap of patriarchal and environmental oppression, the novels imbue both women and water with agency and alterity. During the depicted water apocalypse, women are belittled by men and suffer gender-based violence, yet they are also permitted small acts of resistance which keep their integrity intact. In a similar manner, water is a vital and scarce substance, yet one which cannot be totally reduced to malleable resource for humans and which possesses its own logic and agency. Crucially, these novels foreground histories of structural oppression through water governance, and so the connection that they establish between women and water is not essential but historical.

Featured image: “Tree in the desert” by Ivars Krutainis

Cite this blog post
ashleycahillane (2020, November 5). Feminist Water Politics and Climate Change Fiction. FLOWs. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/os1o


Ashley Cahillane is a PhD student in the Discipline of English at National University of Ireland, Galway. Her project looks at representations of water scarcity in contemporary world literature and is funded by an Irish Research Council Postgraduate Scholarship.

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