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EN2F9-30 Commodity Fictions: World Literature and World-Ecology

English and Comparative Literary Studies
Undergraduate Level 2
Module leader
Michael Niblett
Credit value
Module duration
20 weeks
100% coursework
Study location
University of Warwick main campus, Coventry
Introductory description

To introduce students to new approaches in world literature and environmental criticism through the analysis of fiction and poetry from the early twentieth century to the present. To explore how literary texts from postcolonial or ‘peripheral’ locations have responded to the processes of environment-making associated with the movements of various commodity frontiers (including sugar, cocoa, coal, and oil). To develop an understanding of how the manifold effects of these processes – from soil erosion and climate change to the accumulation of waste and ‘surplus’ populations – can shape both the content and form of literary work.

Module web page

Module aims

To introduce students to new approaches in world literature and environmental criticism through the analysis of fiction and poetry from the early twentieth century to the present. To explore how literary texts from postcolonial or ‘peripheral’ locations have responded to the processes of environment-making associated with the movements of various commodity frontiers (including sugar, cocoa, coal, and oil). To develop an understanding of how the manifold effects of these processes – from soil erosion and climate change to the accumulation of waste and ‘surplus’ populations – can shape both the content and form of literary work.

Outline syllabus

This is an indicative module outline only to give an indication of the sort of topics that may be covered. Actual sessions held may differ.

Term 1 Fictions and Frontiers: the Making of the Modern World-Ecology

Week 1 Introduction: World Literature and World-Ecology
Patricia Yaeger, “Editor’s Column: Literature in the Age of Wood, Tallow, Coal …” PMLA 126.2 (2011)
Jason Moore, selections from Capitalism in the Web of Life (2015)
Sylvia Wynter, “Novel and History, Plot and Plantation” (1971)

Week 2
Grace Nichols, Selections from I is a long memoried woman (1983)
David Dabydeen, Selections from Slave Song (1984)

Selected secondary reading:
Jason Moore, “Madeira, Sugar, and the Conquest of Nature, I and II” (2010)
Sidney Mintz, selections from Sweetness and Power (1985)
Steven Topik et al., introduction and selections from From Silver to Cocaine: Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy, 1500-2000 (2006)
Walter Johnson, selections from River of Dark Dreams

Week 3
Marlon James, The Book of Night Women (2009)

Selected secondary reading:
Monique Allewaert, Ariel’s Ecology: Plantations, Personhood, and Colonialism in the American Tropics (2013)
David Watts, The West Indies: Patterns of Development, Culture, and Environmental Change (1987)

Week 4
Erna Brodber, Myal (1988)

Selected secondary reading:
Harriet Friedmann, “What on earth is the modern world-system? Foodgetting and Territory in the Modern Era and Beyond?” (2000)
Kerstin Oloff, “Greening the Zombie” (2012)

Week 5
Shani Mootoo, Valmiki's Daughter (2008)

Selected secondary reading:
Joy Mahabir and Mariam Pirbhai, Critical Perspectives on Indo-Caribbean Women's Literature (2012)
Valerie Loichot, The Tropics Bite Back (2013)

Week 6 Reading Week

Week 7
Jorge Amado, The Violent Land (1943)

Selected secondary reading:
Fred Ellison, Brazil’s New Novel (1954)
Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America (1971)

Week 8
Adonias Filho, Memories of Lazarus (1952)

Selected secondary reading:
Durval Muniz de Albuquerque, The Invention of the Brazilian Northeast (2014)
Leitner, et al. “Trinidad, Brazil, and Ghana: Three Melting Moments in the History of Cocoa” (2004)

Week 9
Selections from Joao Cabral de Melo Neto, Selected Poetry, 1937-1990

Selected secondary reading:
Gilberto Freyre, The Masters and the Slaves (1933)

Week 10
Patricia Melo, Inferno (2000)
Meirelles and Lund (dirs.), City of God (film, 2002)
Selected secondary reading:
Roberto Schwarz, “City of God” (2001)
Lowe and Sharpe, “Cityscapes of Rio and Bahia: Capturing the ‘Enchanted Soul of the Streets’” (2011)

Term 2 Coal, Capital, Climate, Oil
Week 1
Selections from Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital (2015)
Selections from Matt Huber, Lifeblood (2013)
Graeme MacDonald, “Research Note: The Resources of Fiction” (2013)
Fredrick Buell, "A Short History of Oil Cultures"

Week 2
Ellen Wilkinson, Clash (1929)
Selected secondary reading:
Charles Ferrall and Dougal McNeill, Writing the 1926 General Strike
Pamela Fox, Class Fictions: Shame and Resistance in the British Working-Class Novel, 1890-1945

Week 3
Lewis Jones, Cwmardy (1937)
Selected secondary reading:
Raymond Williams, “The Welsh Industrial Novel” (1979)
Andy Croft, Red Letter Days (1990)

Week 4
Idris Davies, "Gwalia Deserta" (1938) and "The Angry Summer: A Poem of 1926" (1943)
Charlotte Williams, extracts from Sugar and Slate (2002)
Selected Secondary Reading
Glyn Jones, The Dragon Has Two Tongues (1968)
Raymond Williams, Who Speaks for Wales? (2003)

Week 5
Benjamin Myers, Pig Iron (2012)

Selected secondary reading:
Seamus Milne, The Enemy Within (1994)
Alice Mah, Industrial Ruination, Community And Place: Landscapes And Legacies Of Urban Decline (2012)
Liu Qingbang, “The One Who Picks Flowers” and “Pigeon” (2015)

Week 6 Reading Week

Week 7
Nicola Barker, Behindlings (2001)

Selected secondary reading:
Len Platt, "'Eating Gull since Friday' -- Estuary Grotesque, Seaside Noir" (2017)
Dr. Feelgood, "Down by the Jetty Blues" Down by the Jetty Blues

Week 8
Ken Saro-Wiwa, selections from A Forest of Flowers (1986)
Ogaga Ifowodo, The Oil Lamp (2005)

Selected secondary reading:
Michael Watts, State, Oil and Agriculture in Nigeria (1987)
Nancy Peluso and Michael Watts, Violent Environments (2001)
Byron Caminero-Santangelo, Different Shades of Green: African Literature, Environmental Justice, and Political Ecology (2014)

Week 9
Ben Okri, "Stars of the New Curfew", from Stars of the New Curfew (1988)
Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, "Spider the Artist" (2008)
Pauline Melville, “The Sparkling Bitch”, from The Migration of Ghosts (1998)
China Mieville, "Covehithe" (2011)

Selected secondary reading:
Michael Taussig, The Devil and Commodity Fetishism (1980)
Andrew Apter, The Pan-African Nation: Oil and the Spectacle of Culture in Nigeria (2005)
Jennifer Wenzel, “Petro-magic-realism: toward a political ecology of Nigerian literature” (2006)

Week 10
Nalo Hopkinson, The New Moon's Arms (2007)

Selected secondary reading:
Ytasha Womak, Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture (2013)
Nalo Hopkinson (ed.), Whispers from the cotton tree root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction (2000)

Learning outcomes

By the end of the module, students should be able to:

  • The module is designed to enhance students’ understanding of recent developments in the fields of environmental criticism, postcolonial studies, and world literature.
  • It will introduce students to new ways of reading a range of texts from across the globe, encouraging them to re-evaluate how they conceptualize ‘ecology’ and what they look for when asked to think ‘eco-critically’ about literature.
  • The module will enable students to develop an understanding of literary responses to processes of environmental change in specific geo-political contexts (e.g., the Caribbean, West Africa, Brazil).
  • It will allow them to track likenesses (and likenesses of the unlike) in the representation or registration of ecological crises. Students will become familiar with the possibilities offered by new rubrics in ecological thought (commodity frontiers, energy regimes, waste frontiers, food regimes, and so on) for thinking comparatively about texts.
Indicative reading list

Adamson, Joni et al. 2002. Environmental Justice Reader. University of Arizona Press.
Brouilette, Sarah. 2007. Postcolonial Writers in the Global Literary Marketplace. Palgrave.
Brown, Nicholas. 2005. Utopian Generations. Oxford UP.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2009. “The Climate of History: Four Theses”. Critical Inquiry (35): 197-222.
D’haen, Theo. 2011. The Routledge Concise History of World Literature. Routledge.
Damrosch, David. 2003. What is World Literature? Princeton UP.
Davis, Mike. 2001. Late Victorian Holocausts. Verso.
—. 2010. “Who Will Build the Ark?” New Left Review 61: 29-46.
Galeano, Eduardo. 1971. Las venas abiertas de America Latina. Siglo XXI Editores.
Glotfelty, Cheryll and Harold Fromm. 1996. The Ecocriticism Reader. University of Georgia Press.
Heise, Ursula. 2008. Sense of Place and Sense of Planet. Oxford UP.
Huber, Matthew. 2013. Lifeblood. University of Minnesota Press.
Huggan, Graham and Helen Tiffin. 2009. Postcolonial Ecocriticism. Routledge.
James, C. L. R. 2001. The Black Jacobins. Penguin.
Jevons, William. 1865. The Coal Question. Macmillan.
Lawall, Sarah. 2010. Reading World Literature. University of Texas Press.
Lazarus, Neil. 2011. “Cosmopolitanism and the Specificity of the Local in World Literature.” The
Journal of Commonwealth Literature 46 (119): 119-37.
LeMenager, Stephanie. 2014. Living Oil. Oxford UP.
Mintz, Sidney W. 1985. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin.
—. 1996. “Enduring Substances, Trying Theories: The Caribbean Region as Oikoumene.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 2 (2): 289-311.
Moore, Jason W. “Transcending the Metabolic Rift.” Journal of Peasant Studies 12 (1) 2011: 1-46.
—. 2013. “From Object to Oikeios: Environment-Making in the Capitalist World-Ecology.”
—. 2014. “The Capitalocene: Part I.”
¬—. 2015. Capitalism in the Web of Life. New York: Verso.
Moretti, Franco. 2000. “Conjectures on World Literature.” New Left Review 1: 54-68
—. 2007. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History. Verso.
Nef, John. 1966. The Rise of the British Coal Industry. Frank Cass.
Niblett, Michael. 2012. “World-Economy, World-Ecology, World Literature,” Green Letters, 16 (1): 15-30.
—. 2015. “Oil on Sugar: Commodity Frontiers and Peripheral Aesthetics.” Global Ecologies. Eds. Anthony Carrigan, Elizabeth DeLoughrey, and Jill Didur. Routledge.
Oloff, Kerstin. 2012. “‘Greening’ the Zombie.” Green Letters 16 (1): 31-45.
Ortiz, Fernando. 1940. Contrapunteo Cubano del Tabaco y el Azúcar. Jesús Montero.
Parry, Benita. 2009. “Aspects of Peripheral Modernisms.” Ariel 40 (1): 27-55.
Podobnik, Bruce. 2006. Global Energy Shifts. Temple UP.
Robbins, Bruce. 2013. “Subaltern-speak.” n+1 18
Saussy, Haun. 2006. Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization. John Hopkins UP.
Shapiro, Stephen. 2008. The Culture and Commerce of the Early American Novel: Reading
the Atlantic World-System. Pennsylvania State UP.
Sheller, Mimi. 2004. “Automotive Emotions.” Theory, Culture & Society 21 (4–5): 221-42.
—. 2014. “The Vital Materiality of Aluminium”, Atlantic Studies. 11:1, 67-81,
Szeman, Imre. 2012. “Introduction to Focus: Petrofictions.” American Book Review. 33 (3): 3-17.
Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1982. “Motion in the System.” Review 5 (3): 331-88.
Weis, Tony. 2013. The Ecological Hoofprint. Zed Books.
WReC. 2015. Combined and Uneven Development: Towards a New Theory of World-Literature.
Liverpool UP.
Yaeger, Patricia. 2011. “Editor”s Column.” PMLA 126 (2): 305-310.

Subject specific skills

-Understand and demonstrate coherent and detailed subject knowledge and professional competencies in ecocriticism, world literature, and postcolonial studies, including knowledge of the most recent scholarship in these fields.
-Deploy accurately standard techniques of literary analysis and enquiry within the discipline. In particular, the student should be able to intervene in critical debates over the relationship between literature and environmental history and develop the use of the rubric of the ‘commodity frontier’ as an optic for comparative literary study.
-Demonstrate a conceptual understanding of, and develop sustained arguments regarding, the interrelationship of cultural production and ecological change; maintain detailed arguments on the specific ways writers from particular geo-political contexts have responded to ecological transformations and crises
-Describe and comment on particular aspects of recent research in the fields of ecocriticism, world literature, and postcolonial studies, and assess how cultural production itself is a form of environment-making.
-Appreciate the uncertainty, ambiguity and limitations of knowledge in the discipline: the student should be able to both position herself and intervene critically in the field; she should be able to critically assess what it means to think ‘eco-critically’ about a literary text and to put pressure on received understandings of this term.

Transferable skills

-Make appropriate use of scholarly reviews and primary sources, including literary texts from the multiple locations covered on the course.
-Apply their knowledge and understanding in order to initiate and carry out an extended written project.

Study time

Type Required
Seminars 18 sessions of 1 hour 30 minutes (9%)
Private study 273 hours (91%)
Total 300 hours
Private study description

Reading & Research.


No further costs have been identified for this module.

You do not need to pass all assessment components to pass the module.

Assessment group A1
Weighting Study time
1 x 3,000-word essay 40%
1 x 3,000-word essay 40%

1 x 3,000-word essay

Portfolio of contributions to group Moodle discussion forum 20%

Portfolio of contributions (150 word weekly responses to set texts) to group Moodle discussion forum

Feedback on assessment

Written feedback on all coursework essays; individual discussion with students as requested.


This module is Optional for:

  • Year 2 of UENA-Q300 Undergraduate English Literature
  • Year 2 of UENA-QP36 Undergraduate English Literature and Creative Writing
  • Year 2 of UENA-VQ32 Undergraduate English and History
  • Year 2 of UTHA-QW34 Undergraduate English and Theatre Studies
  • Year 2 of UFIA-QW25 Undergraduate Film and Literature

This module is Option list C for:

  • Year 2 of UCXA-QQ37 Undergraduate Classics and English

This module is Option list D for:

  • Year 2 of UPHA-VQ72 Undergraduate Philosophy and Literature