Reimagining an ‘ocean of the South’ – Fellows’ seminar by Charne Lavery

24 February 2023

“Postcolonial literatures are often understood to be national allegories focused on the experience of European colonialism, anti-colonial resistance and the subsequent growth of the postcolonial nation. A significant strand of postcolonial fiction, however, imagines a geography which is coastal and transoceanic, linking east Africa, south Asia and the islands, across the surface of the Indian Ocean. This is the literature of the Indian Ocean world, represented in English by writers like Amitav Ghosh and Abdulrazak Gurnah and described in my first book, Writing Ocean Worlds: Indian Ocean Fiction in English,” said Charne Lavery of the Department of English at the University of Pretoria. “My new project shifts attention from the world to the planet, drawing on the insights of critical ocean studies and the environmental humanities, in the context of warming planetary seas. In particular, it aims to centre the sea itself in its full three-dimensionality, while retaining a focus on the literatures and cultures of the global South.”

STIAS Fellow Charne Lavery during her seminar on 16 February 2023

Lavery described her book project as a cultural history of the deep sea centred on the Indian Ocean an ‘ocean of the South’. The Indian Ocean is unique in that its character is underpinned by the monsoon which blows predictably in opposite directions in each half of the year thus giving it a longer history of ship travel. It’s also unique in having a ‘continental roof’ a feature that is exacerbating climate-based changes to the ocean and its currents. It’s now one of the fastest-warming oceans due to climate change. “It’s an extreme case study for changing temperatures. Oceans are absorbing 90% of the excess heat but the Indian Ocean is absorbing even more. We know the Maldives are shrinking, the monsoons are changing, there are more cyclones, and they are moving further south.”

Tracing the origin of her interest to her doctoral studies at Oxford, Lavery highlighted her postdoctoral work at the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa and the current research project she runs which is based the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of the Witwatersrand. The project is called Oceanic Humanities for the Global South – an interdisciplinary platform combining oceanic, postcolonial, and environmental humanities and Global South studies. Her articles in The Conversation about the Indian Ocean beneath the surface led to an invitation to write the book.

“Drawn by the alternative histories of the Indian Ocean at the surface, I hope to explore what possibilities exist for apprehending, narrating and imagining what lies beneath,” she explained. “It’s hard to tell the story of the deep sea – there is generally no single character – so the sea itself is the character.”

This project proposes a submersive (literally as well as Lavery has learnt to dive which she described as “eye opening”) method of reading, going below the waterline to take account of three-dimensional oceanic space in and from the south. It will explore representations of Indian Ocean connection in relation to the undersea, placing stranger-than-fiction events of the deep Indian Ocean in conversation with its myth, art and writing. Lavery’s research on the ocean has mostly been through literature but she will widen the scope to include poetry, mythology and art in conversation with science.

A vertical tale

The book will use the ocean’s five vertical zones as its structuring framework – the sunlight, twilight and midnight zones, the abyss, and the trenches (also known as the hadal zone which lies 6 to 11 kms below the surface). Admitting this is the most commonly accepted but also controversial breakdown, she is attracted to the suggestive nature of the names. “It’s an extensive, dynamic environment. The layers are connected. There are some hard boundaries but they are imposed categories.” She is also interested in understanding the connection between the layers by the things that move through them – for example deep-diving sperm whales.

But as you move deeper the unknowns become greater.

Lavery explained that in 2011 an unmanned submarine from Gqeberha went down one of the volcanic ridges of the Indian Ocean and found a thriving deep sea ecology with five new species, for which, only a few decades earlier, there had been “no vocabulary”.

“Fewer people have been that deep than have walked on the moon,” she laughed. “We expect aliens, sea monsters less so.”

“The book will tell the story by moving down vertically – taking hold of the vertical zones like free divers who pull themselves down by rope knots.”

Lavery explained that in each layer there are changes in light, temperature, turbulence and pressure. We need more technology as we go deeper so the data decreases and the knowledge gaps increase. “Deeper is thus more speculative but not disconnected to ordinary life. These are the predominant forms of life on the planet – it pushes us away from anthropomorphism and the terrestrial.”

“The trenches are seen as an inhospitable, non-human world. But the deep, dark sea is central to life and produces its own kind of light by bioluminescence. Most of the lifeforms would collapse on land due to the lack of pressure. Humans would implode at those depths. But life in the deep sea has been stable for millennia. It’s actually humans who live in extreme conditions.”

“Of course,” she added. “Our prepositions indicating up and down are linked to notions of good and bad, as scholar Melody Jue has described. The sky as heaven, deep sea as bad. There is an antipathy in language to a part of the planet that sustains us – embedded in language and imagination.”

She also pointed out that proposed deep-sea mining endeavours make this world an increasingly controversial, vulnerable and important one.

“The chapters of the book will analyse fiction, film, poetry and visual art that addresses the key characteristics, themes, and pressures of that oceanic depth, introducing these to the reader while also countershading and complicating,” she explained.

She hopes that ultimately the book will be about enhancing connectivity. “Exploring points of cultural contact with the deep sea in this way can highlight connectedness as much as strangeness and alienation. India and Africa are still left out of global imaginaries, as is the Indian Ocean. I don’t think connectivity is possible without thinking about how the actual ocean underpins all this.”

“The sea has been seen largely as a European-driven global network and the literature is dominated by voices from the North Atlantic region. I’m hoping to tell the story of this world from the perspective of the South. I want to understand the deep sea and Global South not as peripheral but as a way of thinking differently about the future. We only have one world. We need more elasticity and imagination to understand and protect it.”


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu

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