An Interview with Timothy Frye: Co-Leader of Natures’ Empires

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Environmental Humanities Initiative graduate scholar Timothy Frye talked with us about Latin American literature, the interdisciplinary trajectory of the field, and the successes (and failures) of his reading group Natures’ Empires. Read below for a treasure trove of readings, people, and experiences that have influenced Tim’s thinking. 

How does Latin American literature inform your interest in the environmental humanities

My interest in the environmental humanities, perhaps before it was called that, began while reading Latin American literature. Novels like El reino de este mundo (The Kingdom of this World) (1949) by Alejo Carpentier, and Pedro Páramo (1955) by Juan Rulfo, which initiate the Latin American Boom, had a particular impact on me as race, gender, class, and coloniality take on a particular shape when expressed environmentally in their pages: Magical Realism; liberation or alienation, new potentials and old frameworks. 

Coming from a generation of readers that began reading Hispanic literature with the Latin American Boom, these works, along with those by García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, and José Donoso, to name just a few, are a jump-off into the study of Latin American literature at the turn of the twentieth century, the independence period, colonial period, conquest, and pre-colonial literatures and cultures. In terms of environmental justice, I seem to circle back to Alejo Carpentier’s revelation in the late 1940s, that history is not magical because of a literary style that writes it, but rather its magic is found in its utter realness and absurdity.  

Environmental Humanities is inherently interdisciplinary. How does your work speak to other disciplines?  

The environmental humanities have a particular interdisciplinary trajectory. Admittedly, a graduate minor has been a bit of patchwork, as I have worked in the fields of Geography, History, and English and German. Interdisciplinarity provides its gifts and its curses. The hexes: more exposition, more method, more suspicion. And the gifts: more funding—maybe—, more conversations, and perhaps more immediate impact. And I am continually struck by other environmental humanists I meet and how willing they are to make connections outside of their field. The formations of coalitions and diverse knowledge communities has the latent function of providing some perspective of one’s field of study. 

This applies to pedagogy as well. In a teaching workshop at the Center for the Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA), Martha Bigelow and Kaishan Kong begged the question, “to what degree are our curricula custom?” Are traditional readings of canonical texts—take Domingo Sarmiento’s Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism (1845), for example—leading to tangible student outcomes, or instead reaffirming binaries in the STEM and humanities fields alike? 

Can you tell us about the Natures’ Empires Reading Group? 

Two years ago, geographer Joshua Eichen and I started a reading group called Natures’ Empires at the Consortium for the Study of the Premodern World. For the first year, no one came. Not a single soul. We looked at each other from across the room and sheepishly discussed the reading, then divided the refreshments between us, and went home; assorted cheeses, grapes, and crackers.

We tried again a year later with the goal of reading A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things by Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore. And people came. From History, Geography, and Spanish and Portuguese. Jason W. Moore came too, and he packed the house to discuss his work on the “Little Ice Age.” It was, dare I call it, a success. If something could be learned from this experience, especially for those new to the Environmental Humanities, it is that interdisciplinarity is not enough, and, controversial as it is, neither are assorted cheeses. 

Contact Timothy Frye.