Book’s General Highlights

Part One, Chapter One of this book begins with the rich origins of poetry and the poetic elements in folk songs and religious hymns, featuring Enheduanna. This is followed by the mythological origin stories of several Indigenous communities throughout North America and the Caribbean – like those by the Seneca, Taíno and Haudenosaunee in Chapter Two. Part One concludes with Chapter Three to learn about early epic narratives – the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, the epic of Popol Vuh by the Maya, and the West African Mali epic Sundiata, an epic still performed in its oral traditional form. Initial close-readings and analyses of these different forms of storytelling will be enhanced by ecocriticism, as topics intersect with those outlined by the UNSDG – the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which include the eradication of poverty and hunger, the promotion of sustainable communities, gender equality, reducing inequality, and the sustainable preservation of life on land and in the sea.

The featured works of literature will be:

  • Canonical and noncanonical literary traditions to celebrate and recognize diverse early poetry and oral storytelling traditions from folk songs of our day to ancient hymns and storytelling origin myths.
  • Mythological narratives on the epic and twin heroes whose fantastic journeys represent the rainforest and efforts to find civilizations.
  • Relevant to learning more on emerging themes that inspire ‘ecocritical readings’ and inform sustainability topics, such as the elimination of warfare and conflict and a decreasing overdependence on agriculture and natural resources.

Part Two offers a wide array of folklore – the fable, the animal tale, the fairy tale, the fantastic story, mythology, and an allegorical dramatic satire. Chapter Four features several tales from Aesop’s Fables. Chapter Five features Greek mythology up to the works of the Roman poet Ovid. Chapter Six features the story collection of fantastic tales and animal fables associated with The One Thousand and One Nights. Chapter Seven features Volpone; Or the Fox, an allegorical satirical drama by Elizabethan dramatist and poet Ben Jonson. Initial close readings and analyses of folklore are enhanced by ecocriticism to identify themes on social norms that intersect with those outlined by the UNSDG such as preserving life on land and in the sea, gender equality, the reduction of all inequality, and peace and justice, among others. Social norms, humanity’s role with nature and animal life, and the challenges of autonomy and power are a few themes that are:

  • Witnessed in Aesop’s Fables & Ovid’s Metamorphosis
  • Represented in the Arabian Nights and Jonson’s Volpone; Or the Fox (1605)
  • Relevant to learning more on emerging themes that inspire ‘ecocritical readings’ and inform on sustainability topics, such as life on land, reducing inequalities, gender equality, and sustainable consumption & production.

Part Three offers a sampling of lyrical poetry and features the work of Greek poet Sappho, late medieval revisionism of female figures in Western literature, and Shakespeare’s problem plays. Chapter Eight features lyrical poetry and Sappho’s fragments. Chapter Nine features revisions of the legend and Western mythology by Christine de Pizan, Europe’s first female professional writer. Chapter Ten of this book features Shakespeare’s problem play, Measure for Measure. Among his other problem plays, Measure for Measure is an inconvenient comedy with key female characters that challenge the status quo to expose an ideology that supports unequal hierarchical patriarchal entities like the political and religious apparatuses of the European Renaissance. In addition, the concept of ‘ecophobia’ aligns with racism and misogyny in Shakespeare’s problem plays. Initial close-readings and analyses of poetry, revisionist mythology, and a dramatic comedy are enhanced by ecocriticism, on topics that also intersect with those outlined by the UNSDG – including gender equality, reducing inequality, and peace and justice. Emerging themes address social norms, early feminism, racial inequality, and more specifically on how,

  • Ancient Greek poet Sappho’s poetic form and themes, romantic lyrical poetry, and  Christine de Pizan’s work challenge both Western stereotypes of gender and the cultural values within systemic misogynistic structures
  • A Shakespearean theatrical work is invested in illustrating cycles of injustice to reveal power as problematic and dependent on inequality and other injustices, as ecophobia is unveiled
  • Learning on relevant themes inspire ‘ecocritical readings’ and inform on sustainability topics, such as quality education, gender equality, and reducing inequality, and justice

These works conclude this literary studies book that introduces literature from around the world to highlight topics that intersect with relevant aspects of our own lived experiences.

Overall, literature serves as a platform for further inquiries like ecocriticism, an interpretative approach to also address the representation of nature. Such interpretative approaches further develop a learner’s critical understanding of a piece of literature to research and present findings in an ‘end of term’ problem-solving sustainability project.

Problem-solving sustainability projects are conducted in small groups. Each group features an intersection between a social injustice identified in a work of literature with an environmental challenge or injustice. The role of the UNSDG (UN Sustainable Development Goals) is to offer topics to engage in problem-solving projects that aim to support sustainable alternatives to traditional unsustainable social norms. The UNSDG highlight aspects of our global community that each of us can address in our local communities to ensure a sustainable future for all life on Earth. Students complete a problem-solving sustainability project in the form of a literary research term paper, group presentation or a community-based project on a topic that intersects with sustainability.

Problem-solving sustainability projects modify, even transform, traditional classrooms. Twentieth  century curricula become ‘global’ and collaborative. These projects encourage responsive learning. Students are also encouraged to engage with interdisciplinary team members, which optimize solutions. For example, at the end of Chapter Ten, several activities are demonstrated with student artifacts on problem-solving projects among students from different disciplines, regions, and countries, via IVE (International Virtual Exchange) and COIL (Collaborative Online International Learning) university partnerships. Classrooms connect students with peers around the world, through these collaborations.

Yet, while many communities have engaged in conversations to determine what is valued in a literary text, this does not mean that the decision-making process is always fair or even representative.

Let’s Also Avoid All Single Stories

“Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie work on the ‘danger of a single story’ inspires ecocritical readings of literature to ensure that we as a global people avoid any ‘single story’ about climate change and the complex aspects on how to promote and support sustainability, like the goals by the UN.”A good reminder of systemic inequalities that limit the very human practice of storytelling is emphasized by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Sustainability advocates learn from Adichie to also practice equity and honor diversity to avoid the silencing of certain stories. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie work on the ‘danger of a single story’ also inspires ecocritical readings of literature to ensure that we – as a global people – avoid any ‘single story’ about climate change and the complex aspects on how to promote and support sustainability, like the goals by the United Nations.

OER TED Talk by Storyteller Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Adichie’s storytelling journey in The Danger of a Single Story (2019) educates each one of us about how we all need to seek diverse literary traditions to uphold the integrity of representation and identity affirmation in literature, especially when the norms of a dominant culture misrepresent or avoid  representation all together. The works of writers like Nigerian Adichie also help to inform on postcolonialism and ecocriticism in novels on globalization and immigration.

Adichie’s experiences also affirm the cultural work of Black Studies scholars in previous generations, like the work by Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) and Charles V. Hamilton, who coined the term institutional racism.

Any Single Story is a Sign of Systemic Inequalities

In Black Power: The Politics of Liberation (1969), Carmichael and Hamilton provide a ‘guidebook’ in order to reach the economic potential of Black American communities and to sustain a vibrant local economy that serves those who live there: “One must start from premises rooted in truth and reality rather than myth.” This is exactly what Adichie chose to do. She explores the ‘myth of the single story’. Let’s proceed and follow their examples in literary studies to reclaim and uncover in order to ensure our livelihoods.

Critical Reading Approaches from the Standpoint of Sustainability

In the words of Dr. Martin Puchner, the chief editor of the Norton Anthology of World Literature who presently works with climate scientists, “What is needed are new stories as well as new ways of understanding old ones. The power of stories – seductive, misleading, and potentially transformative – needs to be harnessed to a new purpose: mitigating climate change” (Literature for a Changing Planet).

In response to Puchner’s challenge, let’s also “envision how ecologically based advocacy on behalf of the nonhuman world as well as on behalf of greater socio-environmental justice” (Adamson 2009) is informed by literary studies. Literary works serve as a way to learn about sustainability.

The array of the literature in this book helps to show that the storytelling cultures from any era can inform us about ourselves and challenges and assist us to realize what a sustainable future entails. So, even though at first sight the literature seems ‘archaic’ or even ‘dated,’ realize that the human community has been writing across ages and common themes emerge. A known example of a common theme is the story of the biblical flood. Many of us may know this story – perhaps as ‘the people of the book’ or knowing a popular version of the flood. But do you know that there are other flood stories before Noah’s ark and from an earlier civilization and people?

On Different Versions of a Story: the Biblical Flood Story

Flood stories in literary works are understood as “flood narratives.” They date back to biblical times and even earlier. They are narratives on the “enduring of the catastrophe myths” (Russell 2013). The biblical flood story is about Noah. He is chosen by the Hebraic deity – meaning god – to build an ark to protect many animals and his own family because god is angry at the human race. An earlier flood narrative in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is two thousand years older, contrasts with the Biblical version.

Dr. Puchner’s ecocriticism scholarship on flood narratives interprets the earlier version in Gilgamesh by  asking, “How do we humans narrate our self-made climate disaster” (Puchner 13)? The flood narrative in the Epic of Gilgamesh is also about Noah, but this flood story is not associated with punishment. When he answers his posed question, Puchner argues that the earlier version is about a natural phenomenon: “The point here is not sin and punishment, but something closer to population control” (17). His answer is telling. It suggests that the earlier version of Noah’s flood exposes the challenges of overpopulation, perhaps due to exhausting local resources. As a literary trope that crosses literary traditions and geographies through time, witnessing variations of flood narratives is very telling since meanings differ. When the earlier version of the Biblical flood story was discovered, it not only confirmed that many cultures borrow and share stories from one another, but that its variations can inform on aspects of sustainability.

Literary Studies and Ecocritical Approaches

  • Anyone of us who is concerned with injustice engages in a sustainability framework, because forms of injustices – like the misuse of natural resources and abuse of human labor – do not contribute to nor are viable for a sustainable world.
  • In light of global sustainability challenges, literary communities play a central role in inspiring conversations on collaborative projects on a sustainability topic.

On the Tools and Variations of Literature

The digitized writing tools we know today stem from the present global economy of our times. However, the origins of works of literature are part of our history of storytelling with earlier forms of writing tools. Led by the turning of seasons, oral traditions were performed and memorized in ritual and dance. Literary tools emerged with symbolic writing systems represented either on clay tablets, stones, animal bones and skins, and wooden tablets with beeswax. In many cases throughout this history, stories would travel and overlap with different storytelling traditions and be retold. “The tradition of literature all around the world is one that borrows from each other to create variations and new types of stories” (Puchner 2023). Hence, literature is part of older storytelling traditions that can assist us to address and understand our present-day experiences and challenges.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Literary Studies For A Sustainable Future Copyright © 2024 by Lisette Helena Assia Espinoza is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book