Narrating crisis: the stories we tell about floods

I have recently become fascinated by flood narratives. Part of that, perhaps, has to do with growing up on a (former) island on which the memory of the 1953 North Sea flood is still very much alive. It also has to do with contemporary circumstances, especially how floods are presented as a consequence of environmental crisis.

What fascinates me most is how flood narratives connect us to the past, present and future and how they are ubiquitous in many cultures.  I’m fascinated by the different cultural responses to that. As I wrote in an earlier post, the Netherlands has recently framed their centuries-old battle with the sea in terms of ‘living with water’. Contemporary literary flood narratives, though, are relatively rare in the Netherlands. In the UK, however, the number of novels in which floods are tied in with environmental crisis is increasing. Examples are Sam Taylor’s The Island at the End of the World, Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army, Maggie Gee’s The Flood, Clare Morrall’s When the Floods Came and Antonia Honeywell’s The Ship.

In June 2016 I gave a paper on 21st-century British flood narratives at the conference of the International Society for the Study of Narrative in Amsterdam. In it, I focus especially on the way in which flood narratives engage with storytelling. In many flood novels, narrators and characters explicitly try to make sense of flooding by framing it in terms of traditional stories. At the same time, the floods often coincide with larger societal collapse. In this collapse, books, records and stories have often gone lost. As such, I argue, flood novels use narratives as synecdoches for civilization, and the loss of narratives becomes the loss of civilization, humanity – even a symbol for the end of the world.

The text of the paper is available here. This file also includes a list of sources I used. The images I refer to can be found in the presentation slides.



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