Ocean, Form, and the Anthropocene in Tentacle
Ocean, Form, and the Anthropocene in Tentacle
In Rita Indiana’s Tentacle, the sea of 2027 Santo Domingo is, quite literally, history. Having experienced a triple “aquacalypse” of climate change, a tsunami, and a biological-weapons spill, the Caribbean Sea has been transformed into a “dark and putrid stew.”1 As the toxicity spreads offshore, already-beleaguered ecosystems collapse and entire species die off. Meanwhile, the breakdown in social cohesion ashore mirrors the breakdown of the symbiosis between humans and the sea.2 Security systems gas Haitian refugees on the doorsteps of upscale apartment buildings, summoning robots to collect the bodies. While the poor die in the streets, the wealthy pay thousands for the last surviving specimens of marine life and for their care in private marine labs. Marine scientists and doctors from abroad pour into the Dominican Republic; they are eager, the novel implies, to capitalize on the scientific opportunities stemming from this environmental and human tragedy.
Tentacle—the 2018 English translation of the 2015 La mucama de Omicunlé (Omicunlé’s Maid)—fathoms a “dystopian seascape” that, in many ways, is already upon us.3 Microplastics permeate all levels of marine foodwebs, including our own; superheated seas fuel monster hurricanes like 2017’s Irma and María; and declining dissolved oxygen levels associated with heating oceans threaten to smother marine life.4 Anthropogenic carbon dioxide absorbed by the ocean changes its very chemistry; according to 2019 findings, “ocean acidification can precipitate ecological collapse”—with direct implications for the phytoplankton responsible for producing 70 percent of the atmosphere’s oxygen.5 The environmental justice implications of sea-level rise and saltwater intrusion into groundwater are legion. If Derek Walcott famously theorized the living sea as “history,” Tentacle confronts the realities of a heating, polluted, acidifying Anthropocene ocean.6 Furthermore, it joins a tradition of recent anglophone Caribbean sea fiction that affords sea-creaturely or androgynous characters preferential access to knowledge of and about the ocean and in which elements of the marine environment queer the novel form.7 In Lawrence Scott’s 1992 Witchbroom, for instance, the nonbinary Lavren raises the histories of Trinidad from a polluted Gulf of Sadness. Monique Roffey’s Archipelago from 2012, on the other hand, revamps the nautical adventure novel: offering the fluid maritime competence of androgynous, sea-creaturely skipper Phoebe Wolf as more equal to the task of navigating a climate-changed ocean world than the masculinist rigidity associated with the traditional protagonists of the genre.8
In the case of Tentacle, the very form and temporality of the novel invoke the Giant Caribbean Anemone, Condylactis gigantea, around which the action turns. C. gigantea, a popular aquarium species whose range extends throughout the Caribbean Sea and Western Atlantic, entraps small fish, invertebrates, and zooplankton in its stinging tentacles, drawing them toward the central column containing the gastrovascular system that ultimately redistributes nutrients back out across the creature’s body.9Tentacle, which begins with the 2027 theft of a prized C. gigantea anemone belonging to the politically connected santera Esther Escudero (Omicunlé), entraps its readers, subsequently dizzying them in the narrative tentacles that span the seventeenth century, 2001, and 2027.10 These tentacles radiate outward from a critical locus in the novel’s plot: the simultaneous gender affirmation procedure and Santería initiation ritual in which Acilde Figueroa (Omicunlé’s housekeeper) acquires the “male form she’d so desired.” Revealed as Omo Olokun, heir of the shapeshifting, species-bending orisha of the deep ocean, Acilde must use his newfound powers to travel back in time and attempt to “save the sea.”11
Making Sea Creature
During Acilde’s transition, Tentacle, which Juan Duchesne Winter describes as a “novela de ciencia-ficción eco-queer,” riffs on C. gigantea’s hermaphroditism in order to elaborate its anemone-like structure.12 Furthermore, the images of coral bleaching appearing in this scene link biochemical gender transition, Santería ritual, and embodied knowledge. Once injected with “Rainbow Brite,” which promises a fast-tracked transition predicated on cellular transformation, Acilde’s body contracts, “expel[ling] what had been her uterus through her vagina” (49). This process mirrors coral bleaching: when a coral polyp (or anemone) experiences heat or pollution stress, it expels the symbiotic, photosynthetic algae called zooxanthellae, which remove the polyps’ nutrient waste and transform it into energy;13 bleaching occurs as a result of the loss of the pigments that enable the zooxanthellae to photosynthesize.14Since each coral species “transmits,” according to biologist Eugene Kaplan, “a single genetic line of zooxanthellae through time,” expulsion of zooxanthellae amounts to a loss of evolutionary knowledge. As the corals have evolved, so too have their symbiotic zooxanthellae; a crucial difference, though, is that the changing environment to which these algae have adjusted is “the inside of the body of the polyp.”15 Likewise, Acilde’s new, male body is no longer hospitable to female reproductive organs. The knowledge he expels is embodied rather than evolutionary; it is the trauma he experienced as a queer, marginalized woman.
Even as Acilde expels his former embodied knowledge, the Santería ritual immediately following his transition initiates him bodily into the historical and ecological knowledges lying among the “balls and chains gone green” at the bottom of the Atlantic.16 Santería initiation, or “making santo,” is, according to Aisha Beliso-De Jesus, a process that in theory enables practitioners to access the embodied knowledges central to the religion; “Practitioners, regardless of ethnic or racial designation,” she writes, “are . . . transformed into African diaspora bodies.”17 When Eric Vitier, one of Acilde’s former tricks and now his attending physician, aligns the tentacles of the stolen anemone with the moles encircling Acilde’s shaved head, he consecrates him to Olokun, the androgynous orisha who “knows what lies at the bottom of the sea” (83). Accordingly, Acilde—now Omo Olokun—should be able to somatically apprehend the magnitude of the seaborne systems of oppression (colonialism, empire, enslavement) that produced the ecological catastrophe and structural inequality Tentacle so roundly critiques. Although this initiation enables Acilde to split his consciousness and travel back in time—ostensibly to avert the dire catastrophe that has befallen the Caribbean Sea—his gender transition throws the possibility of success into question. Having shed the identities of female and servant of the novel’s original Spanish title, Acilde becomes a “newborn man” and inhabits a new, more privileged subject position (51). Ironically, this very subject position distances him from the marginalized forms of maritime knowledge whose transformative potential he is prophesied to seek.18
The Blue Hole
Having triggered Tentacle’s temporal oscillation between the past, near-present, and imagined future of the Caribbean Sea—between a seventeenth-century ocean of abundance and biodiversity and an imagined future in which characters wistfully recall a time “when the sea reflected the sky and wasn’t just contaminated chocolate” (47)—Acilde’s anemone-centered transition and initiation finds a mirror image in the coastal geography of Playa Bo, a reef-encircled lagoon near the north coast town of Sosúa.19 A hole in the reef, lined with C. gigantea anemones, connects the sheltered lagoon to the deep ocean. Revealed as a supernatural portal to “the land of the beginning”—the dwelling place of the Taino Lord of Waters and of Olokun, “the oldest deity in the world, the sea itself, ‘Master of the unknown’”—Playa Bo’s submarine tunnel acts as a second narrative anemone: the locus through which the novel’s three temporalities intersect (21). Here, in the year 2001, competing forms of marine environmental knowledge—apocalyptic marine science, indigenous caretaking, and devotional aquarium keeping—collide as coral bleaching spreads, climate emergency looms, and discourses of a “dying” ocean are globally ascendant.20
Via a marine biologist named Linda, Tentacle explores contemporary marine science’s oscillation between hope and fear—the diverging “imagined futures” that, according to marine science historian Antony Adler, have been “embedded in marine science since its inception.”21 Whenever she snorkels the reef, Linda, a kind of Cassandra-in-a-wetsuit, sees “desolation” and hears “the shrieks of life disappearing” (98); her visceral apprehension of the impending catastrophes of ocean heating and coral bleaching drives her to a bipolar diagnosis. The consequences of Linda’s catastrophizing, Tentacle shows, extend far beyond her mental health. Even as Linda presages the destruction of the Caribbean Sea, Indiana uses her to expose the pitfalls of conservation initiatives based on privatization and not on principles of environmental justice. When the wealthy Linda and her husband, Giorgio Menicucci (Acilde’s avatar, to whom he gives the name his mother recalls seeing on the ID of his erstwhile father), buy Playa Bo to start a marine sanctuary, they bulldoze the coastal forest in a flurry of “ecofriendly construction” (38). In so doing, they marginalize Playa Bo’s Taino caretakers, Nenuco and Ananí, whose families have been protecting the reef for centuries.
Tentacle makes clear to its readers (although not to Linda and Giorgio) that Playa Bo is at once a marine sanctuary and a spiritual sanctuary. The lagoon is “full of animal life,” Indiana writes, “because unlike the others, it had a madman with a shotgun who wouldn’t let anyone near” (70). While the protection of fishing territory is an added ecological and economic benefit, Nenuco’s guardianship actually affirms the reef’s significance to Taino cosmology as the home of “the most precious and sacred creature on the island” (75). This creature, the wild C. gigantea anemone that ultimately facilitates Acilde’s initiation, first appears in Tentacle’s 2027 storyline as the centerpiece to Omicunlé’s altar to Yemayá. Here, it lives “perfectly illuminated and oxygenated” in an elaborately painted aquarium jar (20). By fusing Omicunlé’s daily monitoring of the temperature, salinity, and dissolved oxygen in the tank with her religious duty of attending to the orishas of the sea, Indiana offers a spiritually charged image of human responsibility to one of the last living specimens of marine life. Not only that, by bringing Nenuco and Linda’s conservation efforts into collision, and juxtaposing them with Omicunlé’s devotional aquarium-keeping, Tentacle queers two binaries central to marine environmentalist discourse. First, it troubles the opposition of a “full-stomach” environmentalism centered on the conservation of charismatic species or ecosystems with a more anthropocentric “empty-belly” environmentalism “of the poor.”22 More broadly, it demands that we reconsider the linear transition between centuries-old constructions of the oceans as “too big to hurt” to the more recent, and equally inhibiting, construction of the ocean as “too big and too sick to help.”23 Instead, Tentacle implies, ethical action, even survival, is anchored in “assum[ing] responsibility”—both for the Anthropocene ocean’s “now-hybrid character” and for the historical and contemporary entanglements between the marine environment and human structures of power and privilege.24
Conclusion: Into the Anemone
Unsurprisingly, given present circumstances, Tentacle imagines a dead or imperiled Caribbean Sea—a stark departure from the articulations of the living ocean as Caribbean history in Walcott’s “The Sea Is History” and “The Schooner Flight.”25 Nevertheless, Indiana is one of the latest in a line of writers from hispanophone, francophone, and anglophone traditions who have long looked to the marine environment in order to theorize various aspects of Caribbean experience. While Indiana and Walcott look to the ocean’s biology, others have often drawn on the ocean’s physical elements. Antonio Benítez-Rojo, for instance, invokes “marine currents . . . [and] waves” in The Repeating Island, while in Poetics of Relation Édouard Glissant looks to the depths in order to formulate his “womb abyss.”26 Kamau Brathwaite’s “tidalectics” has taken on a life of its own in the North American and European “blue humanities” that coalesced more recently, in the mid-2000s.27 Chief among Indiana’s many literary innovations is her use of Tentacle’s anemone-like structure to explore the challenges an Anthropocene ocean poses to contemporary literature in general and Caribbean literature in particular. Via the anemone-like diegetic structure inaugurated by Acilde’s transformation, Tentacle draws readers and characters toward a pulsing submarine center, the hole in the reef at Playa Bo, which collapses time and space and devours them whole. By dizzying its readers and then devouring us, Tentacle rises to climate change’s deepening crises of representation, preservation, and apprehension: subjecting us to a narrative version of the paralysis and slow digestion anemones inflict on their prey.28 In doing so, Tentacle ultimately suggests, the experience of being eaten by a sea anemone—that is, being stung, stunned, and slowly digested alive—approximates the experiences of climate injustice in the Caribbean.
Alison Glassie is a postdoctoral fellow in environmental humanities at the University of Virginia. Her research explores the ways the ocean’s biology, physical dynamics, and cultural histories influence the literature of the Americas. She is currently working on a book titled “Atlantic Shapeshifters: Sea Literature’s Fluid Forms.” Glassie has taught courses in literature and the environment at UVA and aboard sailing vessels in the Atlantic and the Caribbean. Her articles on sea literature appear in Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment, Coriolis, Blue Water Sailing, and Novel (forthcoming).
1. Daniel Pauly, “Aquacalypse Now,” New Republic, September 2009, https://newrepublic.com/article/69712/aquacalypse-now; Rita Indiana, Tentacle, trans. Achy Obejas (Sheffield, UK: And Other Stories, 2018), 83 (hereafter cited in the text). Tentacle originally published as La mucama de Omicunlé (Cáceres, Spain: Periférica, 2015).
2. For historical and literary approaches to the human symbiosis with the ocean, see Antony Adler, Neptune’s Laboratory: Fantasy, Fear, and Science at Sea (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019), 165; and Dan Brayton, “Writ in Water: Far Tortuga and the Crisis of the Marine Environment,” PMLA 127, no. 3 (2012): 567–68.
3. Adler, Neptune’s Laboratory, 153.
4. In December 2018, several news and popular scientific outlets, including National Geographic and CNBC, reported that microplastics had been found in human stool. See Anmar Frangoul, “Researchers Detect Microplastics in Human Waste,” CNBC, 23 October 2018, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/10/23/researchers-detect-microplastics-in-human-waste.html; and Laura Parker, “In a First, Microplastics Found in Human Poop,” National Geographic, 22 October 2018, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2018/10/news-plastics-microplastics-human-feces/.
5. Michael Henehan, quoted in Damian Carrington, “Ocean Acidification Can Cause Mass Extinction, Fossils Reveal,” Guardian, 21 October 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/21/ocean-acidification-can-cause-mass-extinctions-fossils-reveal; Adler, Neptune’s Laboratory, 165.
6. See Derek Walcott, “The Sea Is History,” in The Star-Apple Kingdom (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979).
7. Here, I build on Elizabeth DeLoughrey’s assertion that “the ocean is allegorized from abstract space to local place by three key figures: the vessel (canoe, ship, or ark), the shore, and the body, particularly of submarine creatures.” Elizabeth DeLoughrey, Allegories of the Anthropocene (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019), 142.
8. I have argued this elsewhere; see Alison Glassie, “Archipelago’s Voyage: Climate and Seamanship in Monique Roffey’s Contemporary Sea Novel,” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment 26, no. 4 (2019): 924–43, https://doi.org/10.1093/isle/isz027.
9. See “Condy Anemone,” Live Aquaria, https://www.liveaquaria.com/product/619/?pcatid=619; and Eugene H. Kaplan, A Field Guide to Coral Reefs: Caribbean and Florida (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982), 55.
10. Many reviewers and critics have commented on the novel’s disorienting reading experience and summary-resistant plot. See especially Suzi Feay, “Tentacle by Rita Indiana Review—A Post-apocalyptic Odyssey,” Guardian, 2 January 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jan/02/tentacle-by-rita-indiana-review; Ellen Jones, “Little Book with Big Ambitions: Rita Indiana’s Tentacle,” Los Angeles Review of Books, 13 December 2018, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/little-book-with-big-ambitions-rita…; and Rosana Herrero-Martín, “Olokun, or the Caribbean Quantum Mind: An Analysis of Transculturated Metaphysical Elements within Rita Indiana’s Novel Tentacle,” Journal of West Indian Literature 27, no. 2 (2019): 52–67, 81.
11. Olokun, according to Aisha Beliso-De Jesus, is the “androgynous oricha of the depths of the sea . . . said to calm tragedy and change destiny.” Aisha Beliso-De Jesus, Electric Santería: Racial and Sexual Assemblages of Transnational Religion (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 133.
12. Juan Duchesne Winter, “Rita Indiana y sus nuevos misterios,” 80 grados, 15 May 2015, https://www.80grados.net/rita-indiana-y-sus-nuevos-misterios/.
13. “Zooxanthellae . . . What’s That?” National Ocean Service Education, 7 January 2020, https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/education/kits/corals/coral02_zooxanthellae.html.
14. Cassie M. Hoepner, Catherine A. Abbott, and Karen Burke Da Silva, “The Ecological Importance of Toxicity: Sea Anemones Maintain Toxic Defence When Bleached,” Toxins 11, no. 5 (2019), doi: 10.3390/toxins11050266).
15. Kaplan, Field Guide to Coral Reefs, 107.
16. Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 6.
17. See Beliso-De Jesús, Electric Santería, 4.
18. Acilde’s gender, according to Indiana, carries a higher risk of indifference to the social inequality she describes as a “universal desensitizer.” See Amy Brady, “Tentacle Is a Unique Caribbean Spin on Cli-Fi,” Chicago Review of Books, 1 February 2019, https://chireviewofbooks.com/2019/01/16/tentacle-is-a-unique-caribbean-spin-on-climate-fiction/.
19. Sosúa’s history, according to Rosana Herrero-Martín, is characterized by “multiple and well-documented socio-historical rollercoasters”; since the seventeenth century, it has been a buccaneer refuge, a haven for Holocaust survivors gifted land by Rafael Trujillo, and a transgender haven. Herrero-Martín, “Olokun, or the Caribbean Quantum Mind,” 63.
20. Adler, Neptune’s Laboratory, 161.
21. Ibid., 4.
22. Ramachandra Guha and Juan Martinez-Alier, Varieties of Environmentalism: Essays North and South (London: Earthscan 1997), xxi, 16. Guha and Juan Martinez-Alier distinguish between the environmentalisms of the global North and South based on the additional opposition between reliance on direct action and reliance on “social movement organisation[s],” or nongovernmental organizations (17).
23. Nancy Knowlton, “Why Do We Have Trouble Talking about Success in Ocean Conservation?,” Smithsonian Magazine, 12 June 2014, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-do-we-have-trouble-talking-about-success-ocean-conservation-180951727/. See also Adler, Neptune’s Laboratory, 163.
24. Adler, Neptune’s Laboratory, 164.
25. Walcott, The Star-Apple Kingdom.
26. Antonio Benítez-Rojo, The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective, trans. James E. Maraniss (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 11; Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 6.
27. See Kamau Brathwaite, ConVERSations with Nathaniel Mackey (Rhinebeck, NY: We Press, 1999). See also Elizabeth M. DeLoughrey, Routes and Roots: Navigating Caribbean and Pacific Island Literatures (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2007), esp. 2–4; and Stefanie Hessler, ed., Tidalectics: Imagining an Oceanic Worldview through Art and Science (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018).
28. For more on representation and environmental crisis more generally, see Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago: University Chicago Press, 2016); Sonya Posmentier, Cultivation and Catastrophe: The Lyric Ecology of Modern Black Literature (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), 9; and David Wallace Wells, “Why Pop Culture Consistently Fails to Tell Climate Change Stories,” Slate Magazine, 19 February 2019, https://slate.com/technology/2019/02/climate-change-storytelling-hollywood-failure-imagination.html.