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Water Graves

The Art of the Unritual in the Greater Caribbean
Valérie Loichot

BUY Cloth · 302 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813943787 · $64.50 · Jan 2020
BUY Paper · 302 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813943794 · $32.50 · Jan 2020
BUY Ebook · 302 pp. · ISBN 9780813943800 · $32.50 · Jan 2020

Water Graves considers representations of lives lost to water in contemporary poetry, fiction, theory, mixed-media art, video production, and underwater sculptures. From sunken slave ships to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Valérie Loichot investigates the lack of official funeral rites in the Atlantic, the Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico, waters that constitute both early and contemporary sites of loss for the enslaved, the migrant, the refugee, and the destitute. Unritual, or the privation of ritual, Loichot argues, is a state more absolute than desecration. Desecration implies a previous sacred observance--a temple, a grave, a ceremony. Unritual, by contrast, denies the sacred from the beginning.

In coastal Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, Miami, Haiti, Martinique, Cancun, and Trinidad and Tobago, the artists and writers featured in Water Graves—an eclectic cast that includes Beyoncé, Radcliffe Bailey, Edwidge Danticat, Édouard Glissant, M. NourbeSe Philip, Jason deCaires Taylor, Édouard Duval-Carrié, Natasha Trethewey, and Kara Walker, among others—are an archipelago connected by a history of the slave trade and environmental vulnerability. In addition to figuring death by drowning in the unritual—whether in the context of the aftermath of slavery or of ecological and human-made catastrophes—their aesthetic creations serve as memorials, dirges, tombstones, and even material supports for the regrowth of life underwater.


Ambitious, eloquent, and well researched, Water Graves connects literary studies, art history, and cultural studies to break important new ground in our understanding of the imaginative links between water, death, and ritual in the Caribbean and American South.

Richard Watts, University of Washington, author of Packaging Post/Coloniality: The Manufacture of Literary Identity in the Francophone World

Water Graves is a brilliant, creative, and attentive paying of respects to the souls and remains of those who have been drowned or improperly mourned within the abysses and gulfs of Caribbean, American, and World history and experience. This is an absolutely timely and important critical work in a moment when we are increasingly divided between 'winners' and 'losers,' at a time when our monuments and memorializing gestures are more loaded than ever, and when we are becoming increasingly aware of accelerating ecological and climatic changes on the planet—forces that augment the unritual and that make us all more prone to water graves. The memorial art and illustrations in these pages are unforgettable.

Keith Cartwright, University of North Florida

A unique interdisciplinary study, and a moving homage to the thousands of lives and desecrated bodies trapped in the aquatic worlds of the Greater Caribbean, Valérie Loichot’s Water Graves is a powerful book and a profound meditation about remembrance, creative practices, ecological agency, and historical justice. From the abyss of the Middle Passage to the swamps of New Orleans, Loichot searches the ‘watery depths’ of memory and its troubled relationship to life, death, and the sacred... Water Graves also shows planetary reach by considering the works of artists, writers, singers, and performers, whose complex creations provide aesthetic rituals that dwell in the deep time and extended space of world catastrophe. Through her eloquent and densely textured writing, Loichot deftly captures their expressions of mourning and pain, which long for healing, dignity, and communion. A journey that proves altogether brilliant, unforgettable, and transformative.

Emmanuel Bruno Jean-François, Penn State University

Valérie Loichot unearths the relationship between art and the sacred, where sculptures and poems act as funeral dirges.


[The book] is a powerful elegy to lives passed on, a praise song for the arts, and an affirming meditation on crisis, loss and possibility in a world of catastrophe.

Eileen Julien, Indiana University Bloomington

About the Author(s): 

Valérie Loichot is Professor of French and English at Emory University and author of The Tropics Bite Back: Culinary Coups in Caribbean Literature and Orphan Narratives: The Postplantation Literature of Faulkner, Glissant, Morrison, and Saint-John Perse (Virginia).

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