Asbestos Towns

ASCA Cities Public Talk by Dr. Arthur Rose (University of Bristol) | Friday 17 May, 15.00 – 17.00 hrs., room 101A, Universiteitstheater (Nieuwe Doelenstraat 16-18)

In this talk, I want to introduce, by way of Patrick Chaimoiseau’s Martinquean epic, Texaco (1992), the ‘asbestos town’: an identification that allows us to consider how asbestos develops, through its involvement in habitation, a strange and complicated relation to community, ecology and environmental toxicity. ‘Asbestos town’ is a term that should be understood dialectically. While it might refer to communities from asbestos mining towns, it might also refer to communities whose involvement with asbestos is less obvious. In the first instance, these single resource towns often prefer decontamination procedures to the dissolution of the community: the needs of the community, to form itself as a community, are often balanced against the risks from asbestos. However, in contexts where asbestos is brought into the home in unexpected ways (either in the construction of the home or through unsuspecting work practices), there is frequently no immediate community with whom to develop meaningful solidarity. My talk turns around those ways in which “asbestos towns”, in this second, less obvious way, come to shape a particular consciousness of asbestos in the built environment. Since I am a literary scholar, my attention will often turn to works of fiction that consider asbestos in the home, whether as a construction material (as in Chaimoiseau’s Texaco) or as a trace of work (Lionel Shriver’s So Much For That), to think about how asbestos features within homes (the asbestos heater in Samuel Beckett’s Murphy), of homes (asbestos roofs in Yvonne Vera’s Butterfly Burning and The Stone Virgins) and surrounding homes (the asbestos environment of Ken Yates’ Dust). But the consequence of these fictions permits a more general insight into the role asbestos plays in infrastructures across the built environment: a failed modernist project to protect individuals from harm in the home.


  • Gregson, Nicky, Helen Watkins and Melania Calestani. Inextinguishable Fibres: Demolition and the Vital Materialisms of Asbestos. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 42.5 (2010): 1065-1083.
  • Abeysundara, Yasantha, Sandhya Babel, and Shabbir Gheewala. A Matrix in Life Cycle Perspective for Selecting Sustainable Materials for Buildings in Sri Lanka. Building and Environment 44.5 (2009): 997-1004.
  • Rose, Arthur. In the Wake of Asbestos: Ship-building and Ship-breaking in Ross Raisin’s Waterline and Tahmina Anam’s The Bones of Grace. Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 49.4: 139-158.

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