A problem as massive as global climate change is difficult to capture in literary language. Amitav Ghosh knows this better than most.
Now in his sixties, the award-winning author of eight novels and four books of nonfiction has in recent years tried to write about climate change in both genres.
In his 2016 book of essays The Great Derangement, Ghosh argued that not enough contemporary novels were addressing climate change as a central issue of our time. One of the problems, he said, has to do with the history of the genre. The novel arose in Europe alongside the middle class, whose readers wanted depictions of stable, everyday life. Literature about spectacular events, like fairy tales and epics, faded from popularity.
But Ghosh claimed that focusing on mundane life was actually unrealistic in our era of ever more frequent climate disasters, from Chennai floods to California wildfires. The type of life represented in most Western novels is currently a fantasy for everyone but a select, wealthy few—and even those few are facing more climate disruptions. Fiction, he said, should try to represent the true pace of catastrophe that the world already faces.
“All that the world asks is that artists and writers respond to the realities of the world around them,” Ghosh said when we sat down recently for an interview in Toronto. “I wouldn’t even call it climate; I would just say the realities of today. We can’t just shut our eyes to something like Hurricane Sandy or Hurricane Maria.”
In his latest novel Gun Island, released this fall, Ghosh creates a world in which his characters literally fly from fire to flood, each scene unfolding in a new disaster zone. When I first read the novel, the high volume of extraordinary moments sometimes felt overwhelming. To Ghosh, strange coincidences are ordinary.
“At breakfast today at the hotel,” he said, “someone came and sat at a nearby table. And I was thinking, I know him. I wonder if it’s him. I get up, and, yeah, it’s Dipesh.” Dipesh Chakrabarty, the renowned University of Chicago historian, was in town to deliver a lecture. Like Ghosh, he has recently turned his attention to the impacts of climate change on human cultures. Ghosh splits his time between Kolkata, Goa, and Brooklyn while Chakrabarty lives in Chicago. But Ghosh invited Chakrabarty to join him for lunch later that day, and the two men were able to revisit old intellectual debates over hummus and falafel.
The same coincidence occurs in Gun Island, down to the profession of the friend. The narrator, Deen, a rare book collector who lives in Kolkata and Brooklyn, encounters an acclaimed Italian historian, Cinta Schiavon, in California, the American Midwest, Kolkata, and Venice, at various points in the novel. She uses her bottomless knowledge of the global seventeenth century to help Deen solve the mystery of a mysterious merchant figure, also a world traveler, who may or may not have been cursed by a snake goddess.
“All that the world asks is that artists and writers respond
to the realities of the world around them.”
For Ghosh, the international, multi-city setting is crucial in a novel that seeks to show the way people move through the contemporary world.
“Migration is something I’ve written about all my life, going back to my first book,” Ghosh said. “Every book, in one way or the other, has addressed this question of displacement, migration, dislocation, travel, and so on, because that’s very much the reality of my own life.”
In Gun Island, Ghosh’s fascination with global migration becomes intimately tied with the geographical scale of climate change.
“This reality is no longer local. It’s no longer particular. It’s not reducible to one place. You have to approach it globally; there’s no getting away from it. So there’s a scalar challenge,” Ghosh said. “You have to find ways of working in huge durations of time, and that was another challenge that I felt I was trying to do in this book.”
Ghosh believes that we need to understand what was happening in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in order to make sense of the present climate crisis and today’s global migration patterns. Ghosh has a place among many scholars, writers, scientists, and historians who are currently trying to pinpoint a start date for our environmental crises. Scientists associated with the idea of the Anthropocene tend to place the pivotal moment at the end of World War II, which coincides with the beginning of the nuclear era and the great acceleration of carbon emissions. Historians have commonly cited the early years of the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century as the culprit. Ghosh goes back even farther, to the centuries that saw the rise of vast European empires setting up colonies around the world, disrupting Indigenous ways of life and setting the stage for global discontent and migration—from countries made poor by colonization to those made wealthy by it.
It is unusual for a contemporary novelist to allot so much space to research from historians and scientists, notably Piya Roy, the dolphin biologist who returns from Ghosh’s 2004 novel The Hungry Tide to teach Deen—and by extension the readers of Gun Island—about how climate change has affected the habitats and migratory patterns of marine species living in the Sundarbans and the Mediterranean. Ghosh rejects the mantra of “show, don’t tell.” Citing Eric Bennett’s 2015 book Workshops of Empire, Ghosh said the mantra originated with the agendas of intelligence agencies in the middle of the twentieth century who wanted “a depoliticized art, an art that would disconnect from the world.”
“This is the sad thing that happened in the world at exactly the time when greenhouse gas emissions were soaring,” Ghosh said. Literature turned toward art that was “completely disengaged from reality.”
Ghosh thinks that a lot of contemporary fiction has become far too concerned with “I, me, and myself,” he said. “And that’s not what I do. That doesn’t interest me.”
He cites John Steinbeck as an example of the type of realist writer he is trying to emulate. Steinbeck “worked with the migrants, he visited these camps,” when researching The Grapes of Wrath. “Steinbeck himself was an upper-middle-class Californian. He was not an Oklahoman. So he made notes. He talked to people.” Before beginning Gun Island, Ghosh toured migrant camps in Italy, interviewing young people from Asia and Africa who made the dangerous trek to Europe in search of a better life.
“Before I did anything in anthropology, I was a journalist,” he said. “That was my first job, and in many ways, I have the instincts of a journalist. So my instinct is always to take out a notebook and take notes. You could call it anthropology, you could call it ethnography, you could call it journalism, you could call it whatever. In my head, they’re not different, it’s all just there.”
A complex picture emerged from Ghosh’s on-the-ground research in Italy. “I went there with the idea that these were climate migrants,” Ghosh said. Very often, he learned that the migrants from South Asia did in fact count climate factors among their reasons for leaving their home countries. Some had seen their farmland rendered infertile by encroaching saltwater; others had lived through drought.
“But at the same time, the thing that really struck me was that none of them would accept the label climate migrant or climate refugee. At first I thought that there was some kind of resistance to the term, some sense of shame. I realized later that it was much more complex, that this phenomenon so many experts call climate migration isn’t really reducible to anything as simple as that. It’s much more complicated.” Those complications shoot through Gun Island, climate concerns intertwining with issues of economic migration and histories of empire and dispossession.
Ghosh plans to begin work on a new novel soon. I asked him whether he expects climate change will play a central role in this book too.
“I don’t call them climate themes,” he said. “I think it’s just reality. It’s the world that we’re dealing with, these interconnected realities. So, yeah, absolutely, it will be about the real world.” O