The Era of Climate in Fiction

Amitav Ghosh & Nathaniel Rich

In Conversation

Two writers grapple with climate change in fiction, nonfiction—and real life. Amitav Ghosh, the award-winning author of the Ibis Trilogy returns with his new novel, Gun Island. When a Bengali legend from childhood comes to haunt the lonely life of a rare books dealer in Brooklyn, he is launched on a journey around the world in search of truths about himself and his past—and forced along the way to confront some of the great environmental crises assailing our planet. Hopping from a fire-ravaged Los Angeles to a sinking Venice to a storm-ravaged Sundarbans, Ghosh weaves a story that is both intimate and epic, encapsulating this perilous moment. He was joined in conversation by Nathaniel Rich at LIVE from the NYPL, whose most recent book, Losing Earth, is a powerful history of the decades long battle waged against climate change. —NYPL

Nathaniel Rich: It’s exciting to be with you all in this stunning room, to celebrate Amitav Ghosh and his new novel, Gun Island. It is an honor for me and a special thrill, as I was telling Amitav backstage, since I first encountered his work twenty years ago at university in my Introduction to Literature course. Sandwiched between Kafka and Nabokov was Ghosh—we read The Shadow Lines—so I am having a minor out-of-body experience now.

I thought it would be worth beginning with this short paragraph from the new novel. I begged Amitav to read it—he has a much better reading voice—but he assigned me to do it instead. It’s a conversation between the main character Dean and Cinta, who is an Italian grande dame art historian. Dean is speaking about a legend that features prominently in Gun Island. He says:

“I don’t see how a legend could reach out into the future. After all, it’s just a story . . .”

She stopped me with a rap on the knuckles.

“You must never use that phrase, Dino,” she said slowly and deliberately. “In the seventeenth century no one would ever have said of something that it was ‘just a story’ as we moderns do. At that time people recognized that stories could tap into dimensions that were beyond the ordinary, beyond the human even. They knew that only through stories was it possible to enter the most inward mysteries of our existence where nothing that is really important can be proven to exist—like love, or loyalty, or even the faculty that makes us turn around when we feel the gaze of a stranger or an animal. Only through stories can invisible or inarticulate or silent beings speak to us; it is they who allow the past to reach out to us.”

I wondered if you could begin by telling us what that passage means to you.

Amitav Ghosh: Certainly. Well, first of all, let me thank you all for being here tonight. My thanks, also, to the New York Public Library for arranging this, and thank you, Nathaniel, for being here. I’ve been reading you for years—Odds Against Tomorrow was one of the earliest climate fiction books written. And your Losing Earth has been such an important contribution to the literature on the subject. So it’s a real pleasure to be here with you today.

I think of my book as being as being a book about our reality. The reality of the moment that we live in, the moment that we inhabit. I think the real question here is why this reality, for so many of us, so many writers, is occluded. That they can’t see the ways in which this reality is unfolding around us, you know? Perhaps the part of the world that I’m from has something to do with it—this reality is so pressing, but especially in Bengal.

Younger writers like yourself, as in your novel, often write about the future, how these impacts are forming our future. But I think about these issues in relation to the past. For me, climate change is not something discrete. It’s not something that has happened only within the last thirty years. It is something which has a very long history which reaches very deep into our past. It’s within that context that I think of it, and it’s within that context that these stories come to me.

For me, climate change is not something discrete. It’s not something that has happened only within the last thirty years. It is something which has a very long history which reaches very deep into our past.

Rich: One of the most striking things to me about the novel is that it’s both very much set in the current day—headlines about the migration crisis, about various ecological disasters and weather events appear throughout the book—and deeply rooted in the past. And not just the recent past, but the ancient past. You have ancient myth; a discussion of the Little Ice Age in the seventeenth century; and all of the characters themselves seem haunted by their pasts. There’s even a phrase that recurs—

Ghosh: Yes: “Unde origo inde salus,” which is actually inscribed on the floor in the Santa Maria della Salute in Venice, which means “from the past salvation comes.” In that case, I suppose, it’s metaphorically a reference to the Virgin Mary and the womb and so on. But, I find it a very suggestive idea—that we live at a time when there is so much techno-fantasy that we will somehow escape to Mars or something. Yet, in the book, I’m suggesting that if there is a solution, it may come from the beginning, that is to say, the past. But yes, absolutely, I see our present predicament as not being in any way separate from 400 years ago, 500 years ago, when human beings (most of all Europeans) began terraforming the Earth.

If you think of the seventeenth century—as many of you may know, the last major episode of climatic variation peaked in the seventeenth century with the so-called a Little Ice Age. It turns out that one of the reasons why there was a little ice age was because of the mass mortality of Native American populations. The Native American population is thought to have dwindled by ninety-five percent. So, across the two Americas, huge tracts of land that had once been cultivated reverted to forest, thereby sequestering a huge amount of carbon, which, in turn, helped to lower global mean temperatures. This is thought to have contributed to the onset of the Little Ice Age.

If that is the case then there is a very clear history that links the European expansion starting from 1492 onwards with our present day. We see it in the history of commodities, we see it in the history of colonialism, and in the history of anti-colonialism I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there was a spike in greenhouse gas emissions once China and many formerly colonized countries began to industrialize in earnest, in the last decade of the twentieth century.

Rich: That’s a subject I want to pick up, but since Gun Island published today, we can’t assume that many people in the room have read this wonderful new novel. Probably the most prosaic way of describing it would be to call it a globe-trotting intellectual caper. Have you yet learnt how to talk about the book on the day of its publication? It’s a different intellectual process than actually writing it, I realize.

Ghosh: Yeah, that is a very different process. But I think, you know, for me what the book is trying to explore in some way is the reality of our time and this reality that we are living in is deeply and profoundly uncanny.

I think it’s impossible—in terms of any kind of literary approach in this moment in time—to dispense with the uncanny. We have to embrace the uncanny; the uncanny defines exactly this moment. I’ve experienced this myself with the writing of this book. There is a chapter in the book that is set in Los Angeles with a fire advancing towards a museum. This actually happened: you may have read last year that there was a fire advancing towards The Getty museum. But as it happens, I wrote that chapter several months before the fires. It was so weird to see that happening, to read about it, to watch coverage of it on television, because I had already seen it happening in my head. And in the same way I write about a big hailstorm in Venice and I’m told that this also happened in the last few months. The uncanniness of the world! For all of us who are writing about these events, it’s constantly instantiated, isn’t it?

Rich: You wrote, in The Great Derangement, how you wrote The Hungry Tide, cyclones, much like the ones you’d written about, struck Asia soon after the novel’s publication in 2004. That hit home for me because I published a novel called Odds Against Tomorrow set in New York about a hurricane devastating the city, causing widespread flooding. As I was writing it, it was very important to me that the book be set in the near future (something I’ll never do again). Setting a novel in the near future causes constant panic attacks because you worry that something you are writing about might actually happen in the real world. So in this case, my worst fear was that a hurricane would hit New York. It took me five or six years to write the novel and every hurricane season I was fearful that that the storm would come.

Sure enough, after the book was put to bed and before it was published, Hurricane Sandy hit. It totally altered the way the novel was received and read. I think that without Sandy it would have been seen as a fantasy novel. Instead, the first question I would always get was: Is this your book about Sandy?

This speaks to your point in The Great Derangement about how we’re living in an uncanny time when things that used to be written off as science-fiction premises have become ordinary, and almost so ordinary that it’s hard to write about them in fiction. Literature about these incredible transformations has often been written off as genre writing. As you point out, this reflects a failure of the imagination of the critical establishment itself.

We’re living in an uncanny time when things that used to be written off as science-fiction premises have become ordinary, and almost so ordinary that it’s hard to write about them in fiction.

Ghosh: Oh, absolutely. It’s the imprint of history on the Western fictional tradition. The nineteenth century tradition of the novel emerged in a period of climatic stability. Today, when you read about those Jane Austen heroines who are fainting in the heat, and then suddenly you see that Britain is hotter than India on some days, you sort of wonder where this has ended up. We are not in that period of stable climate anymore. We are in a time when everything is so weirdly unpredictable.

Rich: The Great Derangement, I should say, derived from a series of lectures you gave at the University of Chicago and is published in book form, and is an excellent primer on climate change and the literature surrounding it, and the lack thereof. It goes places where other serious writers have failed to go. One of its most striking arguments is that the realist, contemporary novel is not only constitutionally antagonistic to a serious discussion of climate change, but that the conventions of contemporary fiction are themselves the product of our history of carbon dioxide emissions. I wondered if you could go into that a little bit.

Ghosh: Let’s take one of the most important aspects of fiction, which is the idea of the setting: the sense of place. If we look at the realities of the world we live in today, it’s really impossible to write about settings in quite the same way we used to because, for one thing, the settings have completely changed—populations have changed, geographies have changed. And, more to the point, we live at a time when it’s not just people moving, but entire ecosystems.

Any attempts that we make today to approach these issues have to dispense with the nineteenth century idea of the setting. I feel that John Steinbeck was the climate novelist avant la lettre, because The Grapes of Wrath—the first chapter of it—is such a magnificent riff on climate. But if you were to write about the same phenomenon today—and in a way I am writing about the same kind of phenomenon—you couldn’t do it using the Oklahoma dialect, as Steinbeck did, you would have to use Spanish. Already you see this deep fracture entering our literary universe. How do you deal with this Anthropocene reality of language, which is not the stable monolingual reality of the past?

Rich: I can think of a few examples of a novelist writing a provocative essay bemoaning the state of letters, and following it up by writing a novel that fulfills his or her vision of what a novel should be. I think of Jonathan Franzen’s essay “Perchance to Dream,” but it goes back to Saul Bellow and Philip Roth at the beginning of their careers. In your case, you were eleven books in when you wrote The Great Derangement, and then you set about trying to write the novel that you felt hadn’t been written yet. That would seem to put an enormous amount of pressure on yourself. I’m curious whether, from a writing standpoint, you felt daunted by that, or did you try to forget about the arguments you made in your essays once you put on your novelist hat?

Ghosh: You’re right. At the end of The Great Derangement, I thought “what the hell have I done?” How do I respond to my own challenge? But one day, my head just filled with these ideas for a story. This does happen—you’re sitting at your desk and you see a story unfolding in front of you. Once I started writing it, it just came pouring out faster than anything else I had ever done. And yes, it was, in a way, scary because of simply having written The Great Derangement.

But, again, I must say that in writing this book, at the end of the writing, I felt that I had done everything that I’d wanted to do: to write about the reality of our time, to address the uncanny aspects of it, to address the global aspects of it, to address the multilingual aspects of it, to address movement. In that sense, I felt the book had risen to the challenge.

Rich: Having written so much about the failures of literary convention in The Great Derangement, did you feel conscious in Gun Island of breaking those conventions? Did you feel in any way that you were violating the rules of contemporary fiction?

Ghosh: Yes, I did feel that. I also felt that for many conventional readers, the book will be strange simply because so much of it is about very grounded but largely unseen realities. One of the issues the book deals with is the Mediterranean migration crisis. I spent quite a long time in Italy travelling to refugee camps, migrant camps and interviewing people, talking to them about their understanding of what was going on in the world. They had very sophisticated understandings of the world at large.

Rich: Please explain the legend that is central to the plot of Gun Island. Is it an actual legend?

Ghosh: Yes, it is very much an actual legend. This is a very ancient legend going back millennia, probably rooted in the cultures of the indigenous peoples of eastern India. The legend has two major figures: one is the goddess of snakes, who is known as Manasa Devi, and the other is a figure called the merchant, Chand Sadagar. What happens is that Manasa Devi, the goddess, wants the merchant to worship her and he won’t. He refuses because he is loyal to another god. So she pursues him with calamities and catastrophes, she pursues and persecutes him, all his children are killed by snakes, and she continues to pursue him until he escapes from Bengal, and travels overseas. But eventually he returns. What is so interesting about this legend is that it conceptualizes the central aspect of our climate reality—which is the conflict between the human pursuit of profit and the rights of other beings, animals and so on. It’s kind of uncanny to think that people intuitively understood this deep conflict thousands of years ago.

Rich: There’s a point you make in one of your essays that felt alive to me in your novel, concerning how difficult it is, in a contemporary novel, to tell stories about collective experience. In Gun Island you do capture the sense of a collective crisis, particularly in the stories of the migrant. I wondered if you struggled with how to achieve a sense of collective experience in the pages of the novel.

Ghosh: That’s a very interesting question, Nathaniel. Novels are about characters. You cannot have one hundred characters—I mean, you could, but that would make it difficult for the reader. The challenge lies in the question of how to focus on only a few characters while conjuring up behind each character a phalanx of others.

If I’m able to do that at all in this book it’s because of the other books that I’ve written. The problem arises most dramatically when you write about a war—battle scenes and so on—because again, you have to narrate a scene involving thousands of people through two or three characters. It was because I had done that stuff before that I was able to approach it, but it can be very daunting.

Rich: The Shadow Lines has an element of this.

Ghosh: I think the conventions of the novel, in general, tend to push us more and more towards issues of interiority—towards a sense of self, a certain kind of characterization—and I think it’s kind of hard to break out of those.

Rich: You write very forcefully in your essays about the failure of contemporary fiction to engage seriously with climate change. I think that’s true on a couple of fronts. You write about the difficulty of writing about severe weather events, for instance, and that subject certainly has its clichés and pitfalls. But I think there is also a separate, more damning failure: the failure of writers to question how this vast public crisis is touching our inner lives. That’s not necessarily a subject that would concern a climate activist but it does seem like something a novelist should pay attention to, since climate change, and the anxieties it causes, are already shaping our lives in profound ways.

One of the main figures in Losing Earth is the original climate activist, Rafe Pomerance. He discovers climate change in his office while reading a government report in his office at Friends of the Earth in 1979. One of his first thoughts is of his wife, who is seven months pregnant, and their unborn child. He begins to question whether it is ethical to bring a child in this world when we know what we’re up against. I was struck by this, because that’s exactly the conversation that many of us are having more and more. My first child was born right before I began work on Losing Earth and my second child was born shortly after it published. So it’s a question my wife and I asked ourselves, and it’s the first thing that would come up when I was speaking about Losing Earth on tour. It might be a younger person saying “I don’t want to have children because of this,” or an older parent, a want-to-be grandparent, who would complain that her child won’t have children because of climate change.

That’s only the most obvious of the ways this is touching our lives. If you are a thinking person, a responsible person, you cannot book a flight or drive a car or even turn on the lights without stirring up some kind of anxiety. That anxiety lies very much within the province of serious literature. But very few writers have taken on what you describe as the uncanniness of climate change. I have my own theories as to why this might be but I’m curious to know if you see it this way.

Ghosh: I think you’re touching upon something very important, because most novels are written by people who are also readers. Most contemporary readers come from the same milieu, and within that milieu, ideas of progress are very influential. This goes back to the eighteenth century—to Hegel and so on. What we are confronted with today is the death of the idea of progress which is very hard for us to cope with because it is so deeply rooted in the way that stories are told, how magazine articles are written. It’s completely fundamental to all of that.

But then again think about this other aspect of “progress.” The other day I stumbled across a verse by Tennyson. And Tennyson was one of the most influential nineteenth century poets—I mean, I had to learn Tennyson in school in India. And in this verse he says something like, “Man moves upward through the withering of the ape and the tiger.” Essentially, what he’s thinking of there is that Man advances through the extinction of beasts and brutes. But let’s not forget that at some point these brutes were like me, like people of other races.

One of the most famous lines of American poetry, “Slipped the surly bonds of earth,” essentially expresses, the same idea—that the earth is brutish, surly, ugly, contemptible, and to move upwards you have to escape it. This is exactly the ideology of Elon Musk, isn’t it?

These ideas are deeply settled in the contemporary imagination Ask yourself: how does a state of mind come about whereby people think of our Earth, our only home, as surly, ugly, worthy of contempt?

Rich: You’ve written about the idea that discussing climate change as just another issue, like healthcare or gun violence say, is a way of marginalizing the issue. For climate change is not just another political issue, but the connective tissue that joins just about every major crisis of our time—economic inequality, public health, immigration, foreign trade, racial and gender division, and so on. The idea of writing a novel in 2019 and not accounting in some way for the fact that we have entered this new world seems dishonest. This is not to say that every novel has to talk about the weather or mention climate change. But if you were writing a novel two years after Hiroshima, and you wrote a happy domestic novel about life in Japan that made no allusion to the bomb, it would read like satire or fantasy. It seems now that the only way to write honestly—and realistically—about our time is to engage, in some way, no matter how subtly, with our shapeless fear of what we’ve done, what we’re continuing to do, and what’s coming for us.

Ghosh: That’s a very good point. The really interesting thing is that it’s not that the writing isn’t there. Many people are writing about this. The problem is with the wider ecosystem of the literary universe. You might write a wonderful novel in which climate figures, but the moment climate enters into it, it becomes classified as fantasy or science-fiction, and the serious reviewer will not review it. That’s the weird moment we are in. Our cathedrals of high seriousness do not regard our present predicament as serious. They see it as somehow equivalent to the world of extraterrestrials—something like that. It’s not that writers and artists aren’t responding. It’s actually our institutions that are living in some kind of weird past, inhabiting a past of fantasy. We see this quite clearly in relation to politicians, but I think it’s equally true of literary and arts institutions.

Rich: If you’ll permit it, there’s another passage that I think speaks eloquently to this point. Another conversation between Dean and Cinta:

“It becomes impossible to avoid a simple conclusion.” “Which is . . . ?” “That the world of today presents all the symptoms of demonic possession.” I gasped. “What? You can’t be serious, Cinta! In what sense does it present the symptoms of demonic possession?” “Just look around you, caro.” There was a touch of weariness in her voice now. “Everybody knows what must be done if the world is to continue to be a liveable place, if our homes are not to be invaded by the sea, or by creatures like that spider. Everybody knows . . . and yet we are powerless, even the most powerful among us. We go about our daily business through habit, as though we were in the grip of forces that have overwhelmed our will; we see shocking and monstrous things happening all around us and we avert our eyes; we surrender ourselves willingly to whatever it is that has us in its power.”

Demonic possession—I had never thought of it in those terms before. But it does feel like that, complete with all the curses.

Ghosh: In Indian tradition, it’s often said that the end of the world will come about when humans become demons. And what is a demon: a demon is ultimately just a metaphor for greed. And today, that is what we are. I mean we are all machines of consumption, machines of greed, and we are consuming everything that sustains us. Cinta is saying this in metaphorical terms, but it is really possible to think of our predicament as a weird bewitchment.

Rich: So where is the novelist in all of this? I was invited recently to a university conference of humanists and scientists. Some of the scientists thanked me for writing about climate change, because they felt that they were unable to write freely, in plain English, about how serious the danger is. They said, we need more novelists to write about this.

On the one hand I thought that’s a nice compliment. But I also think it’s not the job of the novelist to communicate science to the public. To think of novelists as educators reflects a failure to understand how fiction works, and what it’s capable of.

Climate activism and environmental policy need better messaging, I agree. But I don’t think the novelist is the propagandist they’re looking for. I’ll put it this way: When a novelist tries to advance a talking point, the work suffers. It becomes two-dimensional, simplistic, contrived—false, in other words.

Ghosh: I completely agree. Anyone who sets out to write a novel to change people’s minds is just deluded. If all those facts haven’t changed someone’s mind, how is a novel going to change their minds? My climate scientist friends sometimes say this is a crisis of storytelling. And I say you have no idea, stories change very few minds. I prefer to see it as a duty—I’ve spent my whole life writing novels, and I’ve done so on the understanding that what I’m doing is trying to truthfully reflect the realities of the world I live in. It’s under that imperative that I feel I must write about our collective crisis, not under the imperative of trying to convert people or create propaganda, which would in any case be futile if you even started to do it.

The second thing I’d like to say is that I think when scientists say to you “Oh, I’m so glad you are telling the story,” it’s kind of double-edged. They want you to tell the story that they want to communicate.

One of the unfortunate aspects of climate change is that it has become framed as a technological-scientific issue because almost everything that we read about it comes out of universities. It’s a sort of credentialed discourse. But credentialed experts are not the only people who’ve noticed that the climate is changing. Talk to farmers and fishermen anywhere in the world. They’ll tell you the same thing. In a way the credentialed discourse is quite narrowly focused. Scientists often talk about how the crisis is part of a much broader set of impacts but, at the same time, they rarely make the connections with history, geopolitics, and so on. It’s very important for us not to feel that science and only science can speak for “nature.” And unfortunately that is what sometimes happens to novelists when they come to write about the natural world, even the very best of them.

It’s very important for us not to feel that science and only science can speak for “nature.”

Take, for example, Richard Powers’s last book. We were talking about it before. I think it’s one of the most important books written in recent times, it’s called Overstory. And I think the reason why it’s so important is that Powers goes to the heart of the literary challenge of our times. Which is: how do you give voice to the nonhuman? He takes his craft as far as it can go. You can see him working through the science, very carefully. But—I’ve watched some YouTube videos, interviews of his, where he says something like “I wish I were an animist,” as if to suggest that he would like to go beyond the science.

But he can’t. That’s the thing: for him, in the end, science and only science, speaks for the natural world. Whereas, for indigenous people who live in forests, or by fishing, there is something in the natural world which is beyond the empirical. There is an excess, there is something extra. And that exactly is the uncanny.

Rich: Before we finish, I wanted to point out to the audience some incredible books on display at the back of the room from the library’s special collection. The main one has a title that I refuse to try to pronounce in a public forum, but I’d like to ask you to describe what it is and its significance in your novel and what it is.

Ghosh: Well, I should explain that for a large part of the novel, the setting is actually Venice. The narrator of the book is a rare books dealer, and Venice has a special place in the history of publishing because Aldo Manutius of the Aldine Press lived there. Manutius invented the prototype of Garamond, my favorite type.

Manutius also invented the semi-colon, italics, the paperback. I mean, he’s just this astonishing figure. But he also printed a very strange text called the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, and it’s very interesting, because the Hypnerotomachia is really about giving voice to the nonhuman. It’s about a dreamer who dreams a dream in which all kinds of voices come alive. Somehow, it was just absolutely at the center of everything I was trying to do in this book.

And it turns out, the NYPL has an edition of the Hypnerotomachia published by the Aldine Press, 1499. It’s in astonishing condition, and it’s right here. The library also has two other texts published by the Aldine Press, one of which is actually one of the prototypical paperbacks. I mean, it’s not a paperback but a small, pocket edition, you could say.

Rich: Were you familiar with this work before conducting research for the novel?

Ghosh: I knew about it before. But, in the context of working on this book, because you know, it’s a kind of mirror of the Bengali legend, of this whole legendary structure of how humans relate to the nonhuman.

Rich: Do you now feel wedded to the subject of climate change? Do you feel like you’ve said what you need to say with these two books?

Ghosh: Oh no. This reality that’s around us is just so pressing, you can’t escape it. Actually, you know, a couple months ago, I was talking to Annie Proulx, and she, again, is deeply informed and deeply interested in climate change. And she said, once you know about this stuff you can never escape it, it’s always there in your head. You’re always thinking about it, and so, yeah—I think it’ll always be in my head, no matter what I do, what I write.

Rich: I sometimes wonder if the great climate novel could be a novel that doesn’t mention climate change at all but captures the mood and fears of this time. So much of the language we use to describe these phenomena seem scientific or technological or clichéd; the term climate change itself is such a bankrupt phrase. Don’t you feel some responsibility, as a novelist, to come up with a better term? I feel like I should have been able to think of something better than “climate change” by now but I’ve failed.

Ghosh: I don’t know. It’s such an ugly term, isn’t it? Yeah, I think we have to move away from the clichéd terminology, and try to find distinctively novelistic ways in which we can approach this. I would say that’s what I’m trying to do in Gun Island, really.

Rich: And I think you achieve it marvelously.

Amitav Ghosh is the author of the acclaimed and bestselling Ibis trilogy, which includes Sea of Poppies (short-listed for the 2008 Man Booker Prize), River of Smoke, and Flood of Fire, all published by FSG. His other novels include The Circle of Reason, which won the Prix Médicis étranger, and The Glass Palace. He was awarded the Padma Shri by the Indian government in 2007 and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2009. He lives in India.

Nathaniel Rich is the author of the novels King Zeno, Odds Against Tomorrow, and The Mayor’s Tongue. He is a writer at large for The New York Times Magazine and a regular contributor to The Atlantic and The New York Review of Books. He lives in New Orleans.