The award-winning author speaks with Emily Mkrtichian about why he loves to write fiction and talk politics, and how nationalism fuels climate change.
Image from Flickr via FrederickNoronha
In October, international novelist and essayist Amitav Ghosh, whose works include The Hungry Tide, Sea of Poppies, and Incendiary Circumstances, delivered the keynote address at a conference in Yerevan, Armenia. The event was put on by the Blind Dates project, a cross-cultural and interdisciplinary curatorial project examining the modern formations and remains of what was once the Ottoman Empire. Surprisingly, Ghosh’s current work fits nicely into this topic; the author is translating the memoirs of two Indian soldiers who were prisoners in Ottoman lands during WWI. As Ghosh explains, he was drawn to these texts both because of their obscurity as well as their lucid predictions of our current environmental and political moment. For Ghosh, these texts open up the question of nationalism in a way that is even more important 100 years later. In our interview, he traces this legacy of nationalism from the prison camps of WWI, to the partitioning of the Indian subcontinent, to the current violence in Syria, and finally to what he sees as the largest threat to ever face the human race: climate change.
—Emily Mkrtichian for Guernica
Guernica: During your Keynote address for the “Strategies of Un-Silencing” conference here in Yerevan, you shared that you have been translating the personal narratives of two Indian soldiers from the First World War. Why have you referred to them as some of the “most remarkable” texts of the 20th century?
Amitav Ghosh: In the first place what makes them so unique is that they were written by Indian military—actually paramilitary—personnel. Written accounts by Indian military or paramilitary personnel are very rare; in the whole First World War, we really have just three or four accounts of it from the Indian point of view. And these two texts are actually very, very little known; I came to them through the work of a literary critic and I became fascinated by them. Most of all because it was very interesting to see the Middle East refracted through the eyes of these guys from my own city, Calcutta, to see what their responses were and how they went through these terrible situations.
Secondly, I think the narratives themselves are incredibly interesting. These guys found themselves in this terrible battle where the British Army was defeated, they went into captivity, and they were both imprisoned in Ras Al-Ain, in northern Syria. Which was, of course, one of the centers of the Armenian Massacres. They came into very close contact with Armenians, they had all these interactions with Armenians. They were prisoners themselves, but as much as they could they tried to help the Armenians. It is a very remarkable story I think.
Guernica: As you mentioned during your talk, the Great War was a period when nationalism was on the rise and beginning to create sharp divisions between groups of people all around the world; but Sisir, the writer of one of the memoirs you have translated, does not seem to divide his world in terms of nationality—is this also part of what drew you to the narrative?
What is very interesting about his position is that he is anti-imperialist and anti-nationalist; and one might say then what is the alternative that he is offering?
Amitav Ghosh: I wouldn’t say that its what drew me to the narrative in the first place, but it was certainly something that became very interesting to me. That general openness, the willingness to embrace and look out on the world irrespective of various kinds of divisions was very compelling. But, even more than Sisir, you know, the other guy, who was named Kalyan, he wrote these impassioned denunciations of patriotism. Absolutely impassioned.
Guernica: Yes. Instead of merely pushing aside questions of nationalism, he attacks them. He says, “I spit in the face of patriotism. As long as this narrow-mindedness is not wiped off the face of this earth, there will be no end to bloodshed in the name of patriotism.” You have posted about this piece on your blog, but maybe you can speak to it a little more: Why do you find Mukherji’s words so insightful?
Amitav Ghosh: Well, because this guy Kaylen [Mukherji] was writing this in 1916, it is almost like he was able to see what was going to happen in the Indian subcontinent, which has really been torn apart by nationalisms of various sorts; it is a legacy we live with until this day. One hundred years ago, he was able to perceive the bitter legacy that this would leave.
What is very interesting about his position is that he is anti-imperialist and anti-nationalist; and one might say then what is the alternative that he is offering? And of course, he is not offering an alternative. But the fact that he can see the problems of both—and not as an intellectual, he is a military man—I mean to me it’s kind of staggering.
Guernica: Do you think that comes from his background? Do you think that it is because he is Indian?
Amitav Ghosh: I think it does in a strange way. Because I must say, as I said, accounts from Indian military personnel are very few. But, in general, wherever I have been, and I am also talking about my life as a reporter, you always meet Indians in all sorts of places. And I do remember that all the Indian military people that I spoke to were acute observers. India is a very highly politicized place, so people’s senses are attuned to politics. And I used to think that’s a new thing, but really you can see that these guys are very sharply attuned to the politics of what is happening around them.
What we have in the Middle East, as well as in India, is the attempt to create unitary nation-states with unitary identities in places that are essentially extremely plural. It is like they are trying to take a mosaic and reduce it to one color, one shape or form.
Guernica: You have written that in India, politics are a part of normal conversation; it’s not considered even talking about politics, it’s just speaking.
Amitav Ghosh: That’s right. When I call my mother on the phone—my mother is now 81—you would think that we would sit around asking “Oh, how are you? How is this?” Not a bit of it! The first thing she tells me, ‘Do you know what that demonstration was about yesterday?” I mean, it is just part of the fabric of our lives.
Guernica: That is a nice counter-balance to the US, which has a lot of apathy.
Amitav Ghosh: Yes, it’s true. Not just apathy, but a deliberate depoliticization.
Guernica: The two texts you have translated both have accounts of a prison camp in Ras Al-Ain, a city on what is now the border of Turkey and Syria, but what was at the time a part of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Today, as we know, there are new camps on the border of Turkey and Syria: refugee camps filled with thousands trying to escape the civil war in Syria. Do nationalism and the nation-state play a role in the violence of the kind we are seeing in Syria today?
Amitav Ghosh: Absolutely. You know, what we have in the Middle East, as well as in India, is the attempt to create these unitary nation states with unitary identities in places that are essentially extremely plural. It is like they are trying to take a mosaic and reduce it to one color, one shape or form. And it creates incredible violence. That’s the domestic violence that we saw in Turkey in the early 19th century, and it is something that continues in Turkey and in Syria and in India. There are marked similarities between all of these areas. What we see in Syria is very much the continuity between today and the past. It is an unfolding history.
Guernica: In a recent speech for the European Cultural Foundation, you addressed migration and climate change as factors contributing to the “crisis” and “catastrophe” our earth is now facing. You also said, “Nationalism is indeed one of the most pernicious threads in this helix of disaster.” How does nationalism contribute to our current situation? Is this the same patriotism that Captain Mukheriji spit in the face of?
Amitav Ghosh: Yes, I think it is in many ways a perfect example of that. If you take two examples, the US and Australia, both have made perfectly clear that they will make no move on climate change. At all costs they want to preserve their own standard of living if it be at the expense of destroying the whole world. It is nationalism carried to its greatest and most absurd extreme. Essentially what we are seeing is an absolute refusal to address any of the issues, to reach any kind of compromise geared toward the world community and absolute insistence on maintaining their own standards of living which are unbelievably wasteful and which have really essentially created the problem in the first place.
Guernica: Right. We know that if everybody in in the world were to live by the same environmental standards as people in the United States or Australia, it would be completely unsustainable. You mentioned in your speech that collective ideals and sacrifice for the greater good are values that have really disappeared from the US or Australia in that sense.
Amitav Ghosh: The US and Australia are good examples—what happened was that European populations arrived in continents that were relatively underpopulated and had enormous resources. Basically, they created these extremely wealthy, but also extremely spend-thrift civilizations that are just big predators; just sucking everything up. There has been incredible resource extraction, to a point where now their own ecosystems are collapsing. Most of all in the US, where the aquifers have been drained and they are no longer able to sustain agriculture. It all grew out of this idea that everyone should pursue their own profit at all costs and no value is attached to the common good. The common good is a principle that literally doesn’t exist in the US discourse anymore.
Ideas that developed in the new world have for the last 40 or 50 years been promoted as the model of a kind of ideal global civilization where every country and people everywhere are supposed to just squeeze out everything they can from wherever they are at the cost of everyone else.
Guernica: Is this model being followed in India? Or China?
Amitav Ghosh: For India and China to follow that model, already we see that it is actually not possible. Or rather, it is because it is possible that we begin to see that it cannot work. Essentially, various nations are playing a game of chicken in which the stakes are our own lives, the lives of our children. They are basically saying, “If you don’t stop, I won’t stop.”
Guernica: Do you think that if nationalism continues to break down, if people become less attached to their countries, or if in fact some sort of supranational authority comes to exist, that this model, and this mindset, can be changed?
Amitav Ghosh: I think that the EU, and I have said this for a long time, really shows us a different model, a different possibility in which you do consider the common good and ways that people can move toward some negotiated settlement. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Europeans have been willing to recognize that their own contribution to global warming is far out of proportion to their population. And they have been willing to try and cut back. During the Kyoto Protocol, they were in the forefront of trying to agree to compromise. Their leadership has repeatedly said that we recognize that we have a global responsibility, that we have used up much more than our fair share of the world’ s oxygen and we have emitted far more than our fair share of carbon dioxide. They have been reasonable and rationale about this.
Now, the EU is our only credible model of something that is better than nationalism. But unfortunately the US, and basically the English-speaking settler colonies, have never absorbed this lesson and they never will. Their lesson is one of supremacy—they just want absolute supremacy at all costs. It is perfectly clear that this is what they want, and they would rather the world perish than they give up any element of this supremacy.
The US and Australia are good examples—what happened was that European populations arrived on continents that were relatively underpopulated and had enormous resources. Basically, they created these extremely wealthy, but also extremely spend-thrift civilizations.
Guernica: Do you think that we can come to a point where nations that have been in a position of supremacy could have some sort of a realization? What would it take?
Amitav Ghosh: At this point I have to say that I feel very despondent, as I think everybody does. I have friends who are scientists and climate scientists and, even though they won’t say so in public, they all recognize that the game is over. By 2030, they are going to see a catastrophic impact. Look at New York City last year, this year. Two freakish storms. Clearly there are global warming impacts on these two storms. But even the newspapers don’t mention it. It is just completely suppressed. So what can you say? The whole idea of free speech, free press, free expression, is that the truth is spoken. But what we see now is that the U.S. and Great Britain, these countries with so much clout, free speech and free press, have created a system of press and politics whereby what stares you in the face cannot be said. I would say it is even worse in a way than the sorts of things that we saw happening under forms of totalitarianism.
Guernica: Last year, you wrote a post on your blog (“Festivals and Freedom”) with some thoughts and observations regarding freedom of speech and the writer’s position as a public figure in the 21st century. Do you find something freeing about being able to mingle with your readers and the world, or do you feel like you are losing the private, inner world of a writer?
Climate scientists, even though they won’t say so in public, recognize that the game is over.
Amitav Ghosh: Two things have happened of late in the world of writing: One is that increasingly the world of literature/writing is becoming absorbed into this culture of diversion and entertainment, and I think some of these festivals are a part of that. Essentially, it is a part of the whole process of global distraction, which presents itself as a sort of contribution to writing, but it is nothing of the kind; it is just a field of distraction. I feel that it is important for writers like myself to have an interface with the public and I think the Internet does allow this. So why should I bother with festivals? I can address people directly through my blog. And my blog gets around half a million hits a month. I can address people directly without that sort of mediation which corporate media requires. The big media always wants you to tell their story and [my blog] is the clever way for me to talk about things that I want to talk about.
Guernica: You mention the dangers of an author becoming a spectacle or a performer from new sources of pressure—not from a tyrannical or suppressive government but from private interest groups, social groups, political groups who are disseminated through the internet. Do you still feel this pressure because you are actively using the internet and your blog?
Amitav Ghosh: The pressure doesn’t just come from the inside. What I would say today is that the primary threat to free speech and expression, the ways in which it has changed since the 20th century, is that the primary threat to freedom of expression comes from non-state actors. All the instruments that we have for defending free expression are essentially related to the state. We have various writers groups like PEN and so on, and they honed their skills and tactics to deal with repressive states. But they don’t have any tactics for dealing with extremist groups, and that is a much more real threat to writers today than it used to be. And in many ways, these extremists have actually won. There are many sorts of things that nobody will say anymore—or they have to find other ways of saying it. I feel that the way that people are addressing the question of freedom of speech and freedom of expression today continues to be rooted in the 20th century, that hasn’t made the transition to the 21st century.
What can you say? In a way our mammalian instincts have left us unprepared to deal with something so new.
I can tell you as a practicing writer that we feel much more alone today than we did ever before. Suppose someone writes something that is offensive to X group, and the X group says “we are going to do this and that to you.” What can we do? There is nothing to protect the writer. In fact, we live in a circumstance where the writer appeals to the state: “Protect me!” And, more often than not, it is the state that is providing that protection. We see this even in India, let alone in the West. So in a sense, the tools we have developed are tools that are geared toward something else. I don’t what the answer is, but it seems to me that if PEN were to pick up the problem, they should develop a fund where writers offer protection to other writers.
Guernica: Do you feel that writing fiction gets around this problem? Is it easier to get away with writing fiction than nonfiction or essays?
Amitav Ghosh: Yes, I certainly think that. The questions of free speech and free expression, although they are most often poised in relation to writers and literary writers, have the greatest pertinence in relation to journalism. When we need free speech and free expression is most of all when the journalists do their job—when they tell us what is actually happening. There was someone at this conference that quoted a famous Armenian writer who said something like, ‘his effort was to create works which were as perfect as eggs, so that they would be immune to the censor.’ As writers, we have others skills and ways of being able to say things. This is how writers always function, even in oppressive states, even before freedom of speech and freedom of expression. It was that constriction which created literature, really.
In societies like the ones we would like to live in, it is the journalists whose rights must be most urgently protected because they have to tell us what is going on. And of course that is one of the reasons we have to be very wary and suspicious of what the state does. But, what is perfectly clear now, is that we have to be much more wary and suspicious of corporations, because in fact so much of the suppression of freedom of speech comes from corporations rather than the state. Just consider the U.S. or Britain: they guarantee freedom of speech in their constitutions, but corporations routinely make their employees sign confidentiality agreements. How is that even possible?
Guernica: You have slowed down your publishing in magazines and newspapers. Has that been a conscious decision?
Amitav Ghosh: Absolutely. And it is not just slowing down; I have stopped altogether. What is in it for me to publish in a magazine? It is not like they offer you pots of money or anything, so no reasonable person will do it for any pecuniary reason. Essentially, the magazines want to impose their voice upon yours.
Guernica: What kind of writing gives you the most joy?
Amitav Ghosh: Fiction. Absolutely. It is really what I live for.
Guernica: Your novel, The Hungry Tide, which touches on issues of climate change, conservation, and the loss of natural eco-systems, takes place in the Sundarbans, a network of small islands in the Bay of Bengal that span across the border of Bangladesh and India. As Supriya Choudhury puts it in her review of your book, the residents of the Sundarbans “easily traverse the imaginary boundaries of the modern nation-state.” Is there something about these supranational individuals that can help us to see our relationship with our environment or issues such as climate change from a different angle?
Amitav Ghosh: I think there is. The ways in which people live in a very difficult and demanding environment is always instructive. But, at this point, I must say that it is perfectly clear that the world at large has really turned away from the most catastrophic problems that confront it. It is like we are lemmings racing toward the cliff. And it has to be said that all the institutions that we have have catastrophically failed us. And when you look back on history and realize that this is what history has been building towards, the catastrophic convergence which is going to destroy civilization as we know it, what can you say but history itself is really the product of utter folly.
Guernica: Do you think that people have turned away in apathy or do you think that they have turned away in fear?
Amitav Ghosh: It is all of those things. Most of all, at some level it is just what it means to be a human being, with all of our instincts of the past. When human beings respond very dramatically, it is basically in relation to situations of conflict, human conflict. To this day, America is gearing up for conflict; spending billions and trillions of dollars on the pentagon, on arms and armaments, on imaginary things that are not going to happen. Where as the real conflict, which is actually going to kill millions and millions of Americans as well as people around the world, goes unaddressed, unnoticed, unseen. So what can you say? In a way our mammalian instincts have left us unprepared to deal with something so new.
It is unbelievably heartbreaking for me as a parent. When I look at climate scientists, the first thing that strikes me is the metaphor of Cassandra, but actually a much better metaphor is that of Laocoön, who was also in the Iliad. He is a prophet who tells the Trojans, don’t take this horse into Troy because it is Greeks bearing gifts. Neptune knows that he is telling the truth and so he sends serpents to eat Laocoön. It is a very powerful image and there are some magnificent sculptures of it. That is what they are, these scientists who are telling us that doom and catastrophe is coming towards us, but they are in the circumstance where they just have to go about their daily business. They have to pick up their children from school like all the rest of us.
Guernica: What do you tell your children about this? Do you ask them to do anything to combat this?
Amitav Ghosh: Yes, we talk about it all the time. Since they were little, they have heard me raving and ranting. I think at this point they don’t pay that much attention to me. But, the thing is that it is a mistake to think that these things can be addressed at an individual level. And that is the catastrophic mistake that we have made in thinking about it. These things have to be addressed collectively. For me to reduce my own carbon footprint, while the oil industry is encouraging everyone to expand their footprint, it is incensed. It is like trying to cut down a tree by eating its leaves; it will never happen that way.
Emily Mkrtichian is a writer and filmmaker living in Yerevan, Armenia. She received her MA from Fordham University where she studied English Literature. Her first film, 140 Drams, is currently in the international film festival circuit. She keeps a Tumblr on street style in her small post-Soviet home.
Amitav Ghosh was born in Calcutta and grew up in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. He is the author of The Circle of Reason, The Shadow Lines, In An Antique Land, Dancing in Cambodia, The Calcutta Chromosome, The Glass Palace, and The Hungry Tide, among others. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages and his essays have been published in The New Yorker, The New Republic and The New York Times. Along with Margaret Atwood, he was also a joint winner of a Dan David Award for 2010. In 2011 he was awarded the International Grand Prix of the Blue Metropolis Festival in Montreal. His next novel, River of Smoke, is forthcoming from John Murray (UK) in June 2011.