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Amitav Ghosh: 'I suspect there will be a huge wave of novels about the pandemic'
8 min read.Updated: 17 May 2020, 08:00 AM ISTStella Levantesi
In a recent interview to an Italian newspaper, the writer spoke about covid-19, climate change, and how literature can make sense of our changing world. An exclusive English translation
Capitalism, imperialism and the “politics of attrition". How have these world-systems influenced the crises we are experiencing? What do the climate crisis, the pandemic and the migration crisis have in common? And what is the role of literature in the face of these realities? Amitav Ghosh, award-winning Indian writer, answers these and other questions in the following interview.
In Ghosh’s latest novel, Gun Island, published in 2019 by Penguin Random House, the story interweaves the unstable reality in which we are living, a reality of climate disruption and forced migration. It is from a deeper understanding of these cognate realities, in light of the current coronavirus pandemic, that we retrace the path of the crises affecting the world today.
In your latest novel Gun Island the story unravels in our world of climate disruption and increasing displacement. Literature becomes the present. In the past, you have talked about the way climate change escapes the literary dimension, how it ends up being mostly relegated to science fiction, magic or apocalyptic-type stories. Even though there is a greater awareness of the reality of climate change now, why is it that climate change still has this resistance to the arts, as if it were a future dimension when really it is our present? Do you think coronavirus will follow the same rules? Is it its destiny to escape literature as global warming has done?
I think of Gun Island as being a book about our current reality. The reality of the time we live in, the moment that we inhabit. I think the real question here, is why this reality is occluded for so many of us?
In general, writers tend to frame climate change in relation to the future. I, on the other hand, think about these issues in relation to the past. For me, climate change is 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 I wrote Gun Island.
As for the pandemic, I don’t think it will elude literature in the same way that climate events have done. There are very few novels or stories about Hurricane Sandy, which devastated New York in 2012, and none at all, so far as I know, about Hurricane Harvey, which ravaged Houston in 2017. But I suspect there will be a huge wave of novels about the pandemic, just as there was after 9/11. Epidemics have historically generated a lot of writing. Italy is a good example. Two if Italy’s greatest literary works have come out of epidemics: the Decameron and Manzoni’s The Betrothed.
Science and literature were once closely intertwined: scientists and naturalists created some of the most significant literary works of the nineteenth century. Why has science become so separated from literature and is there a way to reconcile them? Do you believe this would help the current crisis to be more effectively “interiorized" by the public?
It’s possible that literature could help the public to interiorize the crisis but I don’t think any novelist should start writing a book with that intention in mind. It would be like doing propaganda, and I don’t think it would work. Anyone who sets out to write in order to ‘educate’ people or to change their minds is deluded. If the facts haven’t changed someone’s mind, how is a novel going to do it?
On the other hand, I feel that a novel should reflect the reality in which it is written. 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.
One of the unfortunate things about climate change is that it has come to be framed as a technological-scientific issue, because almost everything that we read about it comes out of think-tanks and universities. But scientists and experts are not the only people who’ve noticed that the climate is changing. If you talk to farmers and fishermen anywhere in the world, you’ll see that they too have noticed that the climate is changing. The reason why we listen to scientists rather than say, fishermen or farmers, or women who have to walk five miles to fetch water is that they can’t make their voices heard in the world. Scientists on the other hand are a part of a power structure that amplifies the voices of experts. I feel that 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.
In your book The Great Derangement you write that the climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and therefore of imagination. Is this true of the pandemic as well? Do you think that the climate crisis, the crisis of culture and the Covid-19 crisis could all be connected?
These crises – and I would include the ‘migration crisis’ with those you’ve named – are all cognate, although there is no direct causal link between them. They are all a result of the enormous acceleration that has occurred over the last thirty years. We should not forget that no less than half of all the greenhouse gases that are now in the atmosphere, were put there since 1990 (after the fall of the USSR and the near universal adoption of the ‘Washington Consensus’). This period has been called the ‘Great Acceleration’, and it’s a fitting name, I think, because all our crises are effects of this acceleration – climate breakdown, the migration crisis, and, of course, the coronavirus pandemic.
Capitalism has been identified as the main driver of the current climate crisis. In your book The Great Derangement you introduce another driver: empire and imperialism. What is it about imperialism that caused the current crisis? Could it have been a major factor in the pandemic as well?
In my view Empire, and the calculus of global power, has been and continues to be an essential determinant of our fate in relation to fossil fuels. Suffice it to say that fossil fuels – their extraction and transportation – are central to the global structure of power. It has now been established that a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is not only feasible but would be beneficial in many other ways as well. However a changeover would also rob the US, and the West more generally, of some of the critical economic and strategic advantages that have accrued to them precisely through their control of the global circulation of oil.
As for the pandemic, it too has made very clear how power works in the world. For instance, rich and powerful countries were able to acquire equipment for tests and hospitals while poor countries could not. Similarly, in the US wealthy people and celebrities have had no trouble getting tested while ordinary people have not. And, as you must know, people of African-American descent have been disproportionately affected by pandemic. In some cities the disproportion is staggering.
The “politics of attrition" you mention in The Great Derangement is based on the assumption that because populations of poor nations (and poorer communities in those nations) are accustomed to hardship, they possess the capacity to absorb shocks and stresses that instead might paralyze and debilitate rich nations. In this scenario, the poor have little to lose and the elites are wearing off the poor to maintain their status quo. Of course this is never explicit but merely implied: the current crisis is the proof of this. Do you believe culture has a transformative power in this sense? Can it change the system?
I suspect that if anything, crises like this pandemic tend to make old ideas more entrenched. The fact that this pandemic has disproportionately affected the poor, and people of color, has reinforced, in my view, the streak of Social Darwinism that is ever present in Western culture. I’ve seen any number of interviews with young white people (usually men) who say things to the effect of: ‘I’m young, healthy and don’t have any co-morbidities, so I don’t have to worry about COVID 19.’ What is left unsaid, as it were, is: ‘Only those who are unhealthy and have bad constitutions need to worry.’ This is also the attitude of the Trump supporters who have been agitating for a lifting of the lockdown. It was implicitly the position that Boris Johnson, and even Macron, initially took.
During the early days of the lockdown, something that struck me very much, in Brooklyn, where I live, was that almost always the people who were going outside without masks were young white men; presumably they thought they didn’t have to worry about the epidemic. That kind of confidence is ultimately rooted, I think, in the history of settler-colonialism in which disease was one of the weapons with which settlers decimated indigenous populations, which lacked immunities to Old World pathogens. The vulnerability of indigenous populations buttressed deeply rooted ideas of European biological superiority, and created a sense of invulnerability. It is impossible to understand the initial Western response to COVID 19 without taking this history into account. Many Western, and especially Anglophone, leaders seem to have believed that the disease was an Asian (read ‘Oriental’) thing and that their countries would not be affected by it. Even after their populations were hit by COVID they were very slow to adopt the methods that China, S. Korea and Taiwan had adopted, because they thought it beneath them to follow Asian practices.
Even today there was an article in the New York Times which quotes a French foreign policy specialist: “‘France can’t compare itself to South Korea or Taiwan, it can only compare itself to another great power,’ Mr. Roche said. ‘To compare itself to countries that are not great powers is in some ways unbearable.’" Racism has been an essential part of the unfolding of this pandemic. Ironically, the pandemic has also clearly shown the world that Western countries are no longer exemplars of good governance, or of ‘best practices’.
The Italian version of this interview was published in il manifesto newspaper.