Shanghai Encounter: Talking about the Unthinkable
A discussion with Amitav Ghosh, the author of The Great Derangement (2016)
By Jing Wang, PhD candidate, Anthropology Department at Rice University
Amitav Ghosh is a global writer who weaves historical imagination into his unique literary narratives. He was born in Calcutta and grew up in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. He studied in Delhi, Oxford and Alexandria and is the author of The Circle of Reason, The Shadow Lines, In An Antique Land, Dancing in Cambodia, The Calcutta Chromosome, The Glass Palace, The Hungry Tide, and the first two volumes of The Ibis Trilogy; Sea of Poppies, and River of Smoke. In his most recent book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016), Amitav explores new ways of thinking about the unthinkable – the climate change and the Anthropocene – through literary narratives.
Amitav came to Shanghai this time upon the invitation from Xitian Zhongtu (westheavens.net), an organization dedicated to the promotion of mutual understanding between India and China. One of his activities in Shanghai was to attend a round-table discussion on the topic of history and writings. I first met Amitav Ghosh before the roundtable in a local restaurant in Shanghai. He was in a black shirt with a pair of black glasses. Behind those glasses, there were smiling eyes full of curiosity and gentleness. Such curiosity toward people and places were further confirmed during the afternoon session. Surrounded by a group of enthusiastic Chinese discussants, Amitav listened carefully, took handwritten notes in his notebook, and engaged with every participant’s questions thoughtfully. Among other questions we discussed, Amitav elaborated on the topic of the climate change, Anthropocene and the possibility of searching for a “new paradigm of narrative.”
AG: Amitav Ghosh
JW: Jing Wang
AG: The earlier narratives are never about single places. You think of Iliad, Odyssey. They are all about traveling from one place to another. In fact, what is interesting about the epic tradition is that the epic became a way of thinking about places. Similarly, if you read Journey to the West, it begins by telling you how the continents were formed and the whole geological distance. When a novel becomes like this, it is completely a different way of thinking about the relationship between language, place and narrative. Especially 19th century novel, it is so often located in a particularly place. It is a very powerful tradition that lingers into the 20th century. So much American fiction is actually about a single place. This kind of locatedness never corresponds to the reality of my life. As a child, I always had been moving from one place to another. So I wanted, from the very beginning of my career, to represent basically my experience. When my first books came out in the 1980s or so on, the critics especially in the West were very puzzled by them. They said, “You know, he’s not writing just about India. He’s not just writing about one place. He’s writing one place to another.” It is exactly what I was doing, writing about workers in India going to the Middle East and so on. And of course now, everyone is doing that. The world has changed. We live in a world where no body stays only in one place (laugh).
So the question really is: how do we represent this? That’s especially what I’ve been trying to find a form for. It becomes particularly interesting for me in relation to the climate change and the Anthropocene. Because I think one of the reasons why the Anthropocene, by Anthropocene I mean the new geological epoch that causes the climate change…The Anthropocene is all about connections. You know, what happens in a small town in the United States is caused by the gas emissions in India. These connections are so completely global. I think one of the main reasons why the climate change so much resists today’s narrative imagination is because this narrative imagination has been so localized.
JW: So how did you put this kind of narrative imagination into your new book The Great Derangement? Do you tell the story from a single character’s point of view or is there any other ways of revealing such global connections?
AG: That is a series of very good questions. Let me say, first of all, that The Great Derangement is not a work of fiction. So it’s actually all about this: literary fiction has not been able to confront climate change. Literary fiction can deal with politics, identity issues, etc. But the climate change, obviously, the most important issue of our generation, is not present at all in the literary fiction. One of the reasons why climate change resists literary fiction is because literary fiction is so often centered on individual characters. How do we find ways around that? This is one thing so interesting when I read pre-modern Chinese novels, actually pre-modern literary narrative. They are never so much focused on individual characters. You know, a pre-modern writer usually finds it much easier actually to recreate or represent collective experience. So the question is how you find your way back to that. And obviously the way back to that is to rethink all of our procedures. That is why it is very important to rethink about, for example, Daoism and Buddhism. Especially Buddhism, you know, is very anti-human. It is against fetishism. It is always about the continuities between the human and the non-human. So it is a fundamental question for me to rethink how to represent the non-human. Because if you see those pre-modern narratives, like the Monkey King, they always have the presence of the non-human. That presence is not just a gesture; it is a motive force, a speaking entity, a persona who’s actually propelling the narratives. There are some very interesting works in anthropology – I think the most interesting area in anthropology – in relation to new materialism, new ontologies. One very good book is How the Forest Thinks by Eduardo Kohn. I think these areas are opening up such interesting ways of thinking about the non-human.
Actually there are so many ways that human beings are related to the non-human, which modernity has taught us to suppress. But it still exists in our repressed consciousness. For example, the Cartesian idea that animals are automatons without emotions, etc. I think it is very unlikely that anyone in the room actually believe in that. But if you infuse animals with emotions, you might be accused of anthropomorphism. It is a very peculiar situation.
JW: During the 1960s in the US, Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring greatly influenced the environment movements then. Dr. Carson was a marine biologist. Her writing weaves her scientific knowledge into the style of her writing in a very beautiful way. How do you think of this kind of writing when she writes about nature?
AG: Well, let’s see what nature means. What is Chinese characters for nature? (ziran自然, a word translated from Japanese) In Indian language, whenever we talk about nature, it is a European translation. It’s like squeezing it into a box so far, into a concept. If you look at nature in the Cartesian description, it is exactly what human is not. It’s the opposite of the eye. It’s opposite of the thinking mind. Such is defined as nature. You know, the problem that arises today in relation to nature is that if you are thinking nature is something outside yourself, then how do you think of the climate change? How do you think of the Anthropocene? It is, in every sense, animated by the human. At the moment when you begin to think about that, you begin to realize that this idea of nature breaks down, even in relation to your own body. A large part of human body is microbes and parasites. We also often say that we have a second brain which is the stomach. So how do you distinguish from what is nature and what is not nature? The issue that we are confronting the climate change is that we can no longer think in the previous paradigm of “nature writing” or “environment writing” as Rachel Carson did. What we have to find now is a new paradigm through which we can resolve this fundamental barrier. If we look for models which can resolve this fundamental barrier, we are forced back to pre-Enlightenment ideas. Those are the only ones that we can now grasp.
JW: But for the climate change talks and symposiums attended by politicians and leaders from different organizations, the topics of climate change and Anthropocene have been in the spotlight for some time. However, many people are disappointed because nothing quite substantial has come out from such conferences or symposiums. Rather, in many occasions, such symposiums become a moral trial where one country or organization accuses another of not taking the responsibility. So how would you try to change this moral dilemma in which people or countries accuse each other rather than take real actions?
AG: Yes, there are big political discussions, international conferences, etc. And they are often in the papers now. So that makes it even more puzzling. Why is this topic, which is so widely discussed in politics, has such a small presence in the arts? Say, why does it have such a small presence in the anthropology and economics? Throughout the world now we recognize the seriousness and importance of this issue. Yet it is absent within the narrative field of all kinds. Secondly, this question of morality. I think that has been, in some profound way, really the problem. Recently, I read a very interesting and important book called Rituals and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity, written by a scholar of China and a scholar of Judaism. It is really about ways in which the moralization of politics becomes an impossible way to think about politics at all. It is the craft through which we are unable to think about issues like this other than these individual terms if you like.
Carson, R. (1962). Silent Spring. Greenwich, Connecticut.
Ghosh, A. (2016). The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. University of Chicago Press.
Kohn, E. (2013). How forests think: Toward an anthropology beyond the human. Univ of California Press.
Seligman, A. B., Weller, R. P., & Michael, J. (2008). Ritual and its consequences: An essay on the limits of sincerity. Oxford University Press.
Wu, C. E., Sun, C., & Chiang, S. (2010). Journey to the West. Abigail Santiago.
Amitav Ghosh biography http://www.amitavghosh.com/bio.html
Special thanks to Chen Yun and the Xitian Zhongtu (West Heavens) team westheavens.net.