“The world had changed too much, too fast; the systems that were in control now did not obey any human master; they followed their own imperative, inscrutable as demons.” Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh
There are very few authors who compel me in quite the same way as Amitav Ghosh. I have strongly held, yet entirely ambivalent feelings towards his books. When I look at them, I am immediately drawn back into what was so enticing about them, and sharply reminded of the pain of their many disappointments. He was a difficult author to get used to in part because it takes a while to realize that the three elements of his identity as a writer (novelist, historian, and all-out nerd) require your equal attention. He is meticulous in detail, even when he falls down on storytelling, and can be captivating in his storytelling even when he nerds out for several pages about the detailed protocol of nineteenth century dinner parties.
I started reading Ghosh when I randomly picked up In an Antique Land (1992). At the time, I did not understand Ghosh the historian and didn’t fully appreciate what he was doing in this blended ethnography and novel. Later, I read the first book in the Ibis Trilogy, Sea of Poppies (2008). I was entertained by it well enough; it seemed to me a good piece of historical fiction. I also read it at a time when I was exploring my own historical connections to indentured Indian labour and so a book all about the destruction of peasant land in Indian and the push towards the indenture system were more than compelling enough reasons to read. It was only much later that I finally bought and read the second book in the series, River of Smoke (2011). This time, the book floored me staying in my head for weeks and earning a coveted spot on my ‘to re-read’ list.
Taking place in the 1820s and 30s, the Ibis trilogy tells the story of opium production in India and its (il)legal trade in China (through Canton) and the steps that led traders from England to foment a war to keep routes and profits open. What most struck me about River of Smoke was the detail and care with which every character’s story, whether they knew it or not, was connected in a wave of rising tensions that would eventually lead to the Opium Wars. It is a book about the nightmares of capitalism and empire that could spend pages on the minute triumphs and hubris of English botonists, or detailing the intricate practices of painting and printing in nineteenth century Canton (Guangzhou), and have it all mean something in this story of how our world was made. Despite my graduate degree in International Relations, I had never understood the Opium Trade and its significance to the making of our contemporary global order the way I did on finishing River of Smoke.
I did eventually also read Flood of Fire (2015), the final Ibis book, but my disappointment in some of the narrative and character choices by the end meant it didn’t land quite the same way. Regardless, I firmly believe there is something unique and important about Ghosh’s work. He is a gifted writer of both fiction and non-fiction because he seems to genuinely care what his stories do, what larger conversations they are embedded within, and how they can propel us to ask questions otherwise.
Ghosh’s approach to historical fiction participates in one of the most important possibilities within the genre: revealing and reporting from places made marginal. Doing this well requires asking who should tell this story, not only in order to find the most engaging vantage point, but to be engaged in the political work of selecting vantage points that matter. None of the point of view characters in the Ibis trilogy are the English men whose actions are central to the political tensions; instead you get a view into Indian Ocean trade through the eyes of Indian farmers in Bengal, a Parsi trader from Bombay (Mumbai), a mixed-race man from America trying to pass as white, a Chinese orphan, an Indian official who has been exiled, Indian soldiers sent to garrison on Hong Kong island, and a French orphan and her queer childhood friend. It’s a book that insists their histories matter to understanding how land, dispossession, ‘free trade’, racism, and war created the modern dynamics of Chinese, Indian, and Western history.
One of the things I think Ghosh gets most right about vantage points is that instead of inserting token marginalized characters into the familiar stories of history, he creates an entire world from which to examine history that makes situations understandable through the perspectives of those marginalized voices. There is no presumption that history is the story we’ve been told all along and we just need to uncover the erased voices within it. The presumption is that we might not have any idea what history is at all. In a world that celebrates 21st century globalization decontextualized from the historical upheavals of remaking the world in the 19th century, Ghosh insists on asking how this world looked to those being scripted to the periphery and poses the question of what that means for what this world looks like from those places today.
In his most recent turn, Ghosh is continuing to pose new questions about what writing can do in the world. Now he is asking how contemporary novelists tell stories about climate change. How do stories about the present not fail to grapple with the immediate reality and unpredictable upending that is currently around us? In his nonfiction book The Great Derangement (2016), Ghosh called out contemporary novelists for leaving climate change to the realm of speculative and science fiction and argues that future generations looking at the art of the 2010s will be shocked and disappointed at our failure to see and represent that which is all around us. He goes further to admonish the presumptuousness of modern storytelling that privileges both the individual transformation and the everyday, mundane, or explicable as the source of narrative. He argues that there is not enough room in this kind of storytelling to address the monumental forces of nature set loose by human activity and their appearance in our lives in catastrophic and unpredictable ways. That room, which existed when stories were about the whims of gods or the unknowable forces that intervened in our lives, has all but disappeared leaving novelists particularly ill-equipped to tell us anything meaningful about how millions of people are experiencing the present.
Climate change is forcing us to look the implausible in the face and do something. If fiction that is a little more implausible, a little more irrational, can help us imagine our way forward then I think Ghosh has served us well.
Gun Island (2019) is his attempt to address his own critique and push the limits of where fiction can go. It is a story that is grounded in the present and deeply aware of the past both in terms of empire and globalization and in the role of legends and non-human agency in shaping and making sense of the world. In the end, it is a book about the unleashing of forces beyond human control into our lives, through climate change and through the massive displacements and upheavals wrought by imperial ambitions for domination and capitalist dreams of industrial progress. It’s not an indictment exactly, though there is plenty of blame on display, nor is it a call to action in the usual sense. Instead it is a call to find ways to contend with our world that are open to the possibilities of agency beyond our understanding. It’s also a call to find ways to contend with each other, human and non-human life, in ways that don’t cut ourselves off.
Gun Island is an optimistic story which is unusual for a book grappling with climate change. While those of us connected to ongoing struggles and witness to the many ways efforts at liberation are being thwarted might scoff a little at this optimism, I would return again to Ghosh’s deep commitment to thinking through the purpose his writing serves. In a field of narratives about climate change that turn to dystopian traditions, his insistence on writing from the vantage point of change and optimism is welcome. He is not alone here; the work of various futurists is also providing important alternatives to what I see as a more politically sterile dystopian genre. But Ghosh is not a futurist, he remains a historian and a nerd writing about the present.
In The Great Derangement, Ghosh laments that the modern turn towards the everyday in fiction has left authors struggling to make their stories seem plausible in a world obsessed with rationality. The criticism leveled all too often against storytelling, that this doesn’t seem ‘realistic’, he says actually serves to limit the kinds of agency and possibility novelists could be exploring. In the contemporary moment, focusing on what is plausible based on our limited understanding of what is ‘normal’ no longer suffices. Climate change is forcing us to look the implausible in the face and do something. If fiction that is a little more implausible, a little more irrational, can help us imagine our way forward then I think Ghosh has served us well.