NOVEL INTERVIEW | Ghosh -- "History is at the Heart of the Novel."

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Amitav Ghosh was at Duke University for the 2012 Novel Worlds Conference as a keynote speaker. The morning after his lecture, Azeen Khan, a graduate student of English here at Duke, had a chance to chat with him about everything from the opium war and the history of free trade to the relationship between the novel, history, and anthropology.

It's a fun and illuminating read. Enjoy!

This conversation took place on April 28, 2012 at the Washington Duke Inn. Amitav Ghosh was invited to speak at the “Novel Worlds” Conference hosted by the journal Novel: A Forum on Fiction at Duke University.                                                            

AK: I wanted to begin by asking you a bit about your training as an anthropologist and how you see the relation between literature and anthropology, specifically the form of the novel and that of ethnography. Do you find similarities between the two?

Ghosh: There are obvious similarities in the sense that, like many novels, ethnography is about a place. But I   don’t really know what anthropologists do today. I am told that it’s different from when I did anthropology, about thirty years ago. Back then the ethnographies that we read weren’t about people so much, even when they were rich descriptions of a place. I knew what I wanted to do was something different. I am not interested in abstractions. It’s not how I think. I have always been interested in details, in people, in circumstances.

AK: So, in a sense, what you’re saying is that anthropology has – or claims to have – a specific relation to epistemology. Does the novel form allow you to get at knowledge in a way that anthropology doesn’t. Can you reflect on that in relation to your own writing?

Ghosh: That’s a complicated one. I recently read a book that made a great impression on me: The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who is from Lebanon.[1] He’s a Mathematician and a businessman and has made fabulous sums of money on Wall Street, especially from the crash. Taleb lays out a kind of mathematics that destabilizes the notion of the probable. It shows you that the idea of probability really applies in only limited circumstances; the most significant events and circumstances are often highly improbable. This resonated with me because as a writer, when you decide to write about a character’s life, you don’t talk about how people get up and brush their teeth in the morning - not unless it has some bearing on your story. You write about moments of significance. All writing becomes about these concentrated moments in time. This is, in a sense, the inverse of what the ethnographer does.

AK:  The Glass Place, The Sea of Poppies, The River of Smoke belong to the genre of the historical novel, but you have also insisted – at least in terms of The Glass Palace – that it could be read as a family memoir, such that there is an elision between biography, autobiography, and history. How do you conceive of the historical novel’s appearance in postcolonial writing and what kind of difference do you think it marks from its European antecedents?

Ghosh: There is a sense in which all novels are historical novels because every novel is an account of something that has already happened, unless it is science fiction. So history is absolutely at the heart of the novel. War and Peace is a historical novel and since the events of Moby Dick took place some seventy to eighty years before, that too fits into the genre. In that sense, many of the novelists I admire wrote historical novels. I have always been very fascinated by history - even when I was a kid. The Bengali writer who I liked most as a child was Sharadindu BandopadhyayaHe was a wonderful historical novelist. He lived in Poona and wrote these stories about a boy called Sadashiv. He was a soldier in Shivaji’s army and had many adventures. They were very interesting stories and I really enjoyed reading them.

I also loved reading Sir Walter Scott when I was in my early teens. In school, I'd spend hours immersed in Sir Walter Scott. When I went back to my school many years later, I found that no one had checked those books out of the library since that time.

AK: How do you think your novels – but also those of other postcolonial writers such as Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Salman Rushdie, etc. – respond to the tradition of the historical novel?

Ghosh: I think the great thing about the novel, and not just the historical novel, is that it is an extremely generous form. It allows you luxuries and liberties like no other form. In writing my last book, River of Smoke, the novel that inspired me most was Zayni Barakat by Gamal Al-Ghitani. It’s about eighteenth century Cairo, and what is interesting about it is the use of edicts and proclamations, the official voice of history as it were. I found Gamal Al-Ghitani's use of this very compelling and when I was working on River of Smoke it was one of the things that was playing in my head.

As a writer, I am a kind of magpie. I have had the singular good fortune to be exposed to many different traditions. I've also been interested in many different traditions. It is because of this that it is very hard for me to say which tradition I am addressing. I just don’t think like that. I don’t think when you’re sitting down to write a book that you can really think about ‘traditions’. You really cannot - because the challenge that faces you when you’re sitting at your desk with a blank sheet of paper is how to give it life, in the present. At that moment, when you’re sitting there you’re not thinking about books or anything. Writing itself is so difficult and such a challenge that you just can’t think about all these things.

AK: You’ve spoken a bit about your own reading of historical novels. I’d be very curious to know if there has been a particular philosopher of history, or a particular tradition of conceiving history, which shaped your thinking in a substantial way?

Ghosh: I am trying to think. No, I can’t say that there is a philosopher of history as such. But I think one of the principal differences that I see between myself and a lot of Anglo-American historical writers is that I don’t believe that history is moving towards something – some sort of good point. I don’t believe it has a teleology or that it has a redemptive message.

I think, again, that one of the great things about the novel is that it allows us to address different kinds of things. It allows us to address the environment, the natural world, and people’s position within the natural world. And I do think that this is something that a historian can’t do. Or rather it's much more difficult for them because of the nature of what they do. They have to have an evidentiary trail. They have to have a whole apparatus of references and so there has to be some kind of boundary to what they’re writing about. This is the strength of what they do but it is also a constraint. The strength of what I do is that I can integrate many different aspects of the world into a narrative - but the weakness of it is that I can’t support what I say with references. There is no evidentiary trail. I can't make truth claims whereas a historian can. But they are complementary exercises and both are necessary.

AK: This raises the larger question about what kind of a claim literature makes to knowledge, to truth. What do you think? The thing about literature that is so wonderful is that there is an incalculability that one cannot account for in any way, a lapse of what you earlier called the evidentiary trail.

Ghosh: Interesting. Novels create narratives and in this sense – and perhaps this is too large a claim? – they actually make history, or rather the telling of history, possible. For example, right next to Calcutta there is an amazing mangrove forest - the Sundarbans. I had some family connections with it and it always amazed me that people in Calcutta didn’t know much about the Sundarbans, had no interest in it. It was a vast blankness, a sort of darkness. When people in Calcutta speak of forests, they usually mean Northern forests, with tall trees etc. And yet, right on their doorstep is this astonishing wilderness... I think one of the reasons for this refusal to perceive is that in the popular imagination the Sundarbans was a wilderness that had no narrative. It had no imaginative existence.

When I was writing The Hungry Tide, I would often think to myself: will the act of writing this novel make this forest real? Will it give it an imaginative life? I do think to some degree it has done that. If you compare what was written about the Sundarbans before and after The Hungry Tide, you'll see a difference. I think it is just this: a narrative makes it possible for people to perceive and think about places, and moments in time, that were previously unseen or invisible.

AK: Would you say, then, that that is the novel’s singular contribution to history-making?

Ghosh: Novels have many contributions. I wouldn’t say this is its singular contribution by any means. But it is one thing that novels can do. They can open windows of perception. Take Sea of Poppies, for example. It brought the Opium trade to life for many people – before that the subject had more or less vanished from public memory. It’s extraordinary that opium, which has played such an important part in Asian history, had vanished from public memory in India.

AK: What first brought you to the opium trade?

Ghosh: A complicated set of connections, beginning with the history of indentured migration, which I touched upon briefly in The Glass Palace. But The Glass Palace was about a lot of other things as well and there I didn’t have the opportunity to follow up on the indentured story. But it always remained in my mind and that was how Sea of Poppies began. I asked myself: what was the background of the migrants, why were they leaving, and what was their material reality? It was literally in that process that I came upon this whole opium trade. There is a vast amount of material on it and I immersed myself in it.

The publication of The Glass Palace was another extraordinary experience for me. For years afterwards I'd get letters from people - two sorts of letters. Some would say, 'we went to Ratnagiri to see the palace (where King Thibaw, Burma's last ruler was exiled)'. There were many letters like that. Then four to five years ago, I got a letter from a woman (Sudha Shah) who said that she had read my book and it had inspired her to start a book of her own. She'd studied at Smith College. Then just the other day she sent me the proofs of her book. (I've reviewed it on my website). It’s a wonderful book on King Thibaw and his family and their life in exile in Ratnagiri. It really meant a lot to me that The Glass Palace had inspired a book like this one.

I also get letters from people who went on the march from Burma to India (in 1941-2). Sometimes they send me their own recollections of the march; many of them tell me that The Glass Palace had reminded them of an experience that they had forgotten or blanked out.

AK: Ibis is a slave ship refitted to perform labour specific to the Indian Ocean. Do you find the Indian Ocean and the thematic terrain it opens up similar to the constellation opened up by, in Paul Gilroy’s formulation, the Black Atlantic? In your talk yesterday, you said, rather provocatively, that with opium and the opium trade, we have the birth of the commodity – and of capitalism, as we know it. But scholars have long argued that the slave trade – and its close relation to insurance – might be one genealogy of modernity. How would you put these two archives together?

Ghosh: There are two things I would like to say in relation to that. One is that India was to the nineteenth century what Africa was to the eighteenth - in the sense that it was a huge pool of essentially captive labour. India became Africa's replacement in that regard. I don’t know why we don’t make that connection because the substitution was quite direct. Everywhere that Indian migrants went in the nineteenth century, they went after the banning of slavery. So they were clearly substitutes and that created problems within communities, which last to this day.

Where the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean trade met was London. London was the node through which all this was curling outward. This is true also of opium. The opium trade came into existence because of tea. Look at the way in which the British made their tea: it had to be drunk with sugar, and the sugar was being grown in plantations, first with slave and then migrant labour. This resulted in an economy that tied the whole world in a web. One set of ships would bring opium from India to China; another set would take tea from China to England; another set would bring sugar from the West Indies to London. These cycles of trade in turn became the mechanisms for the repatriation of finances. To get bonds, to be able to trade in the opium in Canton, one had to have bonds issued by the East India Company. And it wouldn’t give everyone bonds.

You have to remember that much of this was in the name of Free Trade. The British government, backed by merchants and traders, made war on China in the name of free trade. Yet they were trading in a substance - opium - that was produced as a monopoly of the East India Company. There's so much talk about free markets and trade - yet the markets weren’t free at all in the sense that Asian merchants couldn't compete with British merchants on equal terms.

AK: Why is that?

Ghosh: Merchants in Asia have a very long tradition. They were extremely competitive, extremely canny. They knew the local circumstances. When it was purely a matter of business they were often able to outdo the British traders and merchants.  But the British essentially used their political and military power to maintain their control of trade. Amar Farooqui has written about this in his book Smuggling as Subversion: Colonialism, Indian Merchants, and the Politics of Opium, 1790-1843.

AK: How might a Canton be different from a Genoa or a Venice? Could you explain what it is about Canton that makes it different from the other hubs of commerce and trade?

Ghosh: It’s very simple. Venice and Genoa didn’t have any Chinese, and very few Indians or Asians, if any – and they represent more than half of mankind. When we talk of Venice or Genoa as an entrepôt we really mean a European or a Mediterranean entrepôt. The idea that the whole world is present in Venice or in Constantinople is simply not true. What makes Canton so unique is that it is actually one place where you have Europeans, Chinese, Indians, Javanese, Thais, everyone.

AK: What do you think it is about this historical moment that had led you to the opium war – to the history of the free trade? After your talk yesterday, you were asked if you think history repeats itself, or if it works in any kind of a cyclical model. If that is the case, how would you situate your work in relation to the historical present?

Ghosh: As we say in India, hadh ho gaye, that’s basically the feeling from which much of my writing about the opium wars comes. I felt very strongly about the Iraq War, which was actually prefigured by the Opium war in many ways. There was the same kind of talk about Free Trade and so on. Before the opium war, as before the Iraq war, the British were saying stuff like: 'they'll welcome us with open arms to Canton – and so on.'

AK: In Sea of Poppies, your focus is on the opium trade. I wanted to ask you a more general question about the objects and things that populate your work and your interest in material culture…

Ghosh: If you had asked me this fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t have had an answer. But recently, I’ve realized that my interest in things is very empirical. I’m just a very empirically-minded person. Things interest me. The world interests me. In that sense, I am in some ways very different from many other writers of my generation.

AK: How do you see the relation between you and the other contemporary writers – to J. M. Coetzee, for example?

Ghosh: Coetzee’s work is intensely cerebral; very spare (I should add that I admire his work very much). With Coetzee one always feels that he is exploring an idea. That's not how I work. The idea never comes first. For me, it’s always the people, the character – and if the characters don’t come alive then it becomes impossible for me to carry on.

AK: In your work, you have always paid attention to photographs, letters, historical documents, dictionaries, etc. – and your novels tend to internalize these various technologies. Can you speak a bit about this?

Ghosh: The novel is wonderfully generous, as I've said – it’s a wonderfully capacious form. But, you know, I have always been interested in images too. I love taking photographs - although I'm by no means a good photographer. My daughter and son often get annoyed with me for taking so many pictures but I just like clicking away. I’m moved by photographs – for example, the whole character of Zachary in Sea of Poppies emerged out of a photograph that I saw in a book about sail ships. There was a picture of a crew member that caught my attention and the character grew out of that. It very often happens like that.

AK: And letters…

Ghosh: I used to love writing letters. I think it’s so sad that the letter as a form is disappearing. I love writing letters and you know when I was in my twenties I used to write long letters, pages and pages, to my friends.

AK: Do you think the sensibility of the letter has survived in a different form?

Ghosh: No, I don’t think so. I think the immediacy of email and twitter have really wiped away the kind of considered writing that letters demanded. Now even emails from other writers seem so cursory. I don’t write letters anymore. Hardly ever.​​

AK: We’ll have to wrap up soon so I’ll just ask a final question. You have said in the past that you think it is the “duty” of your generation of writers to address the issue of the environment, which you categorized as the fundamental question of our time. Does that still hold for you?

Ghosh: I do think it’s very important to engage with the environment. Every day it becomes even more critical. But I think it’s very important that when we engage with the environment, we do it not as an abstraction but out of a love for things and creatures, for the world around us. That is one of the reasons why I wrote The Hungry Tide.

I was travelling in the Sundarbans and I saw a dolphin that had a terrible wound. It had been washed up on the side. It had obviously been hit by a propeller. It was a ghastly thing to see. It was a river dolphin and I became very interested in its movements and so I wrote to several dolphin specialists. The only one who responded was Helene Marsh, an Australian scientist and a wonderful woman. She told me that she had a student from New Zealand, Isabel Beasley, who was in Cambodia, working on Irrawaddy dolphins; she suggested that I write to her. So I wrote to Isabel and then I went to Cambodia and followed her around as she was doing her research. I came to admire her very much.

AK: Final question. Do you have a sense today of where you’re going next in your writing?

Ghosh: No. People often ask me that. I scarcely know where I am going on the next page. I wish I were one of those writers who can sit down and can see a whole book opening up in their minds. Virginia Woolf sat down on a park bench and the whole of To the Lighthouse was revealed to her. And after that she just went and wrote it down. I never know.