What do you think might be the role of writers in the Anthropocene?
I’m not sure writers have much of a role in the world we inhabit now, or that we ever did: literature is wildly overrated; remember Auden’s ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’? I say this with sorrow and anger and disillusionment, not triumph. When Marx called Spenser Queen Elizabeth’s ‘arse-kissing poet’, he may have flattened out and made monodimensional Spenser’s extraordinarily complex relationship with power, but Marx was certainly on to something about the way writers have always felt left out of the corridors of power and have wanted to get in. Then the Anthropocene started entering the mainstream discourse and changed that game in numerous ways, one of which was by providing a raison d’être far away from the usual hunger for (and whining about) power, visibility, fame, influence (celebrity, in short). It made the contemporary conflation, indeed inextricability, of socialising/networking and writing look downright immoral. We go to writers to represent and explain the greatest crisis we’re engulfed in, to educate us, to shake us out of our torpor, to galvanise us into action and change and, crucially, the demand for change, and pushing us to make those small individual choices that, aggregated, could make a difference.
Your most recent novel, A State of Freedom, has a very powerful and haunting section depicting the tribulations of a dancing bear. Could you tell us about what inspired you to write it?
Two things: First, seeing these ‘dancing bears’ and the bear-wallahs while growing up in in India, and second, a reminder that, despite the outlawing of this profession (since 1979, I think), it still persisted in pockets of the country when, during a car journey from Fatehpur Sikri to Delhi in North India in the early 2000s, a bear-wallah, with a bear next to him, tapped on the window of the car I was sitting in. The bear-wallah had spotted the white Englishman with me, so had made a beeline to our car to beg.
Is there a specific thought or idea that motivates you into taking action over the climate and ecological emergency? (or, if you like, what frightens you most about the crisis?
What frightens me most? That it’s all over. Now it’s a question of just listening to the clock tick before the explosion. Alarmist? No – undeluded and realist. We’ve been rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic for too long … You think there’s hope? Look at the polarisation over mask-wearing in the US – how do you think the people who think their fundamental rights and freedoms have been infringed by being asked to wear masks at the time of a pandemic will react when a policy change asks them to cut down on meat or ration water or turn their ACs off or give up their cars?
What is the most powerful piece of writing you have read about the climate and ecological emergency?
Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement. Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature. Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction. But the origins of my awareness are in two much more tangential texts: J.M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals and Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation.
You currently teach at Harvard. As an instructor how might you go about inspiring younger generations to engage with the natural world?
My students’ generation does not know a world before the Internet and before climate change (or the awareness of climate change), as we do. They were born with these two things that define our world, so it’s something given for them. As for the natural world, most of them don’t seem to have much of an idea: they can’t tell the names of flowers, birds, trees. Most of their time is spent looking at their phones or screens; the natural world does not exist online. How I wish they would lift up their heads and look at the world and pay close, careful attention to it. I try to teach them to notice things, tell them that noticing is a moral act, an imperative at all times, but much more so now. I don’t understand the disconnect between their general awareness of climate change and their ignorance about the particularities of the natural world. My colleague, Jorie Graham, once made her poetry students get up at 4 am and listen to the dawn chorus; they had no idea what it meant. In her telling, they were all messaging each other, their minds blown, ‘Oh my god, she’s not crazy, this miracle exists!’ I take my students for long walks and point out and name trees and flowers and birds to them. Perhaps they laugh at me, perhaps they are bored and just suffer it smilingly because they’re all polite, but there will be that one student who will write in his evaluations that this opened her or his eyes … that’s reward enough. I get them to read Madame Bovary and when they reach, in Chapter 2, Charles’ first, sleepy journey on horseback to Les Bertaux before dawn, I ask them to look at this detail: ‘Whenever it [Charles’ horse] stopped of its own accord before those thorn-wreathed holes they dig on the boundaries of ploughed fields, Charles, waking up with a start, would remember the broken leg …’. ‘Thorn-wreathed holes they dig’! I ask them: ‘How does Flaubert know that detail about thorn hedges used to mark the boundaries of fields?’ I want them to bring that quality of attention to the outside world and from there to their work. I begin the semester with part of a sentence from Middlemarch – ‘to conceive with that distinctness which is no longer reflection but feeling – an idea wrought back to the directness of sense, like the solidity of objects’ – and ask them to engrave it in their hearts as a credo.
Do you have a vision for a regenerative future? Does literature have a part to play in creating this future? What are the challenges posed by writing about the climate emergency? Or, how can stories and poems help us better understand the emergency?
While I don’t see a regenerative future at all, there’s nothing more I’d like than to be proved wrong. As for literature, I keep thinking of the originary question that sparked Ghosh’s The Great Derangement – why has literature, specifically, the novel, ignored climate change? – and what gives me hope, if only for literature, is that we could be seeing a kind of epistemic break, if you will, resulting in the rise of new forms, new genres and modes, to think, write about, and represent climate change. Not just retooling and repurposing the old, as in, say, the pastoral elegy made to articulate laments on the havocs wreaked by the Anthropocene, but entirely new, unthought of, unimagined forms. That would be truly exciting.
Neel Mukherjee is the author of three novels: A Life Apart (2010), which won the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Award for Best Fiction; The Lives of Others (2014), which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Costa Best Novel Award, and won the RSL Encore Award; and A State of Freedom (2017), which was a New York Times ‘Notable Book of the Year’. His book for the Cahier Series, Avian, was published in May 2020. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and divides his time between London and Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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