In your 2016 book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable you take contemporary literature to task for failing to address the climate and ecological crisis. Have fiction writers woken up since then – and if so, what are the most important changes you’ve seen in the literary landscape since 2016? Has the unthinkable become more thinkable?
I certainly think that now there’s an outpouring of work on these subjects. I think the inflection point was 2018. Since then there’s been a huge surge of writing. But for me the prime literary challenge is to give a voice to the non-human. Which is what writers did in the past, in every tradition: take Homer’s Iliad or the Odyssey, which are filled with nonhuman voices of all kinds, or the Indian epics, and much pre-modern literature. When it’s done in modern literature it’s automatically relegated to genres of various kinds. Pinocchio is about the agency of objects: it’s presented as a children’s book but it’s really not. Similarly, Moby Dick is about non-human agency. This is what’s really interesting: how do we look at the agency of nonhuman entities? A lot of people are now writing about animals in very interesting ways. Take Laline Paull’s Pod, or Maja Lunde’s The History of Bees. Take Richard Powers writing about the forest in The Overstory, or Annie Proulx’s Barkskins: I think what Proulx is doing in that book is so interesting because she’s really looking at the historical connections between the land, the people, the trees and the whole transformation of a landscape.
Do you consider your writing to be a form of activism?
Do I write books as a form of intervening in the world? That’s not the intention. But the books do seem to have had that effect: they do seem to have galvanized a lot of people, and I feel very happy about that because I have unbounded admiration for young activists and what they do and the courage that they show. I am hesitant to claim the mantle of an activist because to be an activist is an enormous commitment to something. It involves enormous sacrifices and I’m just not that person. I have been around a lot of activists, so I have a good idea of what it takes to be one – and I know that I don’t have it. And it’s all just getting worse and worse. When I wrote The Great Derangement I couldn’t have imagined that the liberal West would have unleashed such repression against environmental activists. It’s horrifying. Britain has enacted the most repressive laws ever. How is that even possible, in the land of Chartism and trade unions? What’s happening in Brazil and India is another matter altogether, and not entirely unexpected because what we are seeing in India is rampaging authoritarianism: they’re handing over the forests and the environment to crony capitalists. You feel so aghast you don’t even know what to say.
Many contemporary novels still ignore the crisis completely, even though it’s the backdrop to all our lives. It’s not reflected in the story, or mentioned by any of the characters. It’s as if it isn’t happening. What’s your take on this?
This really is a phenomenon, and that was why I wrote The Great Derangement. As things get worse we become more and more blind. Often you pick up a novel and you think: what are you writing about? The whole wide world is disintegrating around you, and you can’t see it! The strange thing is that there are many writers who are very committed to the whole climate issue and who write essays about it who will even go on protests and demonstrations – but it doesn’t show up in their fiction.
Is it because it’s actually very hard to write about because it’s so gigantic? It’s global, it’s bigger than any war, and its effects are so varied. And it’s not just climate. It’s also biodiversity loss, pollution and the sixth mass extinction. Maybe some writers think: I can’t write a book about all of it, so I won’t write a book about any of it?
Yes, and the scale is both spatial and temporal. Within the literary establishment they are still absolutely stuck in the experimentalism of the 20th century. They just don’t see what’s happening. There are plenty of writers who think about these things. The real problem is the wider ecosystem of the literary world. I’ve heard of famous writers who actually tell their students – even though they are themselves very engaged with climate issues, even if they don’t show up in their work – they tell them quite straightforwardly that if you don’t write about identity issues, people won’t read or publish your books. Isn’t that outrageous?
The acceleration of the emergency has thrown a lot of people off guard. It’s become almost impossible to picture your own future, let alone the Earth’s future, more than a few years ahead. Given that, how do we process a crisis that is happening at such speed, while we’re in the midst of it?
Again, that’s the great difficulty. People have written about great events but it’s almost always decades afterwards. War and Peace, for example. That’s one of the problems that we’re facing right now which is that we’re going through this environmental crisis – but it’s not just a single thing. It’s a poly-crisis because we also have the greatest geopolitical shift in centuries happening right now. We see that erupting all around so you can’t even keep your mind focused on one thing because when you have these massive battles and wars going on, it’s really very hard for you to stand out there and say no, no – what we should be thinking about is carbon in the atmosphere.
There are new forms of fiction emerging from the crisis. There’s a surge in systems novels and network narratives. There are more stories taking non-human perspectives. There’s Solarpunk. And there’s “thrutopian” fiction, which focuses on envisioning a future we’d be proud to leave to future generations, having overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of getting there. At the same time there’s a backlash among many ecological thinkers – I’m thinking of Rebecca Solnit in particular – against dystopian fiction on the grounds that it scares us rather than it uplifts us. What do you think is the most useful kind of fiction, and do the anti-dystopians have a point?
My personal feeling about this is that it just makes no sense to prescribe. I think tone policing is the wrong thing. On the one hand you’re saying this is the greatest crisis that humanity has ever faced, and on the other you’re saying, everyone must talk about it in the same way. That’s just silly. Obviously people are going to have millions of different perspectives. And so they should. And you should welcome those perspectives. The truth is we don’t know what makes people act.
Nikki Giovanni, the black American writer who has been through so many struggles, has a more productive way of looking at it. She says somewhere: “even when the shit hits the fan, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.” I think you have to look at it in terms of duty. She says that for her, duty is the most important word, and that really resonates with me. For me, it’s about dharma and karma. You have to do what you have to do. And what is winning and losing at this particular point in time anyway? In some broad sense we’ve all lost. But that doesn’t mean we stop.
Amitav Ghosh was born in Calcutta and grew up in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Named by Foreign Policy magazine in 2019 as one of the most important thinkers of the previous decade, he is the prize-winning author of many works of fiction and non-fiction, most recently The Great Derangement, The Nutmeg’s Curse, Jungle Nama, The Living Mountain and Gun Island. His next book, Smoke and Ashes: A Journey through Hidden Histories will be published in February 2024.
Liz Jensen is a co-founder of Writers Rebel and the author of eight novels including The Ninth Life of Louis Drax and the eco-thrillers The Rapture and The Uninvited. Her next book, Your Wild and Precious Life: On Grief, Hope and Rebellion, will be published by Canongate in March 2024.