As personal challenge, writer makes climate change a mainstream literary topic

Writer Amitav Ghosh and his book, "Gun Island."
Writer Amitav Ghosh took up his own challenge to the novel-writing world to treat climate change as a mainstream subject in his own novel "Gun Island."
Ivo van der Bent | Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Bengali author Amitav Ghosh's nonfiction book "The Great Derangement" attracted a lot of attention a few years ago for its inherent criticism that the novel-writing world wasn’t taking climate change seriously.

Ghosh is in Minnesota this week, first to speak Tuesday at the annual Nobel Conference in St. Peter, where the subject is climate change. Then, he’ll then travel to the Twin Cities on Thursday to present his new novel "Gun Island." It weaves the climate crisis, the refugee crisis and an Indian goddess into an adventure story.

"The Great Derangement," published in 2016, examined society's collective inability to, as Ghosh put it, "grasp the scale and violence of the climate change." He says now the book was at least in part a self-challenge.

"I've always liked to entertain the notion that I'm writing about the real world, and that is what makes it worth doing," he said. "So, why is this very important aspect of the real world so elusive to me?"

Ghosh said literature is still reluctant to face the reality of the climate crisis. He said the problem lies not just with writers but with critics and readers, too.

"When a writer does write about, for example, climate change, they often find themselves being relegated into some genre which serious readers and serious reviewers don't take seriously," he said.

Ghosh does feel things have slightly improved, pointing to "The Overstory," Richard Powers’ novel about forest destruction as a potent example.

"One of the things certainly that I want to examine and talk about [at the Nobel Conference] is how migrants see climate change," he said.

He said all too often climate discussions only involve academics and other experts.

"But you know the people who are feeling the impacts think about it in a completely different way," he said. "And I think it's important for us to understand that there are other ways of looking at the phenomenon that is unfolding around us."

Ghosh rises to his own challenge in his new novel "Gun Island." He'll read from it at a Rain Taxi event at the Grace-Trinity Community Church in Minneapolis on Thursday evening.

"Gun Island" is the story of Deen, an Indian-American rare book dealer and academic whose life changes on a visit to Kolkata. He learns of a little-studied shrine on a nearby island, and hires a boat to take him to explore it.

The shrine is dedicated to a mythical character known as the Gun Merchant. Ghosh says there are many old stories which tell how he attracted the unwanted attention of the goddess of snakes. She decides she wants him as a disciple.

"And he refused and resisted and so she persecuted him. She sent snakes after him,” Ghosh explains. “She killed his whole family. She sent disaster after disaster after him, and he finally fled overseas."

It's a snake which turns Deen's visit to the shrine into a disaster, too. That launches him on a journey from India to New York and Venice.

"He suddenly finds himself caught in all kinds of strange events," said Ghosh. "He begins to wonder if there is some sort of pattern in them or whether they are just coincidence — or is it predestination or is it fate?"

Or is it the snake goddess has now focused her enmity on him?

Ghosh weaves threads of history, myth and Shakespeare with the science of climate change and migrations. It's is a page-turner of a thriller. It also describes the realities faced by millions of people displaced by politics, violence and climate.

Despite its complexity, Ghosh said the story just fell together, much more easily than other novels he's written. It could be symptomatic of our age.

"We are now in a world where things are happening, which never happened before — all these unprecedented events," he said. "And already then we begin to see that some of our understanding of the world of the past, the way we thought about the realities that we inhabited, are being actually overturned by a new reality, by a changing reality of our time."

A reality, Ghosh says, needs to be written and read about seriously.

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