In 2016, Amitav Ghosh was working on his novel Gun Island, and imagined a scene in which a wildfire was advancing toward a Los Angeles museum. About six months later, that scenario played out in real life, as the Skirball fire burned near The Getty Center in December 2017. Ghosh says he felt "completely shaken."
"To see things that you've seen in your mind sort of playing out in real life — it's just so disturbing you know?" he says. "But that is the world that we are in. The world of fact is outrunning the world of fiction."
Ghosh believes old legends have a lot to teach us about how to think about the cataclysmic effects of climate change. "Fiction allows us to look at the world in a different way," he says. "And I think that is really the crisis of contemporary fiction: that it finds itself — at this catastrophic time for humanity — it finds itself unable to look at the reality around us."
Ghosh often sets his own fiction at the blurry boundary between land and water. His latest novel stops in several of those places — from mangrove islands on the border of India and Bangladesh to the canals of Venice, Italy. Gun Island is a modern retelling of a Bengali myth that Ghosh grew up with. The goddess at the center of this myth is named Manasa Devi and she's not just a goddess — she's also a sort of interpreter, connecting humans to the natural world.
On Manasa Devi
She is the goddess of snakes and all poisonous things. And the stories around her all revolve around her curious kind of battle with this figure called the merchant. ... There's this sort of conflict between them and she wants him to become her devotee and he won't. And she sends all these kinds of terrible calamities upon him — droughts, and famines, and great waves — and finally he flees overseas and she pursues him overseas. And finally he comes back and he sort of capitulates. ...
It's an amazing story in the sense that I think it ... conceptualized a conflict between the profit motive and nature. ... It's clear that this basic conflict was perfectly well understood by our distant ancestors.
On how old legends resonate with what we're seeing today in the natural world
I wrote this book The Great Derangement which is about literature and climate change ... it's about why climate change is so difficult for modern writers and for modern literature. And at the end of writing that book I decided that I needed to read more pre-modern literature. ... I suddenly saw it through new eyes. I realized that what these old legends were about were exactly what we are living through today, you know, catastrophic floods, droughts, famines, storms. ...
What really struck me, what was very moving to me, is that in those times they could address these issues so much more directly than we can today. At that time people could respond — you know, they could create paintings, they could create buildings. I mean, in Venice, the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, which is its greatest landmark, is actually a commemoration of a great catastrophe ... the plague. When we have these catastrophes unfolding around us, we don't seem to be able to even imaginatively grapple with what's in front of us.
On talking about climate change from a spiritual place rather than a scientific place
Climate scientists have played a very, very important part in alerting us to what's going on in the world. We owe them a great debt. But in a way, that framing of what's happening today has also proved its own inadequacy. ...
We have to rise up in our hearts to appreciate the enormity of the changes that are upon us. I mean all the science communication in the world hasn't got us moving anywhere really. So I do think that we have to be able to open up those parts of our lives, or those parts of our minds, or those parts of our consciousnesses that can actually accommodate different ways of thinking about the world.
Matt Ozug and Jolie Myers produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.