Trees tell time when they cease to live. Concentric bands show up clean and countable, the index of so many wet and dry seasons past, but only when the end has been determined, when no more rings will be added. The tree is always recording, but it takes chopping it down to render the story legible, to make counting count for us. Dendrochronology—the science of studying time by way of trees—is a postmortem practice encircled by beginnings and endings.
We need an end to make sense of what came before. This, according to Frank Kermode’s classic study of literature The Sense of an Ending (1967) is what makes apocalyptic narratives so appealing: An ending provides the frame in which to plot out our concerns. Feeling ourselves on the way to something is infinitely preferable to being simply out here, somewhere. It is partly this “sense of an ending” that makes climate change so difficult to conceptualize and to confront in narrative terms. Climate change, after all, should not be thought of in terms of an end but rather on the order of many ends, ends with varying temporalities and which will unevenly affect life distributed around the globe along different axes of power and privilege. Disaster movies notwithstanding, climate change poses what literary critic Rob Nixon calls a “representational challenge” to narrative. We need new narrative modes, Nixon says, for registering the “slow violence” of environmental collapse, the many endings resistant to—or unavailable to—attention-grabbing denouement. At least one major critic and novelist, Amitav Ghosh, has argued that this task is anathema to literary fiction all together. Climate change, Ghosh argues in The Great Derangement, is beyond the conventional novel form.
Yet the Anthropocene, one of the most important terms to emerge from recent discussions regarding climate change, attempts to overcome this narrative impasse. However one feels about the term—disagreements abound regarding when it started, about what we should really call it instead, and about whether it is a geological epoch at all—the notion of the Anthropocene tries to force in some of the narrative parameters that we so crave. As many have pointed out, the Anthropocene suggests not only a beginning to the human story but also—projecting forward—an end. The qualifications for a geological epoch indicate that a scientist should be able to discern the stratigraphic rock boundaries of the discrete period in question. Because every epoch previous to the current Holocene began and ended long before humans existed—and because the Anthropocene itself is still in formation—we are for the first time tasked with considering an open rather than closed chapter in the book of the earth. As historian of science Robert V. Davis explains, if the Anthropocene is to be accepted, it is only because, in the future, “retrospection will show the present as having been shaped geologically by man.” The many smaller ends of climate change slip past our narrative conventions, but the Anthropocene promises—however bleakly—that the end is foreseeable, at least from some future finality looking back. This despite the fact that, as philosopher Claire Colebrook points out, there may be no humans left to do the looking.
Some of the strongest material evidence for the Anthropocene comes from studies of ice core samples, but at least one instance of dendrochronology helps make sense of the epoch’s strangely anticipatory narrative logic. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) depicts film’s most famous scene of tree ring reading by way of perhaps the world’s most famous species of trees. Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) and Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) travel north from San Francisco to the John Muir forest, where they stand amidst Redwoods. When asked by Scottie what she is thinking, Madeleine responds, “Of all the people who have born and died while the trees went on living.” Scottie responds professorially: “Their true name is Sequoia sempervirens, always green, ever living.” “I don’t like them,” Madeleine says. “Why?” “Knowing I have to die,” she answers. The pair walk from the living trees to a nearby cross section of a tree that is suspended by a sign, a “Redwood round.” The camera pans across the tree cross-section slowly enough for us to read the white flags which mark historical events at various rings: “1215 Magna Carta Signed,” “1776 Declaration of Independence,” etc. At this point a swell of eerie music prepares us for what Madeline says next, as she reaches her hand to the wood. Pointing to one and then another ring just inside the inner edge of the round, she says, “Somewhere in here I was born, and here I died. It was only a moment for you, you don’t notice.”
Madeleine’s seemingly absurd statement works within the complex plot of the film: In short, she is possessed by a long-dead ancestor, and so this idea that she—inhabited by a past personality—can point to rings indicating both her birth and death makes a sort of spooky sense. Hitchcock certainly had other things in mind, but we might consider Madeleine’s words as the pronouncement necessitated by the projective schema of the Anthropocene. Here we humans were born, and here we died. She stands at the vantage of the future which looks back to read the opening and closing of homo sapiens as it is scored into the planet. We have come and gone; the trees and their story of us remain. This, after all, is what Madeleine feels so poignantly: all the people who died as these trees, impassive but watchful, continued to live. The Anthropocene invites us, like Madeleine, to see our existence bounded in a time that trees, the planet—the tellers of the story—surpass. Standing poised over the containing record, we see the story entire. The tree thus acts as a partially satisfying symbol and harbinger of a distant future end, a seeming permanence against which our narratives can unfold.
The cover of Richard Powers’s new novel The Overstory (2018) superimposes rings radiating outward atop what appears to be a Redwood forest. Each ring contains a different time: from day to night to day, and seemingly across years, too, as the small figures on horseback suggest. That The Overstory is about both trees and time is perhaps the simplest thing one could say about this environmental epic. Powers follows close to a dozen distinct storylines across centuries. Trees are characters alongside the people who form these multigenerational sagas—sagas that, by the novel’s conclusion, connect and blend. Forest ecology is an explicit focus of much of the novel—especially as focalized through Patty Westerford, an ecologist whose fictional The Secret Forest is a nod to the real-life The Hidden Life of Trees, by forester Peter Wohlleben. But even when characters aren’t musing over or discussing the life of the forest, the novel reinforces on the level of form the sense that trees offer profound testament to duration and interconnection.
Trees testify to a life both older and stranger than any we commonly perceive, and The Overstory is largely an experiment in scrambling—or splicing, in botanical terms—temporal orders: What happens when trees bend to the whims of human time? Usually, the novel suggests, they break, or are broken, at which point we are able to observe time, and thus ourselves amid the rings. This, the novel insists, is what is happening in the age of environmental catastrophe: Trees and the planet they sustain are forcefully sped up to our pace, a doomsday clock, and we are confronted by the repercussions in the downed wreckage that follows. But how does human life look and feel when put in terms of old growth and legacy trees? More expansive than we can easily imagine, it turns out. Good fodder for Powers, who, as Jeff Karnicky explains in his review of the novel, “Tree Time,” has the uncanny ability to build an entire narrative world around a single prevailing motif.
Powers keeps tree rings always in mind as the novel moves forward, with small images of tree cross-sections adorning chapter and section breaks. Throughout, too, various characters refer to and reflect on tree rings, whether in conducting actual dendrochronological research (as in the case of the ecologist character) or when thinking—as in Vertigo—of all the events that transpired at various points in a given tree’s ring record (a historic flood, a father’s death). Poignant in relation to Madeleine’s words in the Muir Woods is one haunting scene that closes a major section of the novel. Nick, the artist figure of the novel, returns home to a scene of tragedy, of death, which he immediately flees:
Nick blunders through the front door, trips down the porch steps, and falls into the snow. He rolls over in the freezing white, gasping and reviving. When he looks up, it’s into the branches of the sentinel tree, lone, huge, fractal, and bare against the drifts. All its profligate twigs click in the breeze as if this moment, too, so insignificant, so transitory, will be written into its rings and prayed over by the branches that wave their semaphores against the bluest of Midwestern winter skies.
Passive and watchful, the tree—a “sentinel”—is the permanence under which the little human dramas unfold.
This is the way it should be, Powers suggests: Human stories mix, meander, and sputter in the understory of a larger life always proliferating above our heads, rooted sprawling under our feet. It is our poverty of imagination that keeps us dull to this life. A voice seemingly belonging to a tree—or to all trees, perhaps—makes this clear in the opening page: “All the ways you imagine us—bewitched mangroves up on stilts, a nutmeg’s inverted spade, gnarled baja elephant trunks, the straight-up missile of a sal—are always amputations. Your kind never sees us whole. You miss the half of it, and more. There’s always as much belowground as above.” On the scale of civilization, missing the half of it means we will “lose by winning” the war against nature and necessity, as one characters puts it. Towards the end of the novel, Powers actually uses one character to explain this problem in terms of the novel form itself. Ray Brinkman is in bed, his permanent place since a stroke that laid him low dozens of pages before. He listens to his wife read him books, working through “The Hundred Greatest Novels of all Time.” All of Powers’s characters are cognizant to some degree of the impending direness of environmental collapse, and Ray is no different. These thoughts follow him even into his interaction with books, which he understands to be fundamentally limited and limiting. “To be human,” Ray thinks:
is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.
It is difficult to know where Powers stands in relation to this statement. Is The Overstory a book-length refutation of Ray? Does Powers claim that a novel—this novel—can in fact do what Nixon wants and also accomplish what Ghosh says is beyond the scope of literary fiction? That is, can a novel render legible and compelling “life” as “mobilized on a vastly larger scale”? Or does this moment in The Overstory betray the novelist’s own doubts about his project? Is Ray the puncturing problem that Powers feels is always there, nagging? Whatever the case, the novel asks us to consider whether novels can indeed impress the overstory.
In a recent interview, Powers cited Ursula K. Le Guin as inspiration for his environmental epic. He has in mind her classically environmental fiction—specifically, the novella The Word for World is Forest (1972). This science fiction shares with Powers an interest in confronting human concerns with the sublime expanse of forest ecology. Like The Overstory, Le Guin’s story wends conventional characters together with rooted ecologies more complex, interdependent, and surprising than anything we ambulatory beings can grasp. (Powers may also be thinking of Le Guin’s wonderfully weird “Vaster than Empires and More Slow,” which expands on the sublimity of plant power in ways that I will not spoil here.)
It makes sense for Powers to see in The Word for World an important predecessor to The Overstory, but given the centrality of trees, the more important comparison is actually a lesser-known piece of fiction by the late great Le Guin. “The Direction of the Road” (1974) is a “tale” in Le Guin’s preferred fantastical sense of the term. Collected recently in The Unreal and the Real (2012), one of a two-volume set of collected works from Saga Press, the tale spans a mere seven pages, yet it asks the same questions that animate Powers’s 500-plus-page tome. But in asking the same questions, Le Guin’s tale comes to substantially different conclusions.
Much like The Overstory, “The Direction” is an exercise in point of view. While Powers begins with a tour de force opening from the perspective of a tree/trees only to then affix to human concerns, Le Guin’s entire story is narrated by a tree. But Le Guin lets us figure this out on our own through the first few pages. We get to know the tree: proud, dutiful, a bit inflexible and wooden, perhaps. The tree tells of its long life, its watchful stance over a century that sees horses give way to automobiles give way to traffic. Throughout, Le Guin plays a trick with relativity and perception in a way that I will let you explore on your own. (The provocation: How might a tree—a rooted tower—see the world? As she herself explains of her process in David Naimon’s recent Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing, this is quintessential Le Guin. Change one rule, one significant parameter, and explore the repercussions all the way down.)
As usual, however, the most important moment of the tale arrives at the end. A car on the bustling road beside the tree smashes into its trunk. We might expect that the tree is done for, is mangled beyond recovery, a minimalist drama of the collision course we’ve set the warming planet on. This may have been the finale in the hands of a lesser writing. But for Le Guin the point is—as usual—almost completely the opposite of the expected. In the moment before the car makes contact, the driver looks up at the tree, and the tree feels itself seen in a wholly new and unwelcome way. “He saw me under the aspect of eternity,” the tree tells us. “He confused me with eternity. And because he died in that moment of false vision, because it can never change, I am caught in it, eternally.” The driver dies, and in his final moment, he makes the tree eternal, an injustice it can hardly bear, a cruelty it objects to passionately. “Eternity is none of my business,” the tree bemoans:
I am an oak, no more, no less. I have my duty; I have my pleasures, and enjoy them, thought they are fewer, since the birds are fewer, and the wind’s foul. But, long-lived though I may be, impermanence is my right. Mortality is my privilege. And it has been taken from me.
The tree is barely scathed. It is left standing, as if a permanent, unshakeable part of the landscape. And this is the tragedy.
The Overstory is about the human inability to comprehend “tree time,” to borrow Karnicky’s phrase, a scale of hundreds if not thousands of years, and about the death of trees that follow in the wake of this continuing and perhaps inevitable misunderstanding. Joining Madeleine in Muir Woods, The Overstory suggests that we see in dead trees the catastrophe in full, written in rings as if having already occurred. Le Guin’s tale, on the other hand, is about a tree that demands the dignity of death. In the Anthropocene, a tree that clings to “impermanence” as a “right” is a reminder that the very idea of permanence is human. Powers makes of trees a would-be permanence felled low by human hubris, but Le Guin suggests exactly the opposite—that it is our misunderstanding that makes of trees a permanent fixture in the first place. Le Guin’s tale is an elegant reminder that the tidiness of the end—as if final and absolute—exists nowhere but in our collective desires.
A problem as overwhelming as climate change would seem to require the complexities of the long-form novel. We need not just characters but generations of characters; not just arcs but intersecting webs. Powers provides all of this and more, and there is much to commend in his remarkably synoptic and sprawling masterpiece. The Overstory is a deftly choreographed weave of human stories overshadowed and branched in extensive canopy. But even with this achievement in mind, Le Guin’s compact fable tugs as a necessary critique. Telling stories about the timelessness of trees risks forgetting that death is, of course, a natural part of life, even in the Anthropocene. There’s something in the comparative simplicity and compactness of Le Guin’s tale that insists on a perspective we hardly stop to accept, a voice lost amidst the din of our clamoring narrative needs. In our eagerness to find the end where there are only ends, the tree is made subordinate to a human story that is thereby circumscribed that much tighter.
The novel form has been pronounced dead by more critics through time than perhaps any other art form, and we will not further challenge its seemingly eternal, vampiric existence here. But even as the novel should continue to play an important (if vexed) role in addressing climate change through narrative, we would do well to hear the still, strange voice of an oak tree that has not yet died but hopes to do so, perhaps one day soon. This tree has something to say:
If they wish to see death visibly in the world, that is their business, not mine. I will not act Eternity for them. Let them not turn to the trees for death. If that is what they want to see, let them look into one another’s eyes and see it there.
For many in my generation, living and breathing amidst the colonial ruins and ebbing pride of Calcutta, Amitav Ghosh was the first writer in English to write about the everyday life that we lived. The first writer to write of the streets we took, the bookstores we shopped in, the distinguished poverty we lived in, in the language in which we weren’t accustomed to reading of these things.
His life and mine began mere miles apart. But he, with his Booker near-misses, his Oxford doctorate, his immersive prose and me with my lying on a bed and staring at the ceiling fan, have had rather parallel lives.
When I first touched his The Shadow Lines, I did not know who he was. I was 15 years old, it was a summer afternoon and I was rummaging in the one room of the attic of our rented home that held all our stuff. The book had no cover and its first 12 pages were missing. It lay open, underneath things that had been moved from house to house as we moved along with them.
It had been hurriedly put down. I imagined an aunt or an uncle reading it and then being called away. I imagined her shoving the book into the last box, assured that she would open it in the new house soon. I imagined the boxes getting comfortable in the rented rooms that grew increasingly smaller, and us losing the need to open those that held non-essential things. In 1945, my young grandparents had walked from what is now Bangladesh to what is now Bengal, as the British prepared to partition India. Since then, till about 2007, our family lived in one rented home after another. In its crowded home in a cardboard box, where it shared space with terra cotta dolls, Bengali translations of The Rig Veda, and the blankets that were meant to cushion blows to the fragile things, The Shadow Lines, with its dog ears and its maddening old smell, was the very Calcutta refugee that it speaks of in its own pages.
I read with the joy of a reader who had so far only read the English literature of the English. Ghosh was not writing the Calcutta of the colonisers, the Calcutta of the north with its lofty crumbling houses belonging to the Queen’s viceroys and their good friends; he was writing the south Calcutta where I lived, the south Calcutta where refugees from Bangladesh—like my grandparents had been and like the narrator’s grandmother had been—landed.
I did not know what a seminal text it had already become in postcolonial literature as I read it, but I remember the first feeling of oneness. Delirious, I wrote to Ghosh through the “Contact” page on his website. “I have been forever changed thanks to your book. My own grandmother is the same woman you have spoken of in Shadow Lines. [And then, in a leap of audacity] I have to ask you if you once had a grandmother who was like this.” Ghosh replied, “Dear Soumashree, thank you for writing to me. I am happy that the book resonated with you.”
The door to the dark underbelly of joy at an author’s acknowledgement had been opened.
As that summer gave way to the next, the newspapers filled with previews of Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, the first in his Ibis trilogy. By then I had read three more books by Ghosh—The Hungry Tide, The Calcutta Chromosome, and Dancing in Cambodia—and he had become one of the writers whom I would regard as a personal literary trainer.
On July 10, 2008, I was browsing a bookstore in a south Calcutta mall when I noticed that Sea of Poppies was to be released on that evening by Ghosh himself. It was mid-afternoon then and the book release was scheduled at 7 p.m. Seven p.m. was also exactly the hour at which my mathematics tutor would arrive at my house. I went home and fell prostrate at my mother’s two feet.
My mother, the staunch disciplinarian, told me that not only was I allowed to cook up a story for my absence at the math class, but that she would come with me to the book release too.
The sun set on the glorious day and my mother and I caught a yellow taxi to go to the mall. On the way, I called my math teacher.
“Miss, I am very sorry, but I will be a little late today.”
“Why, what is the matter?”
“It is my eye, miss, I have had to come to the doctor.”
“What happened to your eye?”
“My left eye has developed a blind patch. I cannot see through the patch, though my vision is okay for the rest of the eye.”
“Oh. Okay. Yes, sure. Absolutely.”
We arrived on time and just as I was paying for the book, Ghosh entered the bookstore with his wife, the writer Deborah Baker. He looked tired, his shoulders drooping, but who cared, this was the first time I was seeing a writer I had loved in the flesh.
There was a short reading from the book, and as the compere read out an exchange from one of the first few pages of the hardcover, Ghosh stared into the distance with a frown on his face.
At last, the crowd was asked to queue for the signings. Ghosh rummaged in his pocket for a second and brought out a metal pen. The stage was set.
I noticed that everyone was saying something to Ghosh to which he was gently nodding and responding to. I briefly mulled over the line, “The character Mangala Bibi from The Calcutta Chromosome still wakes me up at nights,” but decided against it, in what was singularly the only occasion where I have looked before I leapt.
The woman in front of me spelt her name out for him, “J-I-N-I-A.”
“Oh, what a beautiful name, is there a particular reason behind it?” asked Ghosh.
“I don’t know, my father just like the flower I think,” she said.
“Oh, haha,” said Ghosh.
“Can you mention the date, please, sir?” she said.
“Of course, of course.”
Next was I. Before Ghosh even opened to the page, I had said, “Good evening, sir, my name is Soumashree. S-O-U-M-A-S-H-R-E-E” in one breath.
Ghosh looked wearily at me and then said, “S-O-U?”
In two seconds it was over. So I clutched at the only straw available.
“Sir, can you put in the date please, sir?”
He had already closed the book.
“Thank you so much.”
I returned to my mother, standing at a distance, brandishing the book half expecting people in the mall and on the streets to come running up to me to check out the signed copy. Once home, I ambled into my room where my teacher was hunched over the table, asleep.
“How do you feel?” asked miss.
“Much better,” I said and sighed.
I read Sea of Poppies, turning often to the first signed page. It was rich and homely—a Bengali book written in English.
Exactly two years later, on the same day, I would enter my university’s famed English department. Once inside, I read Amitav Ghosh with renewed vigour in classes where The Hungry Tide was taught with Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies, where passages of In an Antique Land made our professor’s voice quiver, and where The Shadow Lines returned in classes devoted to the larger narrative of nation formation and rupture.
I was deep into the tumult of daily college life when the second part of the Ibis trilogy, River of Smoke, was upon us in 2011. This book, too, was to release in the same bookstore at the same mall. This time, I noticed from the newspaper ads that Ghosh was to speak in at least three other city venues during the concentrated time period in which he was stopping at Calcutta while touring the country with the book.
It had rained heavily on the day, and when I reached the bookstore after a robust fight with my boyfriend, it was entirely full. Ghosh would be in conversation with the maverick Rimi B. Chatterjee—a novelist and my writing professor at university. This time I knew most of the crowd assembled. Classmates, professors, lecturers, friends who studied literature in other colleges, and my boyfriend all milled about in a spirit of great celebration while we waited for Ghosh.
He eventually arrived, looking tired. A classmate whispered, “I almost feel bad that he has to sign so many copies now.” A discussion ensued. A more lively and interactive one than the one in 2008, but a discussion which Chatterjee had to repeatedly maneuver back to the topic of the book, thanks to the garrulous Calcuttan’s natural inclination to begin a long, winding lecture whenever a microphone is handed to him. At the end of a young man’s nervous but long-winded account of how he felt Ghosh should have navigated the boatman’s experience in The Hungry Tide better, the audience had grown agitated and murmured dissent. Ghosh was unperturbed. He had a slight frown but he thanked the man for his opinion and answered him at length.
When the magic hour of the book signings arrived, the bookstore staff handed us small pieces of paper.
“Write your name on it.”
I willingly wrote all 16 letters of my full name on it before realizing that the paper was to act as reference for Ghosh as he signed our names on the books. They would speed the process and eliminate the ordeal of him having to figure out the hurriedly announced spellings of our names over the din.
When my turn came, I handed him the paper and he unquestioningly wrote down my whole name on the book. I remember thinking if he remembers writing the same name down years ago, and then thinking of all the names that he has had to write in the meantime.
“Do you study in college?” he abruptly asked.
“I…yes,” I stammered, looking around wildly for a professor to substantiate this.
“Oh. Where?” Ghosh asked.
“At Jadavpur,” I barely replied.
“Oh. Good,” said Ghosh, looking in Chatterjee’s direction, acknowledging my need to have a professor verify my presence.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Well, thank you,” he replied.
I showed my boyfriend the book. The next morning, we spotted ourselves in photographs of the book release that were published in newspapers.
Time flew, I got two degrees in English literature and moved to Bangalore to work as a journalist for the tabloid pages of an English daily. Tabloid it was, but within its pages, headlined by only the most conventionally beautiful of women, it had detailed theatre reviews, culture pages, and no fewer than a weekly 1,000 words devoted to literature. I did not like my job and its only perk was these book and theatre stories that we got to write. I wrote these with a lot of vigor, but as a new entrant into the city’s tabloid circle, I never quite got into the groove of receiving the first promotional email of any event and was routinely beaten to the juicy book reviews and theatre previews by my colleagues.
One Wednesday in June 2015, my boss suddenly asked, “Do you want to interview Amitav Ghosh day after tomorrow?”
“His Flood of Fire is releasing and I had not noticed the email,” she said. “I will forward it to you. Make sure you read some of his work before going.”
I festered in silence. The email entered my inbox. I called the contact it mentioned at Penguin Random House, Ghosh’s publisher.
“It’s a bit late in the day, isn’t it?” she said.
“I know, but I was just delegated the interview,” I said.
“Take this guy Varun’s number. He’s in charge of the interviews,” she said.
I called this guy Varun.
“Your newspaper’s Chennai office is doing an interview for the national Sunday page review already,” he said.
“I was hoping to speak with him about his particular experience of Bangalore,” I lied.
“Well, that’ll be difficult. Amitav is not doing very well, he is rather ill, so even if I could have squeezed you in under normal circumstances, I don’t think I’ll be able to do that now,” he said.
I almost laughed in relief.
“I understand. Please give him my best.”
“Thanks a lot for being so easy to convince, Soumashree. Please do come at the book launch event.”
“Oh sure, I will.”
The pressure lifted. What questions could I frame for a 10-minute long interview with Ghosh? What questions need one ask the custodian of one’s literary consciousness?
The next day, I went to the boss and told her that we had missed securing a slot in a day’s interactions with Ghosh.
“Do try to go for the evening launch tomorrow, though,” the editor said.
I opened the email again and stared at the location. It was in an atrium at a five-star hotel at the center of the city. Having edited the “Party” pages of the newspaper and attended one too many nightly events where Bangalore’s “it” crowd converged to be photographed, I knew immediately what kind of evening this would be. A staple crowd would turn up to be photographed, they would make small talk and disperse like they dispersed in every other party, no matter what the occasion.
Ghosh had passed from the ambit of mall store book releases into the “entry by invitation only” exclusivity. This was no bookstore. This launch would have no crowd of talkative people so neck-deep in the ethos of Hungry Tide that they forget that there is an audience around them. I was livid. I did not go.
A day later, the lifestyle editor of our newspaper told us that Ghosh was extremely polite and had signed all her books with great courtesy.
“He is a Bengali, like you. Have you read anything by him?”
I raged in silence at a writer climbing the last step of impenetrability and moving out of the reach of the people—his people. How dare the Ghosh of the attic afternoons, the Ghosh whose Burma reflected the one my father spent the best three years of his life, the Ghosh who wrote characters like the softly rebellious Tridib whom we find in every single Bengali home…how dare he betray the shared smallness of our Calcutta to the in-your-face prosperity of Bangalore.
Does the literature that rises from Calcutta belong to the city alone? Yes, I told myself.
I was ashamed even then of feeling this way. But while the likelihood of Ghosh himself announcing that he would like to have a book launch at a hotel instead of a bookstore was pretty slim, I seethed and vowed never to buy this third book.
In 2016, I moved back to Calcutta to work on my own novel. And that year, Ghosh released The Great Derangement. Every publication brought out an interview. I purchased all the magazines that had them. Eventually, I saw a circulating flier on Facebook saying Ghosh would come to a discussion at my university. “All were welcome.”
Events and talks follow a particular tradition at my university. At any given day, somewhere on the campus, a crowd would form around a world-famous academic, leader, writer, or performer visiting then. And the great thing about the crowd was that it was never limited to the students and teachers of the relevant department or even the university. The gates were open to all, all events were open to all.
I reached the hall on a sunny afternoon and could barely open the door enough to slip in. It was entirely full. Ex-students, researchers, professors, ex-professors, organizers, absolute strangers, and current students occupied every inch of the floor and sweated through the air conditioning. Some of the seat handles even had a student on it, crouching low, so as to not obstruct the view of the people behind him or her. The windowsills were occupied. Three people sat on the small bench meant for the sound guy. I sat down on the floor, along with nearly 30 others. Ghosh sat relaxed, and then took out his smartphone and took a photograph of us.
He was in conversation with a professor of comparative literature and one of oceanography. With all the laughter, the effortless discussion, and the way Ghosh referred to how much he had enjoyed an earlier talk at Jadavpur University—a talk in 2008, on the same day when he had gone to the bookstore where I would first see him—he was making amends for releasing Flood of Fire in a swank hotel. The microphone faltered, the room grew hot, but the deep conspiracy of a summer afternoon on Calcutta was at work once again. The writer was ours once again, putting a lid on my jealousy.
Amitav Ghosh would later tweet the photograph of the event. I am there.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
No novel has entranced me this year like the French author Mathias Énard’s Compass, short-listed for the 2017 Booker Prize. Énard, a writer with tremendous empathy for his characters, both as individuals, and also as contextualized individuals embedded within contemporary geopolitical conflicts—the book is dedicated on the last page “to the Syrian people”—writes what ostensibly seems a didactic treatise on the world of orientalist academics. The protagonist, Franz Ritter, is a musicologist whose dreamscape and memories over the course of one sleepless night populate the entirety of the text while taking us through both Eastern and Western lands: Vienna, where Franz lies on a sickbed in the present, to Aleppo, Tehran, Damascus, Paris, and Istanbul, to which Énard pays special attention as the historic “conduit” between Europe and Asia. As Franz dreams restlessly about the woman he loves— another orientalist scholar, Sarah, a historian, whose polyglot prodigiousness on all things worldly and otherworldly pays homage to all forms of scholarship—Compass emerges as both a technical and scholarly feat as well as a love letter to the “Orient” and a rebuke to the fiction of its otherness.
In amusingly familiar academic segues we can see, through Franz, what Sarah might write about: a fanciful article entitled “On the Cosmopolitan Fates of Magical Objects,” Franz imagines (probably accurately) as a title for an article that Sarah would write to show “how these objects are the result of successive shared efforts…that Orient and Occident never appear separately, that they are always intermingled, present in each other, and that these words—Orient, Occident—have no more heuristic value than the unreachable destinations they designate.” Énard’s brilliance is as self-evident as it is comical: Where else but in the idiosyncratic exchanges of academics could we ruminate on such grand ideas through the study of genie lamps and flying carpets? Through Franz’s one-night journey through memory, we meet quirky Egyptologists, composers, writers, archaeologists, philosophers, even charlatans; many of whose stories, whether they physically featured in Franz’s life or not, peter out in a tale of heartbreaking fits and starts. Franz and Sarah’s own story is, predictably, no less sad.
I have been in awe of Énard’s gifts since Street of Thieves, during which I marveled at the empathy with which he treated his Moroccan protagonist, Lakhdar, a young man who travels from Tangier to Tarifa and finally, Barcelona, haunted by an Islamist bombing he had minor involvement in and his excommunication from his family, but assuaged by his love for literature and art: Ibn Battuta and Naguib Mahfouz, the familiar beauties of Tangier and the exotic newness of Barcelona. In Compass, Énard ostensibly faces less of a challenge writing a protagonist with whom he shares at least some cultural sensibilities (although obsessed as Franz is with the appropriation of Oriental music on European composers from Franz Liszt to Hector Berlioz to Ludwig van Beethoven, all of whom get several fascinating pages of description, we shouldn’t minimize the author’s feat: to my knowledge Énard is not an ethnomusicologist), even as the ghost of Edward Said hangs insistently over the orientalist scholars’ cerebral quibbling.
Books like these give me an unerring hope in the human capacity to reach out to an unknown self and try, with meticulous research, observation, erudition, but principally with empathy, to understand a self distinct from one’s own. When I first began to read Compass, I had just begun writing another short story of my own: the first that didn’t include subcontinental Muslim characters. I struggled with the sweep and ambition of the story I wanted to write—one that would have to pass through many generations of an interracial family to plumb the effects of environmental disaster—the Dust Bowl for instance—to demonstrate the ephemeral nature of intergenerational memory. I settled on a four-monologue, play-like structure for the story: one for each generation. I spent months reading first-hand accounts, history texts, longform stories about the impacts and memories of natural disasters. I used my historiographical research in environmental history to think about the people in books as people I could try to know. I read books that described catastrophes: starting off with John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which I remembered as a ruthless story of tenant farmers trapped in economic hardship and poverty as the Dust Bowl reared its ugly head; as crops failed and harsh drought swept over the prairie.
When I finally had a draft I could consider complete, I gave it to my first reader—my most generous reader. She returned it with the terse comment that I should “write what I know.”
What had I done wrong? Had I failed in my research? The details were all correct, I was confident about that. Had I failed to do justice to the two white characters from whose perspective I wrote the first two monologues? Or to the two mixed-race black characters in the last two monologues? Had I failed to empathize?
I went back to the drawing board, trying to convince myself to jettison the story entirely. But the logic of writing solely what I knew was unconvicing. How can I reconcile myself to writing stories about people solely from my cultural background when the stories I want to write have a different sweep, a distinct subject matter that requires me to understand characters outside of my lived experience? That is what I have always seen as the point of literature: its capacity for universality.
As it turns out, this isn’t unfamiliar ground for writers today. Rachel Cusk, recently profiled in The New Yorker by Judith Thurman, had her first book published at 26. She now deems her early work as inferior. Thurman takes Cusk’s disillusionment as a reflexive turn away from the earliest iterations of herself because she managed “to upend the plot of her own life—to break up her family, then to lose her house and her bearings.” Cusk is now married for the third time; about her book Aftermath, a painterly if perplexing memoir about the dissolution of Cusk’s marriage with Adrian Clarke, Thurman argues that Clarke “haunts the text like a ghost.”
Thurman wonders: Why doesn’t Aftermath explain why the marriage dissolved? “This was partly for the children’s sake,” Cusk says. But Aftermath met with some cruel reviews, after which Cusk seemed to change course. She says of her trajectory: “There seems to be some problem about my identity. But no one can find it, because it’s not there—I have lost all interest in having a self. Being a person has always meant getting blamed for it.”
Profiling writers of fiction, mining their lives for clues to explain the eccentricities and artfulness, or perhaps even artifice inside the work themselves—not just thematically but as a direct analog for a protagonist or an entire plot—has become a bit of a trope. Ever since Lena Dunham burst on to the scene, the justification of using autobiographies as the principal quarry from which to mine stories from the vantage point of the writer (what is essentially primary research for the literary critic) has become increasingly more ubiquitous. But of course, you don’t need to have a degree in literary criticism to know that the tradition is far older than Dunham. One could argue it is steeped in the pursuit of the Great American Novel itself: in the specificities of Philip Roth’s Newark Jewish oeuvre, or Norman Mailer’s racially-charged machismo, or as literary critics rigorously argue, on any work of fiction anywhere and any time.
But a certain timbre of particularity, coincident with the rise of the personal essay, has most certainly become more central and self-aware in literature of late: specific questions about which characters represent the author and whether plots actually occurred in the author’s real life pop up in interviews when they were once considered gauche to ask a novelist. A recent interview between writers Chelsea Martin and Juliet Escoria finds them talking about “self-serving writing,” work inspired by autobiography, as if it represented the pinnacle of truth-telling. Escoria talks intimately about her book Juliet the Maniac, contending that she doesn’t really “understand the difference between writing fiction and writing nonfiction.”
There’s more than a whiff of writers being far too hard on themselves. The problem is why contemporary literary trends motivate young writers to believe that their own personal histories are the only histories they can plumb with any believable depth: a belief that visibly flails when confronted with the Enlightenment origins of humanistic “imaginative” capacities that can be traced to at least as far back as Denis Diderot. As Jean le Rond d’Alembert demonstrates in his Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, for Diderot painting, sculpture ,and architecture were deemed at the head of knowledge known as “Imitation,” but it was poetry and music that demonstrated imagination: that the skill demonstrated “by the warmth, the movement, and the life it is capable of giving, it seems rather to create than to portray them.” This creation was rarely conceived merely as reproduction, nor has it been for a very long time. After all, with writers like Leila Guerriero and Joan Didion, as Daniela Serrano so powerfully writes, the compulsion is reversed: it is not looking at yourself that is the most uncomfortable, but at other people.
There can be no doubt, however, that “identity”—with all the limitations and deliverances the word connotes—has become so powerful in popular culture, that the imaginative arts, across different mediums, have found themselves in a bit of a bind. Dunham, when criticized about the whiteness of Girls, claimed that she wanted “to avoid rendering an experience I can’t speak to accurately.” In Sofia Coppola’s recent remake of the Civil War-set, Don Siegel movie The Beguiled, she shifted the perspective from that of the male interloper’s to the women in the cloistered Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies, but crucially she also excised the role of a slave character—one that was present both in Thomas Cullinan’s original book, which served as the source material for both films, and in the first film, where she was played by Mae Mercer.
Coppola received her share of outrage for “whitewashing,” an accusation she deflected the way Dunham did: by essentially arguing that she didn’t wish to take an important subject lightly the way the original source material did; instead, by focusing on what she knew best. But if the dogged discoverers of Elena Ferrante’s true identity are to be believed, Ferrante didn’t know much about the poverty of Lila and Elena’s Neapolitan upbringing either. Has lived experience supplanted all other forms of knowledge as the sole true source of authenticity? As an avid Ferrante fan, I take umbrage with such a reading: I could care less about her true identity—and if she hasn’t truly lived it, then the Neapolitan novels merely display a capacity for virtuosic observation and insight.
But if this is truly an impasse, the contemporary moment in fiction, then it is a problem we must contend with. Arguably we are already contending with it, although perhaps with less success than one would hope. Lionel Shriver told an audience at a writer’s festival last year that, “Taken to their logical conclusion, ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all. Meanwhile, the kind of fiction we are ‘allowed”’to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.” As Sarah Schulman reported, Viet Thanh Nguyen responded in the L.A. Times by saying: “It is possible to write about others not like oneself, if one understands that this is not simply an act of culture and free speech, but one that is enmeshed in a complicated, painful history of ownership and division.”
Nguyen makes a compelling point: we can use this schism to our advantage, but only if we understand the baggage that attends literary, cultural, and political history. Personally, I found Coppola’s version of The Beguiled captivating—with a particularly heartbreaking performance by Kirsten Dunst with a depth almost entirely missing from the earlier incarnation—just as I find much to admire in Dunham’s writing on Girls. But both come saddled with a crucial lack of ambition and not, as they had ostensibly hoped, racial sensitivity. Wouldn’t The Beguiled be all the more interesting if Coppola had extended her nuanced portrayals to a black female character? If it weren’t so illustrative of the loaded identitarian schism at the heart of leftist politics, it would make for the perfect right-wing conspiracy: not only have well-meaning liberals become too PC, they are now roundly dismissed as blinkered by the same folks whose ire they hoped to deflect in the first place.
It goes without saying that the problem doesn’t operate solely at the level of the artist herself. Somehow the gambit has been working, arguably with a deep historical legacy, to widen gaps between artists and audiences, with publishers eager to pander to particular readers depending on the artist. It is by now a cliché that many novels written by women are designed to look like romance novels. On the covers of her books being targeted to specifically to female audiences, Margaret Atwood, in an interview in 2015, mentioned that “there were probably some quite disappointed readers.” Atwood’s interviewer Jessica Stites responded that she couldn’t get her friends to start reading the Neapolitan novels because the first book has a wedding dress on it. Meanwhile, author Nnedi Okorafor wrote a book with a female Muslim protagonist, only for her publisher to suggest a cover with a white female figure on it. One wonders: How could publishers be failing so much to adapt? Surely this is not what Nguyen had in mind. Indeed, if writers are to be brave they must truly go there, and like any writer for any story, do meticulous research. But that may not be enough: one hopes writers have the capacity to publish in a world less maladapted to receive their work as well.
How did we find ourselves here in the first place? Surely writers never decided in closed-door meetings that the social scientific and humanistic academic emphasis on Culture with a capital c would bleed into fiction to such a degree that writers would begin to parse identities into little parcels, keeping only those they could hold ground on; seeing the act of storytelling itself as one circumscribed by the belonging of a identitarian category.
Far more likely is that for writers this is a passive process, one driven by our politics (and/or publishers), by reading the expectations of audiences or anticipating outrage, fears, and concerns that are exacerbated by the near-monopoly in fiction of white authors. Surely writers writ large know there is something reductive about using our own lives as not only the canvases for our art, but of art itself. The argument, or perhaps merely a passive trend riding on a form of herd mentality, seems to dictate that the craft itself has become one’s calling card. Which is to say: not only has the liminal space between identity and individuality been overcome, but storytelling has crashed right through its center, obviating the need for anything else. Why should a story need anything more than an identity? Why shouldn’t Kumail Nanjiani plumb the comedic depths of his own lived trajectory the same way Lena Dunham, Aziz Ansari, Louis C.K., and countless others do?
There can be no prescriptive answer on this question that is not simultaneously political. But I suspect that there comes a point when the regurgitated version of one person’s life, especially when that person belongs to a minority group, begins to feel tired: a genre as trope; Oriental fiction with veils on the covers.
The ruse being played here is that there is no more a sense of a story without an identity preserved through the complex Venn diagrams one inhabits (or fails to); no universality, no totality: merely a small set of interlocking bricks that hold together the walls of our perception of the world. A place where Plato’s Cave is now color-coded, numbered and charted—hierarchies everywhere, opportunities only to move up or down or sideways like chess pieces. And now that the Cave is so stratified, why feel the need to leave it and see it as it is? How can one tell a story, any story, about any form of universal phenomenon if the response one instinctively pre-empts is: How could you know anything about that? This should have been written by a white gender non-conforming person who grew up without money or the awareness of privilege but nonetheless took advantage of it and grew to believe in less humane economic precepts than she/he/they would have had they not been white. It underlies an inherent paralysis, not too different from the paralysis Amitav Ghosh describes for storytelling which is failing to grapple with climate change in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable.
Climate is not identity or racial politics, however, regardless of how closely their consequences are intertwined, but the concept of paralysis, I suspect, prevents talented artists like Sofia Coppola from stretching the bounds of their own ambitions; and more dangerously than for the minority writer it becomes a convenient alibi for the white artist’s conception of believability. But as with most things, it is a double-edged sword. How can we disregard the critique of the white writer who considers himself (often himself) objective enough to take on any character, a critique which has only become more prominent because marginalized writers have pushed it up in discourse after decades of unrewarded work? Today, at least, it is acknowledged in some circles that not only do minority writers deserve a pulpit, but that storytelling in turn requires minority writers (although certainly not a standard held up nearly enough).
Still, it requires a peculiar moment in contemporary culture when certain white male writers can comically (and of course also infuriatingly) decry that their jobs are harder as white men than if they were minorities. In that way, storytelling as with most things bears a truly striking institutional likeness—to the extent that the enterprise of writing and publishing is an institution—to our current politics.
Regardless, the argument of constriction applies to minority writers too—identitarian thought has bled into the wholesome creed of “write what you know.” We have erected walls for ourselves that are both comforting in the way that occupying a niche gives a writer and claustrophobic in the sense of wells running dry, new writers providing old stories that are tired reflections of the works of older writers. Nowhere in my experience is this more true than in fiction from my native South Asia, where the timbre of even the most lauded works by Arundhati Roy, Mohsin Hamid, and Kamila Shamsie has acquired a quality of permanence most subcontinental writers cannot help but emulate in the sprint for awards success. Interestingly, the most incisive critics of Roy have recently pointed out the utter lack of tonal difference between her abundant nonfiction and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: where non-fiction can afford to proselytize, fiction ceases to breathe when crafted in the same mold. Again, however, publishers erect roadblocks in the name of pandering to certain audiences. From a Pakistani perspective, it is all to easy for me to envision publishers who expect me to deal with Islamophobia or terrorism on some level in all my writing, even if apropos of nothing.
And thus: in reifying the fictions of identity (the baseline fact most left-leaning writers can agree on), we have elevated almighty Culture, enforced monopolies of singular identities and mashed them all up. No longer can storytelling be ambitious in the fashion of Doris Lessing (who admittedly dabbled in both very autobiographical and very non-autobiographical work, the height of the latter reached in her sublime Canopus in Argos space fiction).
Instead, every story would serve itself best as another iteration of your own personal diagram, chipping away at your own identity slowly, painstakingly, even dully over the decades like Philip Roth, but surely not like Mathias Énard: there would no imagination, only personal research. No external perception, only introspection.
With this conversation raging in my head as a writer of color, it’s fascinating sometimes to dissect my own responses to my work. Had my first reader got it right—was she letting me off the hook by telling me to write what I knew because the story didn’t hold up to the literary standards she knew I aspired to? Very possibly. I didn’t let the story go, however. I doubled down, and worked even harder at it. But even more intriguing to me than the cases where I double down are those where I have chosen to let go. When my first work of fiction was published, at The Rumpus, my editor told me that the website had commissioned an artist to illustrate my story. I couldn’t wait, both for the story, and for the art it would sit alongside.
When the story was published, I was astonished. The style of the art was sparse and completely appropriate to the story: three drawings in all. But curiously, the second illustration, inspired by a pivotal scene where my male Pakistani protagonist has a brief exchange with a friend’s grandmother, looked suspiciously Western. There was a reference to chai in the text, but scant other details. I remember instinctively thinking: there’s no way the grandmother would look like that. A Pakistani grandmother would be wearing a loose dupatta, along with a shalwar kameez—a long tunic and loose trousers.
I thought about it for a long time. Ultimately, I decided that there was something about that drawing that captured other specificities—the posture of the grandmother, her spirit—that moved me. I concluded that it was great as it was. The artist had read my story and decided to interpret it the best way she could, and despite the initial skepticism it aroused in me, I liked the idea of the illustration reading my work as something transcendent, something neither here nor there but everywhere: maybe, something even universal.
The day after the story came out, I contacted the artist: one of her works hangs on my bedroom wall, a reminder both of my resistance and release and of the artist’s intended or unintended attempt to universalize my work. I don’t wish to ask. Why should I? No matter how much specificity we try to achieve, we will always fall short.
After all, as the (white, male) writer Mark Greif tells us, “your life has to be your own: no one else can live it for you, as you can’t enter anyone else’s life to know it feels.”
Image Credit: Public Domain Pictures.