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Keywords:

  • [Amitav Ghosh;
  • literature;
  • fiction;
  • ethnography;
  • ethnographic description;
  • India;
  • Southeast Asia]

Amitav Ghosh was born in Calcutta and grew up in India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. He studied in Delhi, Oxford (where he received a Ph.D. in social anthropology), and Alexandria and is the author of The Circle of Reason, The Shadow Lines, In an Antique Land, Dancing in Cambodia, The Calcutta Chromosome, The Glass Palace, and The Hungry Tide. Sea of Poppies (2008) and River of Smoke (2011) are his most recent novels, the first two in his Ibis trilogy. Ghosh's essays have been published in The New Yorker, The New Republic, and The New York Times. He has taught at Delhi University, Columbia, Queens College, and Harvard. In January 2007 he was awarded the Padma Shri Award for Arts and Literature, one of India's highest honors. In 2010, Ghosh was awarded honorary doctorates by Queens College in New York and the Sorbonne.

Q. Let me begin by telling you that the first piece I read of yours was In an Antique Land (Antique Land)—it was assigned to me in a class on the anthropology of the nation-state. Does that surprise you?

A. Yes, it does. I know Antique Land is taught in many different courses, but I’d have thought that it would be an unlikely candidate for this one.

Q. The first half of Antique Land is based on your ethnographic research in Egypt and is a narrative account of what (and really, how) you learned during your fieldwork, while the second half is often referred to as a historical but somewhat fictionalized narrative telling the story of two characters whose stories are nevertheless based on your ethnographic research. So do you think of the first half of the book as more “anthropological,” and the second half as somehow closer to the stuff of your novels?

A. Actually the narratives don't follow on each other: they are joined together in a helical pattern. That was the book's formal challenge. I should explain also that neither narrative is fictional. One is based on historical sources (the Geniza documents) and the other is based on my personal experiences in Egypt. I had written two novels before I started writing Antique Land so by that time I understood very well what writing fiction was about. And I can tell you this with absolute certainty: nothing in Antique Land is invented.

When people describe Antique Land as a novel, or as “fiction,” I think they are actually referring to the book's structure rather than its content. But this is misleading in my view because the book is, as I said above, strictly nonfictional. Nonfiction, like fiction, offers a rich field for formal experimentation, and the 1980s, when I started working on the book, was a time when really interesting things were being done in nonfiction. Bruce Chatwin and Ryzard Kapuscinski were two of the writers I was reading at the time. It was around then also that the magazine Granta rose to prominence, largely by publishing experimental nonfiction. I had written a few articles for Granta before I started Antique Land. The editor of Granta, Bill Buford, gave me the advance that made it possible for me to write the book. This was the context in which the book was written.

Q. So can you tell us a bit more about how you think about fact, fiction, and anthropology—separately or together—as you draw upon these in Antique Land, a book that has been referred to by literary theorists as “difficult to categorize” or “indefinable”?1

A. Before writing any of my published books, I’d written a doctoral dissertation in anthropology at Oxford. My dissertation was an odd one and I was lucky that I was at the Institute of Social Anthropology at Oxford, which was a very unusual, some would say eccentric, department in those days. I doubt I would have lasted long in any other department—not just of anthropology but any subject. But after I finished my dissertation I was left with a nagging sense of dissatisfaction: I felt that everything that was important about my time in Egypt had been left unsaid. To describe this as a “nagging sense of dissatisfaction” is perhaps inadequate. Like many who’ve spent a long time alone in a foreign circumstance, I was haunted by my experiences. This was one of the reasons why it became so important to write the book.

While living in Egypt, I did two kinds of writing. I kept field notes and I also wrote a set of diaries. In my mind the field notes were the “anthropological” part of my work; the diaries were more literary. My dissertation was based almost entirely on my field notes; similarly the first-person narrative in Antique Land is based on my diaries.

But I also had to learn a new language and a whole new set of skills in order to write Antique Land. The documents that figure in the book had not been translated then, so I had to learn Judeo-Arabic; I also had to decipher and transcribe them myself, which was a feat of another kind. Anthropology had not prepared me for any of this. When I look back I wonder how I found the nerve to take it on.

The fact that the book does not fall easily within generic boundaries may have proved to be an asset in the long run but it wasn't so in the beginning. I think it annoyed and unsettled many in both the academic and literary worlds; many were hostile or dismissive. But I should add here that even back then there was one place where the book was received with great warmth: this was the University of California, Santa Cruz. This was largely because of two scholars there, James Clifford in History of Consciousness and David Schneider in Anthropology, who were very supportive of the book: I always remember this with gratitude.

But when the book appeared in 1992, there were few reviews and the sales were abysmal: it “sank like a stone” as publishers like to say. It was very disheartening. In retrospect it seems miraculous that Antique Land has survived and continues to be read, 20 years after its publication.

Q. Part of what is compelling about Antique Land, one reason it has been so lauded by anthropologists and others, is the way it evokes and asserts deep historical connections between Egypt and India—depicting these places not as isolated nations or defined by discrete religious traditions—but somewhat arbitrarily bordered places across which people have long traveled, communicated, and formed close relationships. Was this book (and perhaps, too, your Ibis trilogy) conceived as something of a rebuttal to a historiography that has imagined not only Egypt and India—but other nations and places—as too disconnected and culturally bounded? And, a corollary to this question: do you think historical, semi-“fictional” narrative captures these interconnections more powerfully than traditional ethnography otherwise might?

A. It is certainly true that I wanted to explore the connections between India and the rest of the world. I had already done this in the books that preceded Antique Land, both of which were novels: The Circle of Reason and The Shadow Lines. But Antique Land pushed the timeline much farther back, into the 12th century. Today the idea of “connected histories” is widely accepted but it wasn't much on anyone's mind back then.

I don't think fictional narratives are by any means necessary for “connected history” (and let me repeat: the historical narrative in Antique Land is not fictional). The whole point of these connections is that they actually existed—to fictionalize them would actually dilute their significance.

Africa, Europe, and Asia have always been closely connected—as Jack Goody has shown, it is the denial of these connections that is the product, as it were, of a kind of fantasy. Natalie Zemon Davis, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, John-Paul Ghobrial, and many others have brilliantly explored intercontinental connections without resorting to fiction.

Q. Your books are so full of (ethnographic?) detail! In Sea of Poppies (2008), the first of your three novels in the Ibis series, we find pages of 19th-century laskar dialect, paragraph-long descriptions of 19th-century marine equipment and clothing, vivid renderings of Indian towns and villages—yet you seem so at ease lacing rather arcane historical detail throughout your prose. Indeed your recent books lead the reader through historical cultural worlds as if you had visited these places and knew them first hand. From Sea of Poppies: “Just as the sound of the sunset azan was floating across the water, Neel discovered that he had no more of the fine shanbaff dhotis and abrawan-muslin kurtas that he usually wore on public occasions: they had all been sent off to be laundered. He had to content himself with a relatively coarse dosooti dhoti and an alliballie kurta”[2008:104]. How much research do you do to ensure that the fine grain of this detail is accurate—or is there improvisation and extrapolation? Does your ethnographic knowledge and certainty begin to loosen or dissolve as you sink into thick description in your books—and can you sense when that happens? Do you try to avoid it?

A. To me one aspect of the power of the novel, as a form, is that it allows us to re-create unfamiliar worlds and unfamiliar moments in time. When we deal with familiar situations it doesn't call for much effort—we all have an idea, for example, of what a ballroom looked like in Napoleon's time. We can sketch it with a few easy gestures and leave the rest to the reader's imagination.

The trouble with writing about the world I’m dealing with in the Ibis trilogy is that it is largely unknown. This is particularly true of early 19th-century Canton: it was completely unique, unlike any other place on earth. One of the pleasures of writing about it lay precisely in making it an inhabited world, in conjuring up its furniture, so to speak.

It's interesting that you’ve chosen to quote the bit about shanbaff dhotis and abrawan-muslin. The reason I’m a writer is because I love words, the very sound of them. That's often the only reason why I put them in. Of course I do try to stay within certain boundaries of plausibility: but the real reason why these words are there is not because they refer to details or because they are necessary to the narrative. It's simply because I like the way they sound.

Q. A related issue has to do with your position as a narrator in these books. In Antique Land, you are yourself a character and position yourself in the book as a mediator and interpreter of these cultural worlds. But in your more “novelistic” work, you take on the role of an omniscient narrator who recounts to us—as in the quote I just pulled from Sea of Poppies—how people think about and understand the events and places around them. This has been, I would argue, one of the thorniest issues with ethnographic description because we simply can't ever “get inside” people's heads. In fiction, you can do that. Is this liberating? Or does it present its own thorny set of questions about how various characters with varying cultural sensibilities might differently experience or interpret a particular gesture, emotion, taste?

A. Anthropologists aren't alone in their discomfort with the omniscient narrator. It's rare nowadays to come across a novel written in this form. Young writers of fiction almost never use it: they far prefer the first person and find it difficult and indeed distasteful to enter other people's heads. I don't think these attitudes are always based on reasoned positions: they are often the product of diffuse cultural and political anxieties, mainly concerned with matters of identity. Suffice it to say that in my view the very possibility of an imaginative literature rests upon the willingness to embark upon the adventure of trying to see the world from another person's point of view.

Q. Why, ultimately, did you decide to pursue a career as an author rather than as an anthropologist?

A. I never had any desire for an academic career. I always wanted to be a “writer,” whatever that means, and I felt that to become one I had to travel. This is how I’ve described it elsewhere: “My dream was of writing fiction, but like many an aspiring novelist I felt I lacked the necessary richness of experience. The writers I admired—V. S. Naipaul, James Baldwin, and others—had gone out into the world and watched it go by: I wanted no less for myself.”

But in those days it was impossible for young people from the Third World to get visas. The academic route was one of the few that permitted us to travel (legally). This was one of the reasons why I applied for a scholarship to Oxford. And of course, one of the attractions of anthropology was that it offered great potential for travel.

I found anthropology fascinating and rewarding in many different ways: it's a wonderful broad-bosomed field of study. But even when I was writing my dissertation I knew that my future would not be in anthropology. Perhaps this had something to do with the discipline as it was then—I think it has changed a lot since. But mainly it was because fiction was my first love: this has never changed.

I’ve made my living as a writer for a long time and I realize now that there is a vast difference between an academic career and a life supported by writing. It actually has very little to do with what you studied in college, or what you’re thinking and writing about: it's mainly about the way you make your living. This does indeed create (as anthropologists know) two disparate modes of existence, two utterly different ways of relating to the world. In saying this I don't want to imply that either is better than the other: it's just that they are very, very different.

Q. Do you understand yourself to still have one foot in the world of academic anthropology? Do you intend to conduct any “fieldwork” in the future—or would you rather call this “research for your next book”?

A. It's been many, many years since I’ve had any kind of formal connection with academic anthropology. Since the mid-1990s, I’ve done occasional teaching stints, but the positions have all been in departments of literature or comparative literature. But I do still have many informal connections with anthropology, mainly through friends. Some have become activists while some have remained in academia. Some do both.

As for fieldwork, I like to visit the places I write about and I often spend time in them. But now when I’m in a place I plan to write about my approach is that of a note-taking journalist—this, too, is something I’ve done a great deal of.

Q. How has anthropology otherwise been useful in your development as a writer?

A. The one most important thing I learnt from anthropology (especially fieldwork) was the art of observation: how to watch interactions between people, how to listen to conversations, how to look for hidden patterns. This has always stayed with me and has influenced everything I’ve done, especially my journalism. The other thing anthropology did for me was that it took my interest in language in new directions. I became very interested in linguistic anthropology and especially in sociolinguistics. These interests have also stayed with me and have greatly enriched my novels.

Q. I’m thinking about titling our interview, “Anthropology and/as Fiction.” Thoughts?

A. I would prefer “Anthropology and Fiction.” I don't think “Anthropology as Fiction” is actually a defensible notion.

NOTE
  • 1

    Neelam Srivastava. 2001. Amitav Ghosh's Ethnographic Fictions: Intertextual Links between In an Antique Land and His Doctoral Thesis. Journal of Commonwealth Literature 36(2):45–64.

REFERENCES CITED

  1. Top of page
  2. REFERENCES CITED
  • Ghosh, Amitav 1986 The Circle of Reason. London : Granta.
  • Ghosh, Amitav 1988 The Shadow Lines. London : Oxford University Press.
  • Ghosh, Amitav 1992 In an Antique Land. New York : Vintage.
  • Ghosh, Amitav 1996 The Calcutta Chromosome. Delhi : Ravi Dayal.
  • Ghosh, Amitav 2000 The Glass Palace. Delhi : Penguin India.
  • Ghosh, Amitav 2005 The Hungry Tide. New York : HarperCollins.
  • Ghosh, Amitav 2008 Sea of Poppies. London : John Murray.
  • Ghosh, Amitav 2011 River of Smoke. New York : Penguin.