‘Gun Island’ Is a Surreal Novel About Climate Change and Migration
Amitav Ghosh on the ongoing erosion of the Sundarbans
The specter of climate change swirls around the characters of Amitav Ghosh’s latest novel, Gun Island. Deen, a New York-based antiquarian book dealer goes into the Sundarbans, the (disappearing) wetlands wedged between India and Bangladesh, in search of a shrine—and the truth behind the myth of the Gun Merchant and Manasi Devi, the goddess of snakes.
This journey sets off a chain of others and brings in Piya, an American scientist monitoring dolphins in the Sundarbans; Tipu, a slippery, ever-hustling young man who schools Deen; the earnest Rafi who goes from the Sundarbans to Venice via a convoluted, dangerous route taken by migrants today, and Cinta, the glamorous Italian academic, whose faith and insight glimmer through the book. Ghosh weaves the myth of the Gun Merchant into contemporary weather-related realities such as the Los Angeles wildfires, the unusual travels of dolphins and spiders, and the sinking buildings of Venice, to create a pacy, absurdist, and ultimately hopeful tale of our times.
J.R. Ramakrishnan: I feel like rare books and book dealers make for the best characters. Your novel made me think of Amin Maalouf’s Balthasar’s Odyssey which has a protagonist chasing down antiquarian book dealers in search of book containing the 100th name of Allah set in the 17th century, a time period that is very much present in your book too. How did Deen as a character come to you?
Amitav Ghosh: I don’t think it’s an accident that Amin Maalouf and I have rare book dealers as characters. He’s a man who reads a lot and who is steeped in history. That’s true of me as well. The reason why my character became a rare book dealer is because he’s not the central character. He’s the narrator but not the protagonist. He’s just an observer. He’s not trying to take center stage. He became the narrator at a very early point. I’ve only written one novel in the first person so I wanted to get back into that and he emerged out of that.
JRR: The book contains multiple journeys. I felt like I was right there in the Sundarbans with Deen when he goes to the shrine early in the novel. You obviously know the area very well.
AG: As you may know, I wrote an earlier book about the Sundarbans. It’s called The Hungry Tide. The Sundarbans just worked its way into this story. I think that happens when you have a very powerful landscape—it tends to impose itself on you. I’ve been there a lot. It’s very much part of my imaginative life. I guess it was inevitable that it would be part of this book as the Sundarbans are very, very badly affected by climate change and it’s an ongoing disaster.
JRR: I guess it is one of the frontlines of climate change?
AG: Yes, absolutely. Actually way back when I first started writing about the Sundarbans in 2000, I could already see some of the effects. I didn’t understand exactly what was happening. Only later when the science became clearer, and more and more was written about it, that it became apparent to me.
JRR: I wanted to ask you about the scene when Deen is on the flight to Los Angeles and is anxious about the wildfires in the city. He accidentally turns on his Bluetooth speaker in the luggage bin and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s “Allah Hoo” comes on. Things get worse for him and he’s detained upon arrival in LAX. In your non-fiction book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, you write that fiction writers should not treat weather events as surrealism or magical realism. How did you consider this episode (and others like it) when you were writing this book?
AG: In every book one tends to put in one’s own fears and hopes and so on. I am always amazed about the things that phones and Bluetooth speakers do. How they suddenly come and you have no awareness of why they coming on and what they are on about. You know these things do happen. As a brown person traveling in America, you have to be constantly hyper aware of your surroundings and everything that could go wrong. I guess all of that set into it.
And about that scene that you mentioned in Los Angeles, you know the real strange thing was, that it actually happened that the Getty Museum was almost in the path of one the wildfires. The strangest part of it is that I wrote that section before it happened. It was jolting when it happened. That’s an experience that happened several times in the writing of the book. What I can say? It’s like fact is outrunning fiction when it comes to climate change.
JRR: And also perhaps that fiction might have predictive qualities?
AG: It’s something even weirder than that. It was uncanny. Things that were unimaginable happen around you. Just the other day, my friend sent me pictures of this massive hailstorm in Venice, which is another scene in the book. Another sent me pictures of tornadoes near Venice, which are very unusual. Another friend in Venice wrote to me and said he had to take his son to the hospital because he’d been bitten by a dangerous spider. It’s just so weird. (Writer’s note: A tornado and a strange spider make appearances in Gun Island.)
JRR: What a difference between the people who get to move around the world freely and those to have to plot their trips and sneak past borders! Piya gets to fly and forth between India and the U.S. to research marine life, and Deen, despite his anxieties about money, is mobile and gets a paid trip to Venice to help with a documentary. On the other hand, Tipu and Rafi have to undergo extreme journeys to move. At the same time, Deen is somewhat jealous when Tipu tells him about crossing borders without passports. Deen recalls the amount of time he’s spent in “official” immigration processes. Would you talk about about this dynamic in the book please?
AG: Well, there is definitely a national and racial coding to who can travel and who can’t. Especially if you have an Indian passport as I do, it’s so glaringly obvious. Every time I get an invitation, I have to go and stand in some visa [line] somewhere where people often treat you badly. I think it gets so ingrained in you and that fear and anxiety remains with you always. I see the difference all the time. People who have certain passports, say American, Canadian, or Australian passports, just don’t have any anxiety. They know that even without their passports, they will be fine! These systems are so racialized that even when some who have Western passports have trouble. This is such a marked difference in the world. But you have to remember that the world we live in today is defined by travel. The largest industry in the world is tourism.
One of the real elements behind this enormous movement you are seeing in the world is that people just don’t want to feel they are confined, that are in some kind of reservation that they can’t leave. That in itself creates a wild anxiety and yearning for movement. I myself am very aware of this. When I was 18 or 19, when I had just graduated from college, I was desperate to travel. I wanted to see the world. I read books by Naipaul, Octavio Paz, and all the great travelers. I wrote this letter offering to teach English and went to 77 embassies and dropped it off. I did get a couple of answers and they went something like this: “We have plenty of Indians of our own and we don’t need anymore.” Fortunately, I got a scholarship that let me go to Oxford. Often when I was talking to the young refugees and migrants in Italy, I really had the sense, I would have done exactly what they did.
JRR: I spoke to your colleague Suketu Mehta about his new book. When we spoke, he said that we really haven’t seen nothing yet on the immigration crisis front, that when climate change really kicks in, we’ll see what crisis will truly mean.
AG: I haven’t read Suketu’s book yet but I plan to! When I read articles that he’s written, I get the sense that he’s approaching the subject from the point of view of is this a good thing or is this a bad thing? He’s obviously all for it, as indeed am I. I was more interested in how immigration was happening. In what way was it happening? The reason why this subject interested me so much was climate change. I made the assumption that climate change was the prime driver behind the movement but it’s not that simple. It is true that many, many of these people are displaced by climate change, especially those from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and parts of Africa. But there are other factors too.
For example, I met this young Pakistani man in Italy. His land was swept away in a flood. He told me that if this had happened in an earlier time, he would have moved to a city or gone somewhere else and waited for the flood to subside and for his land to come back. But this time, he had his phone and he knew of this whole network of people who could help you travel. Instead of investing his money in his land, he decided to sell his land and go abroad.
A lot of this is happening because the systems exist, and these systems are not trivial systems. The human trafficking business is the biggest clandestine industry in the world, even bigger than the drug trade. It reaches very deep into society, especially poor societies. On top of that, you have the information system. If you are a poor kid in say Bangladesh or Pakistan—both of these countries have higher rates of internet penetration rates than the U.S.—you see these pictures on your cheap smartphone. You have social media and you are connected to people who can help you move. These technologies are absolutely at the heart of movement.
JRR: I fell in love with the character of Cinta. I want to talk to you about when she and Deen are talking about how the story of the Gun Merchant and Manasi Devi was not written down. She says “Maybe they believed the story wasn’t over – that it would reach out into the future?” What can stories do for us in this time?
AG: First of all, I am really glad that you like her. She’s my favorite as well. She’s the main character in the book for me. But I have to say that I don’t think a book can do much. I’m not one of those who believe if you tell a better story, everyone will change their minds. I don’t think that’s the case. Sometimes the stories will help you understand and inhabit a certain kind of predicament. After my book The Hungry Tide came out, I saw that people who read it had a completely different way of relating and imagining the Sundarbans. I do think that in that way a story can make a difference.
JRR: In spite of Cinta’s tragedies, she has a lot of faith, something that Deen grapples with a lot. You have him praying by the book’s end. And there’s Piya whose belief system is science. Would you talk about the role of faith in the book, and dealing with climate change? The novel ends on a hopeful note.
AG: I do think that we have a duty to work towards to a better outcome. I am not someone who thinks in terms of the apocalypse. That’s a very male Western thing, these apocalyptic narratives. I don’t want to be associated with that. I don’t think my book is climate fiction at all. It’s actually a reality that it is in hard circumstances that humans often discover joy and faith. When you talk about people who’ve been through wars, they talk about how terrifying it was but also how it gave their lives deep meaning. The same will be true of this time and you see that already. Every time there are these floods or other catastrophes, you hear people talking about coming together, how there was a sense of renewal and hope, and so on. Climate change is all around us and it affects us in different ways. If the reality we live in now alters our mind in relation to what we think about, I think that it is a positive. If we stop thinking about commodities and constantly writing about pop culture, and think about deeper human meanings, I think something positive is already there.