Oct. 31, 2018

Amitav Ghosh tackles the great divide between literature and climate change

Acclaimed novelist to appear at MacEwan Ballroom Nov. 20 as 2018-19 Distinguished Visiting Writer

Alhough his climatologist friends mock him for his guilty pleasure, novelist Amitav Ghosh admits he is a huge fan of Hollywood’s overblown climate disaster epics, such as The Day After Tomorrow and Geostorm

“I love them! I watch them obsessively,” he says, laughing over the phone from his Brooklyn home in an interview to promote his upcoming appearance at the University of Calgary on Nov. 20. Ghosh will be giving a reading at MacEwan Ballroom as this year’s Distinguished Visiting Writer for the university’s Calgary Distinguished Writers Program

  • Above: Novelist Amitav Ghosh will be doing a reading and signing books at MacEwan Ballroom on Nov. 20 as the 2018-2019 Distinguished Visiting Writer for the Calgary Distinguished Writers Program.

“My climate scientist friends laugh at me for this,” Ghosh says, “because the practical science in a movie like The Day After Tomorrow is bad. But I find these movies very compelling. And I do think both film and television have been much more forward-leaning than the literary world in dealing with climate change.” 

This is something the acclaimed Calcutta-born novelist hopes to change. He describes his upcoming novel Gun Island as a story about a world wracked by climate change “in which creature and beings of every kind have been torn loose from their accustomed homes by the catastrophic processes of displacement that are now unfolding across the Earth at an ever-increasing pace.”

Meanwhile, his last book was a non-fiction work entitled The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, wherein Ghosh addressed the relative failure of modern literature to properly take on the realities of climate change. 

“This is the most important crisis of our times and it’s hitting us in the face every day,” says Ghosh. “Look at these devastating typhoons and tornadoes, or the wildfires you had in British Columbia. These are deadly serious weather events and lived experiences. And yet, this sort of thing seems to not figure as much as it should in the mainstream literature of our times.” 

He adds: “This is a recent phenomenon. If you think of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), that’s a book about climate change, with the Dust Bowl that occurred in America in the '20s and '30s. There was a time when these problems were addressed in modern literature. But I think that’s less and less the case today.” 

Modern literature, notes Ghosh, tends to be more focused on “urban spaces and experiences as well as identity issues, such as nationalism and gender.” 

In many ways The Great Derangement began as a sort of auto-critique, says Ghosh, with the writer challenging himself for failing to adequately tackle the issues of climate change in his own work. 

Ghosh is quick to add that some contemporary novelists have written brilliantly about this crisis of our times, such as Richard Powers in this year’s The Overstory. But given the magnitude of this dilemma, Ghosh feels there needs to be more. 

“Part of the problem is the sheer scale of it,” he says. “Generally, novels are set in a few select places. But climate change occurs across these vast horizons, with cascading connections between many faraway places. Also, climate change often encroaches very slowly, such as the mega drought in California. It’s not clear how one writes about that, and it’s not easy, but we have to find a way.” 

However, says Ghosh, it’s not necessarily a matter of sitting down with an agenda to write the great climate change novel. “It’s more a matter of writing a novel and being aware that the reality of climate change is all around you, just as the realities of your city or village or province is around you. It’s a part of our reality — so let’s better address this.” 

As the 2018-2019 Distinguished Visiting Writer, Ghosh joins a long list of literary luminaries that have appeared on campus over the 25 years since the Calgary Distinguished Writers Program was started. Past Distinguished Visiting Writers have included Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Art Spiegelman, Michael Ondaatje and Nobel Laureates Derek Walcott and Wole Soyinka, among others. 

An Evening With Amitav Ghosh, which includes a public reading and a book signing, is free to attend but tickets must be reserved in advance. Reserve your tickets.