“The literary challenge of this moment is restoring voice and agency to non-humans”: A Conversation with Amitav Ghosh
“Both non-humans and human Others were represented as being fit to be ‘subdued’ (a word that recurs often in colonial texts).”
The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis,The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable—
The Nutmeg’s Curse
literary The Nutmeg’s Curse
Sea of PoppiesRiver of Smoke;Flood of FireThe Great Derangement: Climate Change and the UnthinkableForeign Policy
Namrata Poddar: You’re one of the rare public intellectuals I know within a contemporary community of literary artists who are also formidable fiction writers. Your 2016 book, , was a rich and incisive commentary on our global environmental crisis. What inspired you to write , another nonfiction book on climate change, that too within a global pandemic?
The Nutmeg’s CurseThe Great DerangementGun Island. The Nutmeg’s Curse
NP: Your book begins with the nightmarish story of the Dutch arrival in the Banda Islands of the Indian Ocean where nutmeg was known to flourish like nowhere else in the seventeenth century. Here is a historic moment when European powers are competing to take possession of the East and gain monopoly over the trade in spices, coveted in Europe as high luxury products. Your book shows how a marriage of capitalist ambition, colonization of both eastern lands and the New World, of Christianity in service of empire, and genocide—human and environmental—perpetrated across the globe altered man’s relationship to nature forever. This history of Europe colonizing about nine-tenths of the earth’s land surface by the early twentieth century is, surely, a multilayered one, and like most historic phenomena, without enough documentation that centers the colonized. What led you to begin a story—about colonialism and an epistemic violence it inflicted upon our planet—with the Banda Islands and the nutmeg?
NP: To linger on a colonial invention of nature as a mute entity, ever available to be exploited for profit, your book reminds us how western literature with its cult of “morbid individualism” was a key player in emptying nature of its vitalism. A belief in nature’s vitalism was once embraced by many in different parts of the world including poorer European communities and women across the planet who bore an alternative relationship to land. Your book offers a way out of our current climate crisis through alternative storytelling that debunks the myth of the Anthropocene and allows nature to tell her own stories. How can this happen if “serious literature,” especially in the West, has come to be associated with realism where nature in the name of verisimilitude cannot do much more than play the role of a passive setting?
NP: From white colonial politics to brown neocolonial politics in growing economies like India, all scrambling for land and displacing people for profit, the lead actors in your book’s ecological drama are male. When women offered resistance to this tory, white or brown, your book reminds us how they were silenced. European witch-hunting, for instance, hit a peak during the rise of European colonial ambition. As a way forward, your book wonders if a sharing of power—psychological and political—amid the world’s superpowers can truly happen, even if it’s crucial to redistributing resources for a sustainable future. I wonder then: when it comes to key positions in political or thought leadership that will necessarily impact our global relationship to the environment, do you see a sharing of power across gender to be as urgent, even if gender is a construct? If yes, how do you think this will happen, especially in the United States—one of the world’s most lauded democracies and think tanks on climate change—which still awaits a woman president?
NP: Finally, if you had to distill your book’s multilayered narrative of eco- and cultural criticism to one idea our readers today can take away with them, what would it be?
Namrata Poddar writes fiction and nonfiction, teaches literature and creative writing at UCLA, and serves as the Interviews Editor for Kweli where she curates a series on Race, Power and Storytelling. Her work has appeared in Longreads, Literary Hub, Poets & Writers, The Kenyon Review, The Best Asian Short Stories, Electric Literature, VIDA Review, and elsewhere. Her debut novel, BORDER LESS, was a finalist for Feminist Press's Louise Meriwether Prize, and is releasing from 7.13 Books in March 2022. Find her on Twitter, @poddar_namrata, and on Instagram, @writerpoddar.