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Between the Covers Amitav Ghosh Interview

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David Naimon: Today’s episode of Between the Covers is brought to you by All Lit Up, Canada’s independent online bookstore and literary space for readers of emerging, quirky, and acclaimed indie books. All Lit Up is your Canadian connection for award-winning fiction and poetry, author interviews, book roundups, recommendations, and more. The only online retailer dedicated to Canadian literature, All Lit Up features books from 60 literary publishers and now they offer e-books in accessible formats through their ebooks for Everyone collection. All Lit Up makes it easy to discover and buy exciting contemporary Canadian literature all in one place. Check out All Lit Up at US readers can also shop All Lit Up close to home and save on shipping when they purchase books from its affiliate shop, browse selected titles at Today’s episode is also brought to you by Morgan Talty’s much-anticipated debut novel Fire Exit, a powerful story of family, legacy, bloodlines, culture, and inheritance. Set on and across the river from Maine’s Penobscot reservation, Fire Exit reveals the secrets of Charles Lamosway, who for decades has watched another man raise his child. Called “utterly consuming” by Tommy Orange and “frankly honest” by Brandon Taylor, Fire Exit asks what, if anything, we owe one another. For, in the words of Karen Russell, “Forgiveness, Morgan shows us, is also the work of a lifetime.” Fire Exit is out on June 4th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. There are innumerable reasons why I’m excited about today’s conversation with Amitav Ghosh. One is that he brings together two inquiries of thought that are a long-standing interest on the show, questions about the legacies of colonialism and extractive colonial economies, and decolonizing the way we tell historical narratives. The other is the presence or banishment of the non-human other within narratives, questions of plant intelligence and the ways plants are historical agents, actual actors within history, and how this is or isn’t reflected in how we tell our stories. Sometimes today we talk about how these forces relate to writing and the history of writing directly. But even when we are purely talking about history, for instance, the opium trade in India and China leading up to the First Opium War, keep in mind that the forces we are talking about, both the geopolitical forces and the relationship to the land that they reflect, and the mindset behind them are the same forces that foster and shape the rise of realism within fiction and set the parameters of what comes to be considered the modern literary novel. The second reason I’m excited about today’s guest is that he is one of the most frequently requested guests among our ongoing collective brainstorming among Between the Covers supporters, so I can anticipate the particular joy some of you will be having when you receive the notice about today’s episode in your inboxes. Joining our brainstorm is one of the benefits all people who join the Between the Covers Community as listener-supporters can join in on. Everyone also gets the resources with each episode of what I discovered while preparing, things we referenced during it, and suggestions where you might explore once you’re done listening. Then there are innumerable other things you can choose from on top of all of this, whether the book I co-wrote with Ursula K. Le Guin Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing or the Tin House Early Readers subscription, receiving 12 books over the course of a year, months before they’re available to the general public or subscribing to the bonus audio archive, which is immense and ever-growing. Some of the bonus material relevant to today’s conversation include Richard Powers reading a poem about trees by W.S. Merwin, Elvia Wilk reading her essay Death by Landscape, Forrest Gander sharing collaborative poetry he created with a lichen scientist, Jorie Graham talking about different types of rain and reading favorite rain poems, Alice Oswald contending with the Book of Job, Teju Cole reading Etel Adnan on cave paintings and Pádraig Ó Tuama, the host of Poetry Unbound, reading poems in both Irish and English, and much more. You can find out about all of this at Now, for today’s episode with Amitav Ghosh.


David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest, Amitav Ghosh, is the author of many books of fiction and nonfiction engaging with global imperialism, the human impact on the non-human world, plant intelligence, and human storytelling and how these factors intersect and inform each other. Ghosh received a doctorate in social anthropology from Oxford, worked at The Indian Express newspaper in New Delhi, and in 1986, published his debut novel The Circle of Reason, winner of the Prix Médicis étranger. His novel The Calcutta Chromosome won the 1997 Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction. The Glass Palace was awarded the best novel in the Eurasian section of the Commonwealth Writers Prize for which Ghosh removed it from final consideration saying, “So far as I can determine, The Glass Palace is eligible for the Commonwealth Prize partly because it was written in English and partly because I happen to belong to a region that was once conquered and ruled by Imperial Britain. Of the many reasons why a book’s merits may be recognized, these seem to me to be the least persuasive. That the past engenders the present is of course undeniable; it is equally undeniable that the reasons why I write in English are ultimately rooted in my country’s history. Yet, the ways in which we remember the past are not determined solely by the brute facts of time: they are also open to choice, reflection and judgment. The issue of how the past is to be remembered lies at the heart of The Glass Palace and I feel that I would be betraying the spirit of my book if I were to allow it to be incorporated within that particular memorialization of Empire that passes under the rubric of ‘the Commonwealth.’” Ghosh between 2004 and 2015 worked on the Ibis trilogy, three novels of post-colonial literature focusing on the trade of opium between India and China, leading up to the First Opium War. Sea of Poppies was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize and was co-winner with Margaret Atwood of the Dan David Prize. River of Smoke was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Flood of Fire was shortlisted for the Hindu Literary Prize. Ghosh’s many works of nonfiction include his debut work, both historical and contemporarily set in Egypt, called In An Antique Land, The Imam and the Indian, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, praised by everyone from Elizabeth Kolbert to Naomi Klein where he directly books at modern literature and art’s failures to address climate change and the Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis of which Pankaj Mishra says, “Diagnosing our intricately inter-linked political, economic and environmental crises, The Nutmeg’s Curse is a book like no other in its combination of moral passion, intellectual rigour and literary elegance. And from its effortless synthesis of contemporary scholarship and indigenous knowledge systems emerges an irrefutable argument-that we must rethink our fundamental assumptions about human history.” Amitav Ghosh holds two-lifetime achievement awards and five honorary doctorates. He was awarded one of India’s highest honors, the Padma Shri, and in 2018, the Jnanpith Award, India’s highest literary honor. This year, he won the 2024 Erasmus Prize for exceptional contributions to culture, society, or social science. Amitav Ghosh is here today to talk about his latest book, a return to the opium trade but this time in nonfiction called Smoke and Ashes. Publishers Weekly in its starred review calling it “exquisitely written and packed with astonishing insight” declares it a must-read. The Economist calls Smoke and Ashes “An elegant history of the plant’s influence, both a tribute to what he calls the historical agency of botanical matter and a reckoning with the imperial past.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Amitav Ghosh.

Amitav Ghosh: Thank you very much, David. It’s a great pleasure to be speaking with you. Thank you for having me.

DN: Before we talk about your latest book, a book not only about the opium trade but also about plant intelligence and ultimately about how the history of opium contains important cautionary tales and lessons about how to grapple with fossil fuel companies and the heating of the planet, I wanted to spend a little time with some of the broader ways you engage with questions of climate and narrative in order to deepen our engagement with the opium poppy ultimately, and the ways you’ve narrativized that story. In your book The Great Derangement, it opens with your own family story as climate refugees in the 1850s when the Padma River changed course and drowned the village, and also being a victim of Delhi’s first-ever tornado in the 1970s and how in older novels, the exceptional and the improbable abound but how in modern novels in contrast, the ordinary improbable are foregrounded. That the ordinary fillers attempt to rationalize the novelistic universe. The bourgeois belief in the regularity of the world gets enshrined in how the novel is structured and told. Also, that this happened in the sciences as well, a move from geologic histories focused on catastrophes to a gradualism of slow processes, and that the modern literary novel grew into a form, a form that became, because of this, uniquely ill-equipped to engage with climate change. I know you prefer Atwood’s terminology that it isn’t climate change but everything change and it is this very everything-ness that pushes against the way the literary novel tries to center one species or even just one individual consciousness within the species. I wanted to start here with the banishment of the extraordinary, to hear more about your thoughts on this notion these days. 

AG: Well, gradualism had a slow rise in the 19th century being tied to ideas of probability and so on. I think it became more or less dominant not just in fiction but also in science. I think one of the reasons why even today, many people who are well-versed in science find it hard to accept the nature of the climate catastrophe or the planetary crisis if you like is because they are and continue to be fundamentally gradualists because they don’t believe that such massive disruptions can actually occur, they just have trouble getting their minds around it. Again, there’s a problem with vocabulary really because even if you look at climate science, so much of climate science is built around climate models which are posited in relation to let’s say the next 50 years, the next 100 years, or whatever. They have a certain time horizon. When they reach a certain point where the changes go off the charts, they literally say this is a nonlinear change. But what they mean by nonlinear change is precisely catastrophes. There is no other way of conceptualizing this other than a change that doesn’t adhere to probabilistic models. I think in one way or another, this has profoundly conditioned our thinking about human beings, about our way in the world and this has been a real problem for us because of course, gradualism sounds plausible but it isn’t actually any more plausible than catastrophism, I mean within geology, we now know that two or three catastrophes have completely changed the nature of the planet. For example, it was one catastrophic meter, which essentially wiped out the dinosaurs for example. 

DN: Well, this question of representation in literature of both the non-human other or of a hyper-object like climate change, it’s something that comes up a lot on the show, in poetry in very different ways with everyone from Forrest Gander, Arthur Sze, Alice Oswald, or Jorie Graham and in prose with so many writers, whether Jeff VanderMeer, Richard Powers, Kim Stanley Robinson, or Adrienne Maree Brown but probably no one more than Ursula K. Le Guin. I wanted to quote some of her thoughts in relation to yours to hear what you think.

AG: Sure. 

DN: When you say the irony of the “realist novel” is that the very gestures with which it conjures up reality are actually a concealment of the real, I think of Le Guin when she says, “Until the eighteenth century, imaginative fiction was fiction. Realism in fiction is a recent literary invention, not much older than the steam engine and probably related to it.” She also says, “Realist fiction is drawn toward anthropocentrism,” and what she calls “imaginative fiction away from it.” Ultimately, she asserts the human imagination is one of the most real things about us, both when she says, “Children know perfectly well that unicorns aren’t real, but they also know that books about unicorns, if they are good books, are true books,” and “I think the imagination is the single most useful tool mankind possesses. It beats the opposable thumb. I can imagine living without my thumbs but not without my imagination.” Your views that the deification of the human in the modern novel gave “nature” the illusory apartness from ourselves as a species and you’re speaking about how the collective has also been banished from the realist novel are things that I think Le Guin would have embraced. But I wanted to spend a moment with her comment about how all fiction before the 18th century, before the steam engine was imaginative, whether the Odyssey, Don Quixote, or Macbeth because this is also echoed by others. I think of Foucault saying, “Since the eighteenth century, the author has played the role of the regulator of the fictive, a role quite characteristic of our era of industrial and bourgeois society, of individualism and private property.” I also think of Naomi Klein writing in This Changes Everything about the 18th-century invention of the coal-powered steam engine as a pivotal change in our relationship to the Earth where we were always beforehand having to bend and accommodate ourselves to the Earth, for instance putting a water mill near a waterfall but now we could produce energy when we want it, where we want it, and for how long we wanted to, and seemingly at the time, in an endless way and entirely on our terms and perhaps literary realist fiction arises from a similar sensibility. I’d love to hear any thoughts you have about any of this. 

AG: Well, first of all,  I would say that I think that’s a very good quote from Ursula Le Guin. I’m a great admirer of her work. I think she’s absolutely wonderful. I think it’s an interesting thing, this distinction that she makes between imaginative fiction and realist fiction. I think that’s a very powerful and appropriate distinction really because yes, she’s absolutely right, I mean before the 18th century, all fiction was imaginative fiction in the sense that all kinds of improbable things happened, all sorts of strange things happened in fiction but that tradition continued. It didn’t actually completely die. It just came to be marginalized. For example, you have Melville’s Moby-Dick which I think is the greatest American novel, I mean perhaps the greatest novel in the English language certainly. But Moby-Dick, it’s really about a non-human agency. Also, if you think of Collodi’s novel Pinocchio, Pinocchio is about multiple forms of non-human agency. It’s a very interesting riff on that. The tradition didn’t entirely die out and it lived on most prominently in writers like Ursula Le Guin. Realist fiction came somehow to be identified as serious fiction and as mainstream fiction. But if I think back to the late 20th century, the writers who were then dominant, who had huge reputations, nobody reads them now whereas someone like Ursula Le Guin, she’s read more and more and more. In fact, imaginative fiction today is the realm of literature that is most vital and that is most widely read I would say.

DN: Yeah.

AG: Whereas realist fiction continues to provide the foundations for a whole ecosystem of literature if you like. It’s that ecosystem of literature, which really serves as the mechanism to marginalize imaginative fiction. Certainly in my experience and perhaps in yours, we are aware that the whole ecosystem of publication tends to be incredibly conservative. The people who work in those houses and who own those houses, and run those houses, they have very old-fashioned education. They just don’t notice the ways in which the world is changing around them. We shouldn’t imagine that those traditions of imaginative fiction are dead. What Ursula Le Guin describes as realist fiction, really if you think about it, it’s an elite practice. The reason why it’s so dominant or occupies so much of our attention to the exclusion of these other forms of imaginative fiction is simply just that. It has a certain elite power behind it.

DN: Well, we have a question for you from past Between the Covers guest, Naomi Klein. She was on the show twice in the last year for her book Doppelganger, nearly five hours of conversation. Part one about the book as a whole and part two, dialing down on the elements that were focusing on Israel, on Palestine, on Zionism, on Holocaust memory, and also on Jewish activism and solidarity with Palestinians. But here’s a question for you from Naomi about your work.

Naomi Klein: Hi, Amitav. My question is about this book but it’s also about the arc of your writing since The Great Derangement. It feels to me like you’ve been on a twin mission, one involving a challenge to Western fiction to remember that we are earthly, remember that nature is also a character and a player in our worlds, and the other is perhaps a challenge to the nonfiction world, especially the Western climate movement, to remember that human-created systems, specifically empire, capitalism, militarism are key players in the ecological crisis. You’re telling one group, “Remember the natural world” and the other group, “Remember the human world,” but not essentializing it as all human. I’m wondering if that sounds right and if it does, maybe to speak to how these twin challenges to the fiction world and nonfiction world relate to one another. Thanks.

AG: Well, thank you for that. Naomi is, of course, one of the most brilliant minds of our time. Everything she says is always incredibly perceptive. Here again, she’s very, very perceptive. Yes, I think I would say those are the twin directions that I’m going in. Certainly trying to remind, I don’t know if I would call it the Western world, it’s just my world, that there are these other possibilities that are out there, which have been explored by writers of many different kinds. But the other part of my experience and the other part of what I’ve been trying to do these last few years is exactly that. Trying to remind people that the climate crisis is ultimately embedded in much else within entire patterns of history. I suppose that is where I depart from the standard readings of the planetary crisis, especially in the West. I think in the West, the planetary crisis has come to be thought of very much in relation to the future. It’s thought of as doing something to fix problems that might arise in the future. Whereas in many other parts of the world, especially in the Global South, the planetary crisis is completely seen as being rooted in the past. It’s that past that really engages me more and more because certainly in my book The Nutmeg’s Curse, I’ve tried to present a case where we have to look at the climate crisis as fundamentally a geopolitical crisis, I mean every day, I open the newspapers and I think something I said is just being vindicated. We can see now for example that this planetary crisis is unfolding against the backdrop of the greatest geopolitical upheaval we’ve seen in five centuries. That’s what makes it so peculiarly destabilizing because the West is not going to accept its preemption by other powers and it’ll do literally everything possible to prevent it. What this means is that in fact, despite paying lip service to climate change, really what’s happening in the collective West—and therefore elsewhere as well—is a massive shift of economic priorities towards military spending. Now what’s being spent on armaments and militaries is in multiples of what’s being spent on climate change mitigation or adaptation. I think until we address this fundamental problem, there’s no way we can even think about solutions, I mean even speaking of solutions makes no sense. Here we have a situation where Biden passes an IRA, which is apparently all about spending on climate. At the same time, he raises tariffs on Chinese EVs, electric vehicles, which are half the price of electric vehicles produced in the West because they want to shut China out as an economic and geopolitical competitor. That’s the true disaster that we are facing. At the end of the day, as Heraclitus says, “War is the father of all things,” and that’s where we are.

DN: Well, there’s one more element I want to talk about in general terms before we more specifically talk about Smoke and Ashes, and opium in particular, just to spend a moment with plant intelligence more generally and taking non-human factors more seriously as actors and agents in narratives, whether we’re talking about fiction or nonfiction. In fiction, of course, we might think of Richard Powers telling the story of trees partially through their point of view but whereas I think this is something more common in fiction, Smoke and Ashes feels like it’s part of a trend in nonfiction that seems more recent. I think of past Between the Covers guests Cristina Rivera Garza whose book The Autobiography of Cotton where she tells the story of both sides of her family through the story of cotton in northern Mexico and of course, through telling the story of cotton, you end up telling the story of many other things in the process. I think of Michael Pollan, whose early botanical work began with his landmark piece in Harper’s about opium many decades ago. But he’s had an enduring interest in plants where more recently, he talks about how the citrus flower learned that by putting a little caffeine in its stamens, it not only made the bees better at collecting pollen from that plant but also made them return to the higher caffeine flowers, more than the lower ones, even when the caffeine had been exhausted. Like the bees, we too have been influenced, changed, and manipulated. We’ve created enormous habitats for caffeine-containing plants, just like the bees have. Lastly, I wanted to bring up Katie Holten who invented a tree alphabet, and the book The Language of Trees, an anthology of writing on trees that you were in, where on the facing page, you get whatever is written translated into “tree” and in that book, you talk about how trees communicate, how they can send for help, how they can warn one another, how they emit sounds and that these intentional acts unfold over completely different scales of time than our own. Because trees have inhabited the Earth much longer than us, their individual lifespans far exceed ours, so it goes to reason that if they possess modes of reasoning themselves, their thoughts would be calibrated to a completely different scale of time. I’d love to hear more about what any of this sparks in you and I’m also curious where you see your own work going in this regard in the future.

AG: I’m completely in tune with all of the writers you’ve mentioned. I would have added to your list also Anant Singh and Robin Wall Kimmerer who have both been very important for me, and very noble. Yes, I think in many different ways, we are all thinking about similar things because actually, once you become at all aware of the possibilities of, how should I say non-anthropocentrism, of trying to look at other forms of agency in the world, then suddenly there’s no end to it, I mean everything around you suddenly takes on a new life. You see everything differently. You’re in a sense forced to look at the world through a completely different lens.

DN: We have a question for you from past Between the Covers guest Richard Powers. There are two episodes in the archives with him. They were both recorded on the same day about The Overstory, one in the radio studio and on the live ticketed event that night, which I think are both great compliments to each other but also touch on many of the themes today. If people are looking for other places to go after this conversation, those two might be good places to go. Here’s a question for you from Richard. 

Richard Powers: Amitav Ghosh, it’s a pleasure to be able to talk to you if only in this one-sided and asynchronous way. I am a great admirer of how you show the interdependence of the human and the non-human, and I really love how you’ve explored the tremendous agency of plants across many timescales. In River of Smoke, you have a beautiful and often repeated quote, “We must be the willow, not the oak, in the lowering storm.” This strikes me as great advice both for individuals and for cultures. But I’m wondering if you might be open to the idea that in our coming storm, a mangrove might also be the thing to emulate. Could you talk for a little about the power that those astonishing plants have had over your imagination and about the disproportionate role that mangroves play in the story of world ecology?

AG: Well, that’s a wonderful question. I’m really so delighted to be in conversation in some sense with Richard Powers, whose book Overstory is one of the finest books of the last few decades. The Overstory has really opened new doors in the sense that it’s one of the few books of its kind, perhaps the only book of its kind that wasn’t marginalized. That’s largely because of Richard Powers’s great reputation, the reputation that preceded it. I have nothing but admiration for him, for his writing, and for the book. I think this is a wonderful question about mangroves. It’s certainly true that mangroves play a disproportionate part in maintaining global ecologies. Not only do they bind the shore, do they prevent erosion, they also are havens for fish. They’re just absolutely machines for creating aquaculture. So many kinds of fish come out of mangroves. In Bengal where I am from, of course, we have the largest mangrove forest in the world, which is the Sundarbans. The Sundarbans has bequeathed an incredible legacy of fish to Bengal, I mean just in our ordinary diet, we have so many hundreds of species of fish that are eaten in Bengal, and each cooked in a different way. Mangroves play an incredibly important part, even in other ecological ways in Bengal. That is to say they protect the interior of the Bengal delta from cyclones and other catastrophic storms. They actually protect the whole coastline of India from disasters of all kinds. But here again is the real tragedy. In India, mangroves are being cut down at an accelerating rate. People are building all kinds of structures on the ocean. For a long time in India, we had environmental regulations that prevented anyone from building anything very close to the sea. But all of these have been overturned now and they’ve been overturned essentially because of a kind of mimicry of the West, I mean Indians who before understood perfectly well that the sea is not always your friend have now suddenly become converted to a certain kind of beach culture. This beach culture generates enormous revenues now, I mean there’s been a whole appending of a whole cultural imaginary around mangroves and around the sea. This is in the long run going to be catastrophic. But this is not just in Bengal. It’s all around the world. One of the saddest things I’ve ever seen is when I went on a sailing trip in one of the remotest parts of the Indian Ocean, remote in the sense that not many outsiders go there. This is off the Tenasserim coast. There’s a really vast archipelago there. The Tenasserim is the southern part of Burma, which borders the northern part of Thailand, so that’s where Thailand and Burma meet. There’s this incredible archipelago of small islands, just dotted across this part of the ocean. What was really heartbreaking to see is that all the underwater life has been destroyed. It’s basically been destroyed by fishing fleets who gather there to fish for squid. At night, in this part of the world, far off the beaten track, these squid boats come out, they turn on these incredibly partial lights. These lights can be seen from outer space. There are pictures of them. These lights draw up the squid and they’re trailing their anchors, so the anchors are ripping up the coral beds and they’re killing the mangroves. Actually, a couple of the islands are still relatively untouched. I saw mangroves there that were over 100 feet tall, which is not something you normally see. But it’s a part of the ongoing ecological catastrophe that the whole planet is going through.

DN: If we think of mangroves as you’ve just persuasively said as essential parts of the ecosystem in their own right and a buffer and a shock absorber for inland communities from cyclones and flooding, it’s interesting to look at the language around them, that they’re often characterized as unseen lifesavers, silent guardians, or forgotten forests and thinking of unseen, silent, and forgotten, you could say that’s one of the main themes of Smoke and Ashes, this very thing. All the things we choose not to include in the frame, things that might be right in front of us, all around us that might even sustain us, yet we don’t see them at all and because we don’t see them, they don’t become part of our story, of self, or species or peoplehood. Your book on the opium trade does not begin with opium. Instead, it begins with tea. It begins with a meditation also on the simultaneous, ever-presence, and complete absence of China in your life, that despite growing up in a part of India that borders China and in a city with a sizable Chinese community, China, for most of your life, you describe as a uniform blankness, a here be dragons on the map. You didn’t grow up with an interest in Chinese history. It never occurred to you to go there. Unlike the many words of Arabic and Persian that you could identify when you were speaking Bengali, Hindi, or English, you couldn’t think of a single word of Chinese origin. But in 2005 when you eventually go to China, you describe it as revelatory where all of a sudden, so much of what is around you in India in your daily life you realize came from China. You say, “In my mental universe, China almost didn’t exist; in my material world, China was everywhere.” I was hoping you could talk to us about why you think this invisibility was so deep and also why you would want to open your book in this way with this unseeing becoming this ubiquitous seeing.

AG: I think the condition that I’m trying to describe early on in the book, of China being both ubiquitous and completely unseen, wasn’t particular to me or even to India. I think it’s something that’s all-pervasive around the world, I mean in their everyday lives, they use hundreds of Chinese-made things and this is going back to the 18th century. In the early 19th century, it was estimated that the objects in any ordinary household, in any of the East Coast port cities, 10% of them were made in China, including pictures of all kinds, ceramics, all sorts of things. Today, if you ask any ordinary American, I bet they wouldn’t be able to locate on a map a city like Guangzhou, which kept the American economy going for not just in recent times but over centuries. This is a universal condition and I think we all need to ask ourselves, “Why is this the case? Why is this enormous presence in the world, why does it pass unseen? Why is it so invisible?” I think we’re beginning to see the answers right now because, in a sense, China is now becoming more visible. The more it becomes visible, it seems to terrify people in the West to a quite extraordinary degree, I mean it’s just absolutely inexplicable to me. [laughs]

DN: Well, in the book, you talk about various factors that lend themselves to the invisibility but one of the reasons that leapt out to me was your suggestion that China’s invisibility was partially because its influence was largely outside the realm of words, concepts, or language and this is certainly true about plants too. You begin with tea and how tea revenues financed colonial expansion. That tea revenues were paying for war but also the British would have war in order to pay for tea. That British industrialization was also financially dependent on tea. That the British revenue from tea in the 18th and 19th century was more than all land, property, and income taxes combined, and how China wanted to be paid in silver for their tea, silver that was obtained through the conquest of the Americas and the subsequent mining for silver there. When that began to become scarce, that’s when Britain will shift to opium where ultimately, many of the cities that were pillars of the modern globalized economy, Mumbai, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai were initially sustained by opium and where a significant portion of the British Empire’s revenue becomes tied to opium where India becomes the largest producer of opium in the 18th and 19th century, where London is largely built on the opium trade. But one of the most fantastical things about this book is just how widespread the silence and erasure there is about this. It seems like it’s on every scale. For instance, your family’s story of displacement and resettlement focuses on the flooding of a river. But as you research opium, you realize it is highly likely that where they stopped to make a new home was deeply tied to the opium economy. More generally, the 150-year history of opium in India is not only not much talked about. It’s not widely known and there’s both a silence and an incuriousness about this even though the ways Eastern and Western India today are deeply shaped by who had control of the opium trade in one region versus the other. Likewise, it isn’t talked about in the United Kingdom or in the United States, who soon after independence started trading with China and within 50 years, the US was supplying a third of the opium to China, and where many of the dynastic families in the US became rich from opium, that it wasn’t just Chinese people building the railroads but railroad barons funding it through opium revenues from the Chinese consumption abroad. But even the memoirs of these wealthy barons don’t mention opium. Everyone is either silent about it or ignorant of it seemingly everywhere. This is so interesting to me when thinking of how we create history or how we narrate what we narrate, how we frame things. How do you begin to explain how improbably everyone in many different countries involved with opium seems complicit in this erasure and silence?

AG: Well, that’s a good question. I wish I had an answer. I can only point to it, I mean it’s staggering. It’s absolutely staggering that we don’t acknowledge that opium was absolutely at the heart, at the foundations of modern capitalism, especially modern globalized capitalism, I mean so many of the institutions are directly descended from opium trading firms, etc. As you say, so much of the capital that created the early American economy in the early 19th century, so much of that capital came from China, came from opium. How has all of this come to be forgotten? I mean how does it fall to a novelist but to try and put all that stuff together? [laughter] I myself stumbled upon it while researching my Ibis trilogy. Before that, even though I consider myself pretty well-versed in Asian and Indian history, I really had no idea of the extent of the ways in which it really molded modern world history. I think that’s the problem. The problem in the end perhaps lies with the very term history and its orientation because history as a discipline came into being in the 19th century when it became tied to ideas of progress, ideas of human development, and so on. Everything that doesn’t shift that narrative just got erased, was just marginalized or ignored. That’s also one of the problems with climate change. The whole narrative around fossil fuels and everything, they create progress, they create development, wealth, and so on, so all the negatives that are associated with fossil fuels came to be completely ignored. It’s in that way I think that these two really are parallel stories, the story of fossil fuels and the story of opium.

DN: Well, one of the ways you differ from many when it comes to discussing the causes of climate change or everything changes, focusing less on capitalism and more on colonialism, something that very much relates to opium too, before we talk about this, I wanted to talk about a term you often use in your work across books, a term from science fiction called terraforming where we mold another planet to support human life, to terraform it, to make it like Earth. You use this model for colonialism itself, the ways Europe tries to recreate Europe within the colonies, not just in naming, not just York and New York, Jersey and New Jersey, England and New England, but the land getting changed as well, that the transformation of colonized landscapes is one of the most important aspects of settler colonialism. You’ve even spoken about all the catastrophes, the chronic catastrophes happening in California being because of the vulnerabilities caused by terraforming it. I wondered if you felt like this notion of terraforming is also a factor in storytelling. On the show, I’m most drawn to writers who are troubling notions of self, of peoplehood, of nations, or of species, writers that are aware of the ways certain frames can center oneself at the expense of others. This notion of terraforming feels useful in that regard, similar to Naomi Klein with the steam engine, suggesting we are no longer bending to the contours of the land to where a waterfall might be but imposing something instead. I wondered if narrative terraforming might be part of the reason we encounter these huge silences, erasures, and real fundamental incapacities to see what is right in front of us, almost as if the stories that we tell are preventing us from seeing.

AG: One little point that I should make is that where Naomi talks about coal and how coal allows the capitalist to a certain kind of independence, she’s actually quoting Andreas Malm who wrote a book called Fossil Capital and that’s the argument that he makes. I think it’s a very powerful argument, I mean that’s beside the point anyway. But yeah, terraforming, terraforming the concept existed long, long before the term was actually coined. [laughs] The term was coined in the 1940s by an early science fiction writer. But if you take the conceit of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, it already exists, I mean these aliens are coming to planet Earth to terraform it, to suit their own particular needs. That’s been one of the very powerful science-fictional narratives for a long time. But H.G. Wells took this idea from the extermination of native peoples in Tasmania. But he could have taken it from 100 other examples of early exterminations, including the extermination of the Bandanese in the Banda Islands. That concept has been with us for a very long time. It derives from what colonists actually did in the new world, I mean so to speak, the Americas and in the Antipodes. But it’s very important to note that human beings have always changed their environments. Human beings are a very powerful species. We interact with our environments in many, many ways. There’s no environment anywhere that exists in a state of being pristine as it were. The Amazon, for example, is now understood to have been created by human beings. They nurtured certain species, they created an environment, which drew more rainfall to itself and the forest flourished in that way. Now it’s going through the opposite process where it’s in the process of becoming a savannah. But what’s important to note is that what happened in the colonies, especially in the Americas and in the Antipodes was that it wasn’t humans interacting with a landscape over tens of thousands of years when they adapt to the landscape to some degree and the landscape adapts to them to some degree. What happens is that when the colonist arrives in America, his immediate response is to try and turn it into a simulacrum of the home country. That’s why these processes of renaming are so important. Immediately upon arriving, I mean the early English communists, the American landscape is extremely sort of distasteful. They found it spooky, horrible, and uncomfortable. Actually, if you take a train down the East Coast, you see why, because it was mainly wetlands, there were so many swamps, especially the English hated wetlands, they hated swamps. They loved to drain things like the Dutch did. They immediately set about the business of recreating England inside America. To some degree, it worked in the Northeast because the ecologies are somewhat similar. But when they tried to do this in the Midwest and when they tried to do it on the West Coast, which are completely different kinds of environmental systems, they laid the seeds of an ongoing catastrophe and that’s what we see now. We see literally a situation in which the environment of California and the West Coast is basically unraveling. We see that also in the Midwest. The Ogallala Aquifer is almost completely exhausted. This aquifer sustained agriculture in the immigrant plains for many, many decades. But for many decades, farmers were literally encouraged to sit there pumping up fossil water. Similarly, they interfered with the Colorado River in ways that are going to create a catastrophe for New Mexico, for Arizona, and so on. This is an ongoing thing, I mean one of the most puzzling things in America is that it’s the most vulnerable cities, the most vulnerable areas that are the fastest growing. The fastest-growing cities in America are Miami, Phoenix, and so on. Phoenix is just a catastrophe waiting to happen. It was created through terraforming and through air conditioning. Once the water runs out, how is it going to sustain itself? All these great projects of terraforming are now unraveling and it’s not just in the Americas. The earliest projects of terraforming were actually undertaken by the Venetian Republic. The pole basin is actually one of the most terraformed regions of the world. Now suddenly, we see the pole is running dry. The entire basin is unraveling. Venice itself is a city that’s artificially protected now. But since the 50s onwards, we’ve seen one after another environmental catastrophe unfolding in this region. In the 1950s, there was a huge flood called the Polesine Flood, which displaced 150,000 people. There was the Great Vajont Disaster when they built a dam in the mountains and it collapsed and killed thousands of people. All these regions that were terraformed are unraveling even within Europe, I mean we see this in England, I mean large areas of large parts of England, which were drained, so to speak, are now being played by the sea. They’re now permanently flooded so that farmers can’t even grow anything there. This, I’m sorry to say, is what the future looks like. I think one of the finest novels I would say about our present planetary crisis is Annie Proulx’s Barkskins because she really joins the dots between deforestation, terraforming, the re-making of the landscapes, and the environmental catastrophe that we have today. 

DN: Well, in thinking about your distinction around the causes of climate change as being better framed through a colonial lens than a capitalist one, I think we can look to opium as a precursor example and even things before opium. For instance, to return to the steam engine yet again in The Great Derangement, you talk about how there wasn’t an absence of innovation and ingenuity in India around steam engine technology. On the contrary, the British crushed any sign of entrepreneurship in India around it. That the coal economy depended upon not being imitated. That this technology wasn’t triumphant in the West because it won in a free marketplace of ideas but due to military and political coercion. The steam engine was one of many suppressed aspects of modernity in Asia and you point out that the huge accelerated growth of Asian economies more recently coincides with the post-colonial era. You say that one of the first examples of the great boost that fossil fuels gave the West was in the First Opium War where armored steamships played a decisive role. Ironically, this was the first war fought in the name of so-called free trade. I say ironically because as you explore in Smoke and Ashes directly, the reality is contrary to the common notion that the British were simply meeting Chinese demand for opium. The Chinese actually didn’t want it and fought it, and the British created the demand, insisted upon the demand, then went to war to defend it. You call the British East India Company the world’s first drug cartel and the system of so-called free trade, one of enslavement, coerced labor, smuggling, and black markets, all of which lay the foundation for a globalized world market. I was hoping you could speak more to this aspect of the book, the coercive aspect of the book, the ways in which the opium market is established, maintained, or spread through imperial violence and threats of violence.

AG: The entirety of the opium trade was tied to various forms of coercion, I mean just absolutely every aspect of it, whether it was the production part of it, the production of opium was deeply coercive as we now know, thanks to the research carried out by young historians. We see that the British set up this thing called the opium department, which was a vast bureaucracy with a lot of coercive powers. It essentially functioned like a police state within what was already a garrison state. They had the right to basically just force, I mean to force through legal means, peasants to grow opium. On top of that, they also forced them to sell to a single buy, which was the East India Company. The East India Company did all the marketing of the opium in China, I mean they didn’t sell it inside China but they made opium available to Chinese retailers, smugglers, wholesalers who thereafter proceeded to sell the opium inside China. Now, the thing about opium, which has again been proved by America’s present opioid crisis, is that in the trade around substances like these, the decisive factor is not demand, it’s supply. This is something that many of the American companies that marketed prescription opioids, they understood this very well. In fact, one member of the Sackler family actually said, “We don’t chase demand, we create demand.” That’s why they targeted their opium at particular communities, communities where there was a lot of pain, for example, amongst miners in Appalachia and so on. Just imagine a circumstance where the American government is trying to stop companies from selling opium or opioids and a foreign power intervenes to prevent them. Ironically, that is in a sense happening now because we see these international drug cartels porting all American attempts to control the opioid trade, the trade in narcotics in America, I mean every American attempt to control narcotics has failed. It also failed in Europe. So, it’s a sickening aspect, a cycle repeating itself all the time.

DN: Well, there are so many ways that opium is forced on the Global South in your book, not only on China, but on Indian farmers who didn’t want to grow poppies, but were forced to under threat of violence and eviction, and even had to grow flowers through several famines. You talk about how the only freedom in free trade is the freedom from all ethical constraints around profit-making, that this was monopolistic trade of a drug produced under the auspices of empire by poor Asian farmers, an addictive substance that via the addiction was meant to enrich an entirely different people, the very opposite of freedom. At one point you say, “No amount of sophistry can disguise that the British Empire’s opium racket was a criminal enterprise, utterly indefensible by the standards of its own time as well as ours.” One thing I wanted to ask you about are your thoughts around abandoning this project, something you reveal within the book itself, where you wonder, given the world that we live in, if it served a purpose to recount something so bleak and unedifying, that this question haunted you for years, and eventually you agree with Tagore’s words about the opium trade between China and India when he says that human nature itself sinks to such a depth of despicable meanness, that it is hateful even to follow the story to its conclusion. And ultimately persuaded by this, you cancel the contracts for this book, you return your advances. But you’ve also written about horrible histories before. For instance, in The Nutmeg’s Curse, the Dutch similarly want to impose a monopoly on the Nutmeg market, something that had existed forever locally, and when the locals refused, the Dutch murdered them all. Talk to us about this particular story about opium. What made you walk away and then what brought you back again?

AG: A couple of things I should point out. One is that the first organized drug cartel wasn’t actually the East India Company. It was the Dutch East India Company. I mean they were pioneers in every way and they really were pioneers of the opium trade as well. They continued to market opium in their Southeast Asian colonies, basically what is Indonesia now until they were well into the 20th century, until the Second World War, in fact. Yeah, so that show with Nutmeg, what they did is exactly that. For them, Nutmeg was a trade commodity, even though we talk about capitalism as free trade and so on and so forth. In fact, I mean, the Dutch East India Company is often cited as one of the precursors of capitalistic corporations and so on. But when they arrived in the Banda Islands, which is the only place where nutmeg was produced, what they did was completely not like any kind of free trade system. In the first place, they exterminated, they really depopulated the islands. They killed about a third of the inhabitants. There weren’t many inhabitants, only about 15,000. They killed about a third of them, faced the others into the mountains where they died of hunger and disease, and they enslaved a very large number and took them to Java. The terrible irony is that later, these slaves, they brought them back to show them how nutmeg was produced because they had no idea. They thought it was an easy thing and it wasn’t. I mean, all these products are dependent on millennia of experience, of human ingenuity, and so on. What the Dutch did then is even more telling. After they depopulated these islands, they didn’t put in a system of free trade. What they did was they divided up the land into plantations and they gave the land away to white planters. They promised the white planters that they would give them slaves to work the plantations. They continued to do that for the next 250 years. Can you imagine? I mean, twice a year, they would bring these planter slaves basically from India because many of the slaves were actually from South Asia. So, it’s such a grim and horrible story, really, I mean, and in a sense, it’s a story that’s repeated itself across the planet in subsequent years. Just think of the Bandanese, I mean they’ve been given this incredible gift because of their volcanic ecology. They have these amazing forests and they have these amazing trees. I’ve talked about the nutmeg tree, but there were other trees like there was the clove tree which also produced an incredibly valuable spice. They’ve been given this incredible gift. Ultimately, the gift leads to their extermination. They are amongst the first people to suffer from what we now call the resource curse. This is the same thing with the peasants in the Indo-Gangetic Plain who were made to produce opium. They were really impoverished by the whole process of producing opium and they remain so to this day. I mean, they too were cursed by the resource curse. The same thing happened with rubber in Amazonia, indigenous peoples were exterminated in a large scale to produce rubber for Portugal and for Brazil. Same also for what happened in the Congo. Now we see this pattern replicating itself with fossil fuels. We see this trail of destruction everywhere you go, whether you go to coastal Nigeria, you go to Iraq, you go to Libya, all these countries are systematically destroyed because they happened to possess this so-called resource. It’s a terrifying thing that happens. It’s worth noting that all of this is dependent upon the emergence of a certain mindset, a certain way of looking at the world where everything in the world seems to consist, seems to exist solely to enrich elite Europeans, the elite European men, most of all. I think that happens, that whole state of mind is brought into being by the European colonization of the Americas. It’s then that this extraordinary mindset comes into being. You have to remember that the Banda Islands were one pole of the Dutch Empire, but the other pole of the Dutch Empire was New England. It was New Amsterdam. What the Dutch were doing in the Americas, what the Dutch saw being done in the Americas by their frenemies, the English, the sorts of exterminations that they saw there, I mean, that’s why this whole project becomes thinkable, that you go there and you just kill everyone.

DN: Well, one of the reasons you say many avoid this history is because it’s hard to narrate a story where a botanical entity is both instrument and protagonist. In light of that, I’d love to spend a moment with your thoughts on the particular personality or intelligence of opium, you quote the US Diplomat and historian William B. McAllister, who said, “It is perhaps appropriate to interpret opium as an actor in its own right. Rather than simply an inert substance, opium might be seen over the last three or four centuries as a sort of independent biological imperial agent.” And you yourself say at one point in the book, “It was almost as if elders of plant Kingdom had concluded that homo sapiens were too dangerous animal to be allowed to survive, had given humankind a gift that they knew would be used by the most ruthless and powerful of the species to build economic systems that would slowly inexorably bring about the end of their civilizations.” Also, “The brute fact is that it was a flower that defeated the mightiest military power in human history. The opium poppy may be humble in appearance, but it is one of the most powerful beings that humans have encountered in their time on Earth. To be sure, tea, cane, tobacco, rubber, cotton, yersinia pestis, and many other plants and pathogens have played major roles in human history, some of them over several centuries. But today, they are all much diminished in their influence, while the opium poppy is mightier than ever.” Which is true, as you’ve mentioned, the US Opioid epidemic can attest to this, and Purdue Pharma had eight times the lobbying money as the gun lobby and where more opium is being grown on the planet today than ever. Talk to us a little bit about the opium poppy as a personality or as an intelligence or as an agent of history.

AG: That’s the complicated thing. With botanical entities, obviously, when we think about intelligence in a botanical entity, we don’t really have any vocabulary to talk about these things. Mind you, many cultures do have a vocabulary for the intelligence of non-human agencies, but English doesn’t. We are at a loss when we come to discussing these things. But what is clear, certainly, is that botanical entities are able to act in history. Anant Singh showed this very clearly in relation to forests, that forests do seem to act agentively in some sense. Certainly, if you look at the history of opium, just like that American diplomat, I mean, it’s impossible to escape the distinctly creepy feeling that these flowers have figured out something about us and that they’re acting in certain ways. Of course, you can’t say that for any single flower, but together as a collectivity, they do seem to be acting because I think the clearest example of this really is the way that they create recurrent patterns and the patterns that we see today in America confronting this opioid crisis is uncannily similar to what happened in China in the 19th century. There are so many similarities. It’s hard even to go through all of them. One of them, of course, is that even in the 19th century in China, doctors and various kinds of healers and so on were very much involved in creating the opioid crisis there because the fact is that opium is a miraculous substance. It’s the most important medicinal substance known to humanity. That’s why it’s been cultivated for 10,000 years and the opium poppy doesn’t exist in the wild. It’s a cultivar that was created by humanity. Human beings have been really dependent on opium forever. I mean, especially as an anesthetic, but also for many, many other medicinal substances that we still are. I mean, if you go to your medicine cabinet and go through the ingredients for every medicine across the count of medicine that you have, you’ll see that a very large percentage of them will actually have some kind of opioid in them. Opium really has played this kind of symbiotic role in human life, where it does seem to in fact intervene in human affairs. One of the most interesting aspects of this is that what happened in the 19th century was that China, which had been the center of the world, the most productive part of the world for thousands of years suddenly realized it was facing a civilizational threat and this civilizational threat was profoundly destabilizing for China. It’s in that context again that opium consumption absolutely took fire and increased at an unbelievable rate. In some sense, I think that’s what we are seeing with the West today because the collective West has really been in charge of world affairs for 500 years now. Suddenly, it seems that it’s not in charge anymore. It sees the emergence of various other kinds of geopolitical actors and geopolitical entities. Its share of the world economy has shrunk radically. Its share of world trade has shrunk radically. Increasingly now, it’s even militarily outgunned. This is the first time this has happened in 500 years. I think for ordinary Westerners, especially for ordinary Americans, this is something that’s very, very hard to deal with psychologically because Americans have become so accustomed to being, as it were, the number one nation, number one in this, number one in that. I think that’s become a deep part of American identity. You can understand why it would be because life in America is not easy. For most people who live in America, life is actually very, very hard. There’s hardly any social security, social welfare network, families, they’ve disintegrated, churches have stopped attracting people. There’s this whole Bowling Alone phenomenon where our community structures have disintegrated. It’s in that context that being number one has a profound psychological importance. It makes people feel that they have a certain role in the world. To be displaced from that position is something that I think will be as difficult for Americans as it was for the Chinese in the 19th century.

DN: I’d love to spend a little bit of time with what we can glean from the story in our contemporary battle with the power of fossil fuels. At various points in the book, you draw parallels as we have today. You say the poppy as a major force in making modernity will also be instrumental in its unmaking, a dual role that it shares with fossil fuels, and you quote Zhang Changjia, who connects fossil fuel addiction to opium addiction, the coal-powered steamship to opium addicts, and you talk about how the various ways the British exploited China’s governmental vulnerabilities became a template for Western resource extraction around the world. When international pressure finally forced the United Kingdom to enter drug control negotiations, the incredible ability of Britain to use diplomacy as a method to delay any effective action became a template for fossil fuel companies to use similar rhetorical tactics to forestall regulations. But perhaps what I think about the most is the ways in which energy and mining companies spend huge sums to bribe officials in poor countries, and then blame those countries for their cultures of corruption, so justifying the Western intervention because of the corruption that is actually caused by the very same bribes, which feels connected, I think, to the inverse logic that the Chinese were demanding opium, not having it voice it upon them. All of it makes me think of my conversation with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. He talks about how Africa is larger than China, India, the United States, and all of Europe combined. It has a mind-boggling quantity of resources that keep the modern global economy going, not just fossil fuels but all the trace minerals that run our phones and our computers. Yet none of it enriches Africans themselves, except these corrupt elites that have been bribed into these arrangements with extractive Western nations and the leaders will often be deposed of if they stand up against this. Ngũgĩ and I mostly talked about language, about the strange scenario of how many African countries operate primarily through European languages with leaders giving speeches in languages that the majority of their own people don’t speak, and how starting here for him with language is the first step toward both decolonizing one’s mind, but also securing one’s resources, language as a resource, but also the literal resources of Africa. This very much feels at the heart of your book, where perhaps like the steam engine where Britain needed Asia not to have the technology, the Global South is kept from political arrangements where they could secure their own resources on their own terms. Yet the West will point at these countries as not only corrupt but undemocratic while maintaining them as such. This isn’t really a question, but I was wondering if it might provoke some thoughts for you with regards to fossil fuels and our fight against them.

AG: The first question there, the first issue that arises there is, what do we consider corrupt? Presumably, corruption is defined in relation to the public good. Where the public good is neglected, there we have corruption. Where the public good is neglected in order to create profits for individuals or companies, there we have corruption. Now, in the United States, we dealt with this very efficiently by denying that there is any such thing as a public good. That’s also true of the UK, Australia, the entire atmosphere. Essentially corruption has been defined out of existence. But anyone coming down from Mars who looks at the US political system, I think they would say it’s much more corrupt than anything in Africa, India, or anywhere. I mean, consider, I mean, as you just said, the new farmers are spending eight times more than the gun lobby on lobbying politicians. What does lobbying politicians mean? It just means giving them more money, just buying them off. That’s just one lobby. I mean, the American political system is in the grip of [inaudible] lobbies. We see increasingly this is true in India, it’s true in the United States, people go into politics in order to enrich themselves, and they become phenomenally wealthy. You look at the number of US politicians whose gambles on the stock market are playing off to a phenomenal degree. How? If you think of Britain, it’s basically the world’s center of money laundering. Everyone knows this. Who is corrupt? This is in effect the system that capitalism has created, a system of institutionalized corruption. This is exactly what the Chinese were trying to tell the British, that don’t you realize that this is what you’re doing? You’re creating this system where people do not act in the public good, in the public interest. They act in order to interest themselves. Someday, this is going to come back to haunt you. That is exactly what we see. Today, America can’t even produce the armaments that it needs because basically the military-industrial complex is completely privatized. But they see no reasons for long-term investments in certain kinds of [hours]. If we are going to talk about corruption, that’s the first point that I would make, which is that the father of all corruption is in the Anglosphere. Secondly, the point about Africa, basically, Europe never had many resources. That’s why the Americas were so important to them, especially the United States, where it once had lots of resources, but these resources are running out. They need resources from other parts of the world. There’s a huge scramble now to control these resources. But there again, we see an enormous geopolitical shift. France was able to extract uranium from Niger for almost nothing for decades, certainly. Now we see that Niger is no longer willing to put up with it. They have a very powerful help from Russia. This is a part of the geopolitical shift that we’re seeing. China is able to create different patterns of development in Africa. Russia is able to provide a certain kind of muscle in Africa. The West doesn’t have it in its own way anymore. This is one of the reasons why its behavior in the world is increasingly erratic and inexplicable.

DN: Well, as we approach the end together, I wanted to touch upon where you leave us at the end of Smoke and Ashes, which I really love.

AG: Thank you.

DN: In a podcast you were on called Living Planet, you talked about climate change and how you were against the Western framing of hope versus despair, that for you, it is our duty to confront it regardless of hope or despair. I don’t think you provide much hope at the end of Smoke and Ashes, but you do provide a map for how to confront our duty, I think. You talk about the multi-ethnic and transnational efforts that successfully stopped the colonial opium trade as a useful model for the only way to possibly stop fossil fuel companies. But if we look at your work across books, I don’t think this sensibility, this solidarity across nation and across ethnicity is only geopolitical. It feels like it points to something existential for you as well, something perhaps about the mystery of self. This feels central to how I feel about my own show, that it isn’t just an encounter between me and another, but that somehow, the self is created through the encounter with otherness, that through all of these encounters with people who aren’t me, I become different, and over time, that difference isn’t only incremental but potentially transformative. I think about when you finally saw all the things that you thought were quintessentially Indian—chai, Bollywood, cricket, certain distinctive Indian clothes—and then learned that they came from China or from Parsi culture or elsewhere, or in reverse, how we always associate cosmopolitanism as a Western trait or quality, and in this book, your meditations on how perhaps Guangzhou in China, where Westerners, Indians, and Chinese met and lived in a less hierarchical way, that perhaps this was the real model for it. Now that we’re living at a time with rising white supremacy in the US, Jewish supremacy in Palestine, Hindu supremacy in India, not just building bridges transnationally, but troubling what makes a nation or a people at all feels like a really crucial task. But you take this further, I think, where in Nutmeg’s Curse, you question the very notion of a single species, noting that most of our cells are the cells of other creatures, that we are an assemblage of life forms living together, and where you say, “It is known also that microorganisms influence moods, emotions, and the human ability to reason. So if it is true that the human ability to speak, and think, can only be actualized in the presence of other species, can it really be said that these faculties belong exclusively to humans?” In that spirit, you’ve even wondered if the rise in the interest of animism recently among humans, the rise in the interest of the non-human within the humanities, could be the result of other beings inserting themselves into the process of our thoughts, calling into question, of course, our own sovereignty and autonomy as so-called individuals, but also putting on trial what freedom is or what freedom should be, I think, I wondered if you had any final thoughts on imagining, in that spirit, next steps forward in this light.

AG: Look, I have to say about the general state of the world, I don’t like to pronounce on it because we can all see it’s heading in a very dark direction. I think that’s pretty much self-evident now. While you’re right to say that there have been a lot of human encounters that have changed us and that we have learned from, we have to remember that we’re living through a time of increasing xenophobia where otherness itself has come to be extremely stigmatized. I mean, if I look at the American discourse on China, it’s almost incomprehensible. It’s so filled with misunderstandings, misconceptions. It just makes you wonder, “What are they talking about?” But that’s what happens when people become afraid, afraid of losing positions of dominance, and so on. We are in a world in a grip of a kind of panic, a panic that arises from seeing certain patterns of power and dominance coming seriously unstuck. People just don’t know how to deal with that; they just don’t know how to contend with these new things. That’s a moment of incredible instability. But that’s, how should I say, the big picture. But for me, what I contend with day-to-day at my desk is the very much smaller picture of what does all of this mean for me in relation to my work? Then the answer is quite simple and straightforward. I mean, I feel that what we as writers have to do is to go back to what you called, like quoting Ursula Le Guin, to imaginative writing, how do we go back to giving a voice to nonhumans and nonhumans of various different kinds? To me, that is the fundamental challenge that we confront in today’s world as writers. I think that is the fundamental literary challenge of our time. Richard Powers did that magnificently. There are other writers who are contending with that now. I think I take all of that as a big positive.

DN: Well, as a last question after these decades working on opium in both fiction and nonfiction, what desire has that created in you regarding future projects, ways you might work going forward or topics you might now pivot towards?

AG: One thing I know for sure is that it won’t be opium. [laughter]

DN: I didn’t think so.

AG: I’m done with opium. No, I’ve got a lot of stuff going on in my head, but mainly now I’m done with nonfiction. I just want to be writing fiction, which is what I always did. That’s my first interest.

DN: Well, thank you for being on the show today, Amitav.

AG: Thank you. Thank you very much, David. It was a pleasure to speak to you. Thank you. Thank you for having me.

DN: We’re talking today with Amitav Ghosh, the author most recently of Smoke and Ashes. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. You can find more of Amitav Ghosh’s work at If you enjoyed today’s conversation, consider joining the Between the Covers community as a listener-supporter. Every supporter can join our brainstorm of future guests, and every listener-supporter receives the supplementary resources with each conversation, of things I discovered while preparing, things referenced during the conversation, and places to explore once you’re done listening. Additionally, there are a variety of other potential gifts and rewards including the bonus audio archive, the Tin House Early Readership Subscription, getting 12 books over the course of a year, months before they’re available to the general public, to a bundle of books selected by me and sent to you. You can find out more at Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Beth Steidle in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank past Between the Covers guest, poet, musician, composer, performer, and much more, Alicia Jo Rabins, for making the intro and outro for the show. You can find out more about her work, her writing, her music, her film at