Musings of a Reader: On Amitav Ghosh and the Importance of Historical Fiction

Published in the 14th issue of Zau magazine in February 2016

I’ve been a fan of historical fiction since long before I knew what the term meant. When I was ten years old I read Patricia Reilly Giff’s middle-grade novel Nory Ryan’s Song, which is set in Ireland during the Great Potato Famine of 1845. At that time, I was, of course, completely unaware of Irish history and of the mass level of destruction that this watershed event caused for Ireland – what I cared about was the story of Nory, a young girl trying to help her family survive the famine and the cruelties of their English landlord while having adventures in her coastal hometown of western Ireland. The historical setting of the novel was superfluous to ten-year-old me, apart from creating the very specific circumstances that Nory’s story grows out of – how she and her friend Sean try to prevent their neighbor from being evicted when she can’t pay rent, how she sings to her little brother to distract him from his hunger, her dream of one day reuniting with her older sister in Brooklyn.

Last year, when I was introduced to the literary work of Amitav Ghosh and the histories that he explores in his novels, I found that his reason for turning to the past helps explain my own reasons for being drawn to historical fiction. In an interview, Ghosh says, “At the risk of making too sweeping a claim, I would say that the principal reason why storytellers turn to the past is because history is replete with compelling human predicaments… I am drawn to the past because it provides instances of predicaments that are unique and unrepeatable. They say more about the human condition than anything I could make up out of whole cloth.” Since Nory Ryan’s Song, I’ve read quite a bit of historical fiction, and even though the historical context in itself is now more compelling to me than it was when I was younger, the principal reason why I read historical novels about, say, female boxers in 18th century southern England (The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman) or a couple of doctors in a war-torn hospital in Chechnya during the Second Chechen War (A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra) or a group of miniaturists in 16th century Ottoman Empire (My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk) is because of the unique and specific lives of these characters. How else am I ever going to know what it was like to be an artist-slash-suffragette in 20th century England or a Bengali opium merchant in 19th century India?

Historical fiction as a literary genre (although it’s not a genre, per se, as I will come to later) has a long tradition in world literature. Well before Sir Walter Scott ushered in the historical novel in Western literature in the 19th century, both the eastern and western forms of oral and folk tales described history in fictionalized form for contemporary audiences. For example, three of the Four Great Chinese Classics are set in the distant past and The Tale of Genji, the 12th century Japanese classic can also be considered historical. However, according to critic György Lukács, Scott’s historical novels marked a change in the literary form because Scott was the first fiction writer who saw history not just as a convenient frame in which to stage a contemporary narrative, but rather as a distinct social and cultural setting. Following Scott, many Western writers including Dickens, Balzac and George Eliot tried their hand at historical fiction. Tolstoy’s War and Peace is also set 60 years prior to when it was written, during the French invasion of Russia, and his novel Hadji Murad is based on the life of the historical figure of a Chechen rebel commander. Urdu literature itself has a long tradition of historical ficition, from Syed Imtiaz Ali Taj’s historical drama Anarkali to Quratulain Hyder’s historical epic novel Aag Ka Dariya, among many others.

But historical fiction is not so much a delineated genre as it is a loose category of any fiction which is set in the past. As such, historical fiction can fall under many genres. There are historical romances, historical mysteries and even speculative alternate history novels that imagine the past as what could have been instead of what was (“What if Hitler had won World War II and Nazis were ruling America?” is the premise behind Philip K. Dick’s alternate history novel The Man in the High Castle). Even though the historical novel was long dismissed as lowbrow genre fiction (despite many of the Western canon greats having dabbled in it themselves), it has also attracted literary writers in recent years. In 2009, Hilary Mantel’s literary historical novel Wolf Hall – which is about Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power during the reign of Henry VIII in Britain – won the Man Booker Prize. Mantel again won the same prize in 2012 for the sequel of the novel, Bring up the Bodies, playing a significant part in bringing historical fiction in the literary mainstream. At the risk of beating a dead horse, I would also like to point out that there is well-written, evocative and compelling historical fiction as well as badly written historical fiction with a generic historical backdrop and a conventional story – but, as in the rest of the literary genres, the bad ones are no reason to dismiss historical fiction in its entirety and risk missing out on the wonderful ones.

Reading historical fiction inevitably raises questions in one’s mind about the distinction between truth and fiction, and the often blurred line between the two. How much of what I read about, for example, the French walled city of Saint-Malo during World War II in Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is really true and how much did Doerr make up? I expect different readers read historical fiction in different ways, relating to the history presented with varying degrees of skepticism or acceptance. As for me, I tend to believe what I read as fact, inasmuch as any historical account can be taken as fact. As noted historian Eric Foner says, “Works of history are first and foremost acts of the imagination.” History in itself is not an objective singular truth but an amalgam of various truths and fictions, and so for me, the history of historical fiction is as true as any other.

Reading historical fiction on a vast variety of historical periods is also interesting because you quickly realize which histories are considered worth talking about in multiple stories and which would rather be swept under the rug. There are hordes and hordes of historical fiction set during World War II Europe, for example, and only a few on the Armenian genocide perpetuated by the Ottoman Empire in early 20th century or – closer to home – the events that led up to the 1971 civil war in Pakistan and the subsequent formation of Bangladesh. It is because of this that writing fiction about histories that the world at large would prefer to forget about, can be quite an act of subversion.

Amitav Ghosh is one such historical fiction writer. A distinctive feature of his work is the way in which his writings manage to hold together a global, sweeping perspective while focusing on highly specific, individualized histories that are usually marginalized and even contested.  A common thread that runs through all of his work is the view of history that goes against the grain of Eurocentric, Westernized history. In his focus on the history of the forgotten and marginalized, Ghosh gives voice to those that have been largely ignored by the powerful Eurocentric narrative of history. For instance, his In an Antique Land, Ghosh explored the pre-colonial Indian Ocean trade route of the 12th century, exploring the connection between India and Egypt, which is a historical connection I never knew even existed.

The first part of his Ibis trilogy, Sea of Poppies, is set in mid-19th century when colonialism was in full swing. Even though the British colonization of the Indian subcontinent is a relatively well-traversed subject in history, the aspect of this period that Ghosh explores in Sea of Poppies is for the most part glossed over in the Western narrative of this era, which is the British opium trade in India and China. Propelled by the interlinked forces of colonialism and capitalism, the British East India Company turned the fertile fields in northeast India into a sea of poppies, forcing farmers to plant crops of poppy instead of their usual cash crops, enlisting other Indians in factories to turn the poppies into opium and then selling the refined opium in China on a massive scale. Eventually, they persuaded the British Empire to wage the notorious opium wars against China’s restriction on the inflow of the drug in the country. But while Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy as a whole focuses on the human devastation caused by the opium trade, Sea of Poppies in particular focuses on an even more neglected aspect of this shameful history: the trafficking of indentured laborers from India to other British colonies as far-flung as Mauritius and Fiji to East Africa and the Caribbean. By exploring the lives of these indentured workers, Ghosh provides new insight into a largely forgotten segment of the early Indian diaspora. Reading Sea of Poppies was a complete revelation to me because it explored a part of the history of the subcontinent that I was completely unaware of`– which is unsurprising, given what a messed up relationship we as a nation have to our collective history. (It also cannot be ignored that my knowledge of the history of the subcontinent came from the colonizers themselves – the British O’Level-prescribed history books I studied from discuss the East India Company but refrain from even mentioning the words “opium trade”). Reading Ghosh’s novels made me realize that there is an alarming amount that I do not know about our own history and that reading about this history and other marginalized histories is crucial to our understanding of the world.

My championing for historical fiction is self-serving in that it provides me with slices of history I would otherwise not know much about, reluctant as I shamefully am to turn to nonfiction history books. But I am not sure whether historical fiction can’t provide a view of the past that is unavailable in history books – history books can tell us the facts, about what happened but not what it was like to live in that world, to exist in that specific historical time. The past, as they say, is another country and I want to experience being in that country, to inhabit it, as it were, as opposed to just finding out what that country was like – and that is something only fiction can provide. Ghosh explains the difference between a historian’s view of history and a novelist’s view of history by likening history to a river: “History is like a river and the historian is writing about the ways the river flows. But within this river, there are also fish which can swim in many different directions. [The novelist] looks at it from the fish’s point of view.”

Historical fiction looks at history through the prism of a specific character’s perspective, and for me that perspective is more compelling and more instructive than a sweeping, macro-level historical account. In the end however, historical fiction can be great for the same reason literature in general can be great – it can say something meaningful, give an insight into the world or the human psyche that is ultimately timeless.


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