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.

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Musings of a Reader: The Handmaid’s Tale and Why Dystopian Fiction is Necessary

Published in Zau magazine in March 2015

Up until quite recently, I used to be one of those literary snobs. You know the ones I’m talking about – those who turn up their noses on “genre” fiction, pooh-poohing at the intricately-built worlds of fantasy or the implausibility and outlandishness of the crazy science of sci-fi. “What do those books have to do with the real world,” I would say to myself derisively, as I devoured book after book of “realistic” fiction. (The irony of the fact that the worlds of the realistic fiction I loved so much were every bit as constructed as the worlds of fantasy or sci-fi was, of course, completely lost on me.) It seemed to me a lazy escapist move to lose yourself in worlds that are so far removed from “reality” – from the social order and the issues within this social order that “realistic” fiction, I felt, explored and critiqued. What was fantasy or sci-fi or dystopian fiction if not a bunch of characters having wacky adventures in a world nothing like our own? Then, something happened that made me reconsider my (ignorant) position on at least one of these genres: I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

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