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Different Geographies Read Differently

Climate Fiction and the Global South: A Conversation

Sharae Deckard | Prayaag Akbar

Dr Sharae Deckard, world literature lecturer at University College Dublin, speaks to Mumbai-based author Prayaag Akbar about his novel Leila, the differences in how climate change is being experienced, and how this affects fiction and publishing.

Sharae Deckard (SD): I wanted to start off with a general question about the significance of climate fiction. What can reading global novels about climate change tell us, show us, or help us to experience, that reading scientific writing or non-fiction may not be able to?

Or to put this in more individual terms, what inspired you to write your own ‘cli-fi’ novel, Leila? You are well known for your journalism, and I wondered if there was a sense – in writing the novel – of telling a story differently, or drawing on the representational capacity of a different genre, fiction, to imagine the future?

Prayaag Akbar (PA): That’s an interesting comparison. I imagine all good fiction writers who want to interrogate the human impact on environment would draw at least in part from scientific and other non-fiction sources while creating their own reality. The question is whether the readers who are drawn to fiction about, say, global warming, are also those who stay abreast of the very latest developments in the inquiries into how the earth is warming. Does climate fiction, as you call it, serve as a substitute for these readers?

There are certainly many dangers to that: in fiction the story must come first, and because of the many challenges of writing successful fiction, so many aspects of the full scientific reality might be elided, ignored or (depending on where the author’s interests lie) even misrepresented.

Over the first few months of the lockdown I read some back issues of the New York Review of Books that had been gathering dust among my books, and I was struck by some of their writing on global warming. In 2018, late in 2019, they were framing global warming as an absolute and impending crisis, the next crisis the human race would face, one that is reworking the contours of our known world. Yet we go on, most of us, blithely unaware of how this is happening and what exactly is happening.

"What good fiction can achieve is to take us into a world where global warming is a crisis of just this urgency: a global disruptor."

They were wrong about it being the next crisis, but that does not mean their writers were wrong. And now we are in midst a global pandemic that has upturned completely our regular ways of life. It is instructive to compare the lack of interest in global warming literature with how hungrily we devour every nugget of knowledge that emerges about COVID-19, its transmission, its constitution, its short- and long-term impact on our bodies – and about the race for a vaccine. How many people even knew what a zoonotic disease was in 2019? Or, for example, the complexities of creating a vaccine.

The problem is one of urgency. At this moment we want so desperately to resume our ‘normal’ lives, to feel normal, that we study every piece of reliable information that’s available. What good fiction can achieve is to take us into a world where global warming is a crisis of just this urgency: a global disruptor. It makes us believe that we are living in a world where our callousness towards nature has taken people we loved, destroyed everything we hold normal. While we read that book we feel those exigencies as urgently as if we were living them. This is what scientific writing or even non-fiction reportage cannot do.

It is because we buy willingly into the untruth of fiction that we feel the emergency that is presented as our own. I was aware of this, on some level, while I was writing Leila, but this collective, global experience we are enduring has allowed me to see it better.

SD: Following on from that, I wondered how current events inform your fiction, if at all?

PA: In India, where I live and have spent much of my life, you would not be aware there is an environmental crisis, if you read the popular media. Yet our cities have truly poisonous air year-round.

"Any news reporting [on environmental issues in India] only occurs towards the end of the calendar year, when, for a number of reasons, the air becomes close to unbreathable."

The Indian authorities and the media refuse to engage with this problem seriously, refuse to understand it as a consequence of deregulation of industry, of failure to monitor emissions, as a consequence of our desperate clamour for economic upsurge. Any news reporting only occurs towards the end of the calendar year, when, for a number of reasons, the air becomes close to unbreathable.

I worked for some years in journalism and I know how little interest there is in ‘climate’ stories. The pollutant PPM (parts per million) numbers are staggering – I didn’t use the word poisonous lightly. Most rich people have air purifiers in their home. (I believe the British company Dyson started selling air purifiers here before their vacuum cleaners.)

The best reporting on India’s climate emergency is always from foreign correspondents who are stationed in Delhi or Mumbai, and these tend to be the most personal pieces they write – talking about the health problems they or their families have faced in this time while also reporting on the larger issues.

I read a fair bit about the smog that settles over the northern belt of India, but the most useful research, as such, involved my memories of winter in Delhi, waking up every morning with a rasp in my throat, stinging eyes, what felt like a sediment in my chest. Mumbai is marginally better because it is by the ocean. But India’s cities are truly becoming unliveable and, increasingly, if they can manage it, young professionals are trying to work from rural environments.

SD: In teaching global and postcolonial cli-fi, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the ways in which science fiction (SF) about climate crisis and environmental crisis from the Global South and from different postcolonies might differ from cli-fi from North America or Western Europe, both in terms of its themes and content, and in terms of its aesthetics and formal conventions.

The Mexican-American filmmaker Alex Rivera, in a 2009 interview about his proleptic film Sleep Dealer, uses a wonderful phrase, “science fiction from below”, to describe the kind of fiction he wants to make. One of the interesting things that Rivera highlights about such SF is its tendency to show societies that are not uniformly high-tech, but rather unevenly developed as a result of capitalism and colonialism. He writes, “The vision of Oaxaca in the future and of the South in the future is a kind of collage, where there are still elements that look ancient, there is still infrastructure that looks older even than it does today, and yet there are little capillaries of high technology that pulse through the environment.”

"Because of this uneven impact of climate violence, and because of the uneven distribution of resources and wealth across the planet…we might expect cli-fi to look different as it comes from different places."

I think there is some similarity here in your depiction of the futuristic (Delhi-like) city in Leila, which has these big slums full of people who have been excluded from the walled communities within, who are treated as disposable lives, to live amongst waste and detritus in highly polluted conditions, but at the same time there is this plot to produce a super high-tech Air Dome for the privileged within what would basically commodify clean air.

So there is a fundamental unevenness here, and the protagonist Shalini is always negotiating these uneven spaces as she crosses between different sectors of the city, spaces that are both unevenly developed, and structured by inequalities of caste, class, ethnicity, religion, gender…

Because of this uneven impact of climate violence, and because of the uneven distribution of resources and wealth across the planet, and the increasing ‘enclosure’ or privatization of what ought to remain the ‘commons’ of air, water, and land, we might expect cli-fi to look different as it comes from different places, and perhaps to have this unevenness as a constitutive part of its own aesthetics. Was this something you were conscious of trying to depict as you were writing? What was your approach to imagining space and inequality in the novel?

PA: Well, from one perspective my novel is primarily about inequality. And as you’ve put it so well, income and other forms of inequality shape our experience of phenomena that we assume have generalised impacts, such as air pollution. In Leila it was important for me to bring this home for the reader – the air we each breathe, the water we drink and utilise, is not the same, has not been the same since the early days of industrial capitalism.

Shalini, my protagonist, loses her privilege because of an interreligious marriage, but she feels also that her body and being have been taken from her through this inequality in how she must experience environmental damage. We have perhaps not reckoned with it fully, but this is another way of perpetuating difference, of narrowing opportunity, of solidifying inequality.

"Yet, within our own societies, and I believe this is as true of Mexico and Brazil as it is of India, to use his examples, the vast inequality has its own horrifying implications. I believe it is the work of storytellers to be able to bring these implications to visibility."

This happens on a global level – as Rivera points out, such impacts are sharper on the ‘Global South’, and the governments of developed nations must be forced to reckon with this. Yet, within our own societies, and I believe this is as true of Mexico and Brazil as it is of India, to use his examples, the vast inequality has its own horrifying implications. I believe it is the work of storytellers to be able to bring these implications to visibility.

Certainly I’m concerned with the global dimensions of this problem, but one of the great beauties of fiction – and this happens when we write and when we read – is that it allows us to examine ourselves. I wanted my readers in India to think about how we all are complicit in this situation, living in our privileged bubbles. In Leila it takes the form of a literal Air Dome, but to me that physical structure was a representation of a manner of thinking that prevails in much of our society, one of enclosure, of cordoning yourself off from the problem, of living then as if the outside does not exist. Some sociologists think of this as a legacy of colonialism.

SD: The idea of unevenness also makes me think about the critic Ashley Dawson’s recent observation that “as we inhabit an epoch of increasingly perilous climate chaos, global capitalism is characterised by uneven and combined disaster.” Climate apocalypse is not so much a thing of the future, but one that is already unfolding, particularly for those regions already most affected by either drought or flooding, which are often the same regions which have in-built inequalities and vulnerabilities as a result of the structural legacies of colonialism and capitalist inequality.

Following on from your point about ‘living as if the outside does not exist’, how might cli-fi from the Global South offer a corrective to the ‘invisibilisation’ of these already-occurring disasters in the Western media? How might it intervene in the kinds of representations that we get in cli-fi thrillers from Hollywood or Euro-American fiction, where apocalypse often seems like this sudden, total shock to a bunch of privileged white people fleeing for their lives, rather than a process unfolding incrementally, or as a compound catastrophe?

PA: That’s a wonderful question and not something I’d thought of before. In Leila the environmental disaster does unfold incrementally, as the years pass. I suppose that was a consequence of watching a city I love, Delhi, start to rot, to go to pieces. To invert that supposition, it might be fair to say that the cataclysmic nature of Western sci-fi is a result of the outward functionality of your societies. Things seem, on the surface, to be clean, orderly, working well. Perhaps it is hard for writers to imagine a slow disintegration so an abrupt intervention – Deus Ex Machina? – is seen as more believable.

But again, I believe this is a result of the things we pay attention to and the things we don’t. As human beings it is hard to get to grips with how close we live to the edge, how fragile everything is. The COVID-19 situation is a good example.

I recently read about just how many asteroids and comets come close (in space terms) to  Earth, and how difficult such a collision would be to predict until it is almost upon us. We could have a few days’ notice and all of life as we know it would end. This is the plot of Armageddon, of course, which all these years I’d assumed was Hollywood scaremongering. According to the book, if a comet was on route to hit Earth, we would be unable to stop it. But this is so very hard for us, immured in the comforting lies of modernity, to comprehend. If we fretted about comet collisions constantly, as people this year have begun to fret about Chinese wet markets, bats and pangolins, the worry would get to us before anything else. So we pay attention to some dooms and other dooms we don’t.

SD: Thinking further about the visibility and invisibility of different kinds of disaster, Patricia Valderrama has a great piece on what kinds of climate change lessons can be learned from Latin American literature. She asks, “Who more cli-fi than us?”: pointing out that the Americas have been the site of invasion narratives, ‘alien’ encounters, mass epidemics of disease, ecocide, and literal climate change since the first trauma of colonial conquest.

In that sense, the ‘futures’ of so many classic SF invasion narratives or apocalypses are really the past and present of the formerly-or-still colonised. In what ways do you see global cli-fi and SF as challenging perceptions of the capitalist North as being the real site of the ‘future’ or the most ‘developed’ or ‘advanced’? And maybe vice versa, how might they contradict perceptions of the Global South?  How does India or South Asia get represented from ‘outside’ in SF and how does it get represented from writers and artists from the subcontinent or throughout the South Asian diaspora?

PA: It’s interesting thinking about this in light of your earlier question about the representation of climate disaster as sudden, totalising shock versus incremental change. There’s no doubt that colonialism has shaped our imagination and our understanding. The colonial encounter exists in the Western imagination as a sudden, cataclysmic shock, a moment of militarist victory that confirmed cultural and racial supremacy. Perhaps that contributes to why white writers, writers from the colonising countries, create these stories where disasters are also quick and immediate. In the colonised countries we understand better how colonialism slowly spread its tentacles, the subterfuge, how the inroads were made and the nature of contestation therein. Perhaps that is why our stories carry sometimes a different shape?

Whether stories can challenge perceptions of the capitalist North as the site of the future is hard to say. I suppose one recent example would be Marvel’s African kingdom of Wakanda. The interesting thing about that story, to me, is not that an African country commands this incredible technology, but that it has commandeered it. To share it with the other countries of Africa, or with the developing world, would constitute some kind of disaster, we’re told, though it is not clear what. That smacks of a colonial imagination. “If there is to be a place more advanced than our white society”, such an imagination says, “let it exist as an invisible, tiny pocket, never as a threat to the established supremacy.”

SD: I also wondered about how audiences in the Global South might react differently to texts than audiences in the Global North; and, related to this, how the expectations of publishers and editors of what cli-fi should entail might operate to shape the marketing and publication of texts?

In the past, I’ve had several Irish writers, for instance, tell me that they had been told by various editors that their own particular versions of speculative climate-fiction “wouldn’t sell” or “didn’t look like what Irish fiction should look like and American or British readers wouldn’t understand it”. So, I’m curious about your own experience in negotiating literary marketplaces in different geographies. Could you say something about the reception and positioning of Leila in different markets?

PA: I can only speak from my experience with Leila, but I do think different geographies read differently. This is only natural. As I’ve said, India is going through a slow-burning environmental disaster and seems unable or unwilling to tackle it (I say unwilling because the air quality and quality of water in the rivers improved tremendously in the first weeks of the very strict lockdown instituted in India, when all industry ceased, so there is reason to think that this could be handled with the right regulation).

"We’ve all read stories in which the protagonist, in the face of overwhelming injustice, ventures out and brings down the system. Inevitably, this protagonist is male. I wanted to examine a different kind of courage: fortitude and resilience."

Perhaps because of their own experience of this disaster, readers here in India seemed to understand instinctively the environmental concerns presented in the book – I didn’t have to spell anything out, certainly. When I think of communication I received from readers in the United Kingdom and Europe and even the United States, it isn’t that they didn’t understand the concerns – it’s not a complex aspect of the book. But perhaps they didn’t feel the urgency as one would here. Then again, this might be a consequence of who reads texts like mine.

This is again a big generalisation but a book by a first-time Indian novelist might only be read in certain privileged pockets of the countries of the West. If it is read in San Francisco and New York, perhaps the environmental aspects seem far too distant, and other parts of the book resonate. But what if you were a young person growing up in one of the great reaches of Texas where fracking is the dominant industry and you have experienced all your life poisoned water and air? If my book was read by such a person they might see, far better, Shalini’s plight as their own.

SD: I was really struck by the fact that Leila focuses on the quest of the protagonist to find her daughter, who has been taken from her – there is no quest to find a promised MacGuffin or a pastoral Green Land or walled Jerusalem here, no physical contests with marauders. There is a great deal of moving tension and anguish and atmosphere in the novel, but it isn’t driven by those thriller dynamics. Nor is the novel focused on a ‘whole’ nuclear family unit, as in many cli-fi scenarios, where, as Kathleen Loock has observed, heteronormative anxieties about the ability of a male action figure to be able to protect his family and thus uphold “the traditional values of patriarchy, family structures, and gender roles” in the face of the “impending end of the world” seems to drive the action.

Could you say a bit about why you chose a female protagonist and this kind of plot focusing on the quest to find her daughter, and what the implications of your choice are for the mode of cli-fi that we get?

PA: Thank you for this sensitive reading of my book. This was something I was very keen to do, actually. We’ve all read stories in which the protagonist, in the face of overwhelming injustice, ventures out and brings down the system. Inevitably, this protagonist is male. I wanted to examine a different kind of courage: fortitude and resilience.

In patriarchies like the one I live in, many women suffer great injustice silently. I began to think about what it would like to be a woman in a society like the one I wanted to write about, and it seemed to me that along with the depredations enabled by a society falling apart she would face a number of challenges because of her gender as well. The promised land of other fictions usually seems rather fake to me, a writerly cop-out. If all the world is a mess, how come some people escape this fate, and why are they so selfish, so invisible in their pocket utopia? Shalini’s courage comes from the fact that she faces unassailable odds and still finds a way to continue, to spend sixteen years working within the system as she looks for her daughter.

The starting point of my book was the separation between Shalini and Leila – the bond between daughter and mother, in all its complexity, seemed to me one that no authority or circumstance could sever. In my book they have been kept apart for so long, yet there is no other thought Shalini has than seeing her daughter again, even if only once. That kind of strength is remarkable to me. And it seemed to me the best story to tell, the one I wanted to tell.

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