Sunday, October 26, 2008

Amitav Ghosh

Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg of the Wall Street Journal interviewed Amitav Ghosh about his latest novel, Sea of Poppies.

Part of their conversation:

The Wall Street Journal: Why did you decide on a historical novel set in 19th century India?

Amitav Ghosh: I've written one other historical novel, "The Glass Palace." It's the book for which I am probably best known outside of India. When I was writing it, I became interested in the history of indentured workers leaving India -- workers who went to Burma and Malaysia, where they were called "coolies." The history of that experience fascinated me. It wasn't possible to write about it at great length in "The Glass Palace," but I wanted to explore the earliest period of indenture and steep myself in it, so I came back to it.

WSJ: This novel is very much an ensemble piece. Was that your original intention?

Mr. Ghosh: Yes, always. One of the books that has been a great inspiration to me since I was an adolescent is Thornton Wilder's "The Bridge of San Luis Rey." It's a wonderful book about a bridge in 18th century Peru. One day, while five people are crossing, the bridge collapses and they die. The book then traces their histories. [The novel won the 1928 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.] As I researched "The Sea of Poppies" I looked at a lot of crew lists and passenger manifests of actual ships that sailed the Indian Ocean in the 19th century. The officers were white men, basically, Australian, English, American. The passengers were often indentured workers leaving India. And then there were the sailors, Indian sailors called "lascars." The way in which all of their destinies were connected in the enforced proximity of a ship was something that fascinated me.
Read the complete Q & A.

--Marshal Zeringue