Literature and climate change: Vinita Agrawal, Ranjit Hoskote and Sumana Roy on politics, intimacy of writing about nature

As the issue of climate change becomes more urgent, the work of writers becomes vital, to remind us of what is at stake, and what is already lost.

Neerja Deodhar October 22, 2020 09:21:54 IST
Literature and climate change: Vinita Agrawal, Ranjit Hoskote and Sumana Roy on politics, intimacy of writing about nature

For many of us, our introduction to literature about nature was the image of daffodils from William Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ or the titular feline from William Blake’s poem ‘The Tyger’, whose fearful symmetry could not be framed by the hand or eye of a mortal. There’s a perceived tonal tranquillity and awe in such works – a romanticism and retreat, so to speak, into the natural that seems removed from the struggles and evils of adult urban life.

But it would be a mistake to see Romantic literature about nature as being apolitical. This writing was in fact responding to the developments of the time – industrialisation and the use of natural resources for profit.

Cut to the 21st century, when the issue of climate change (or, more appropriately, catastrophe) is at its worst, and the Earth’s destruction continues unabated, despite experts pointing to the ways in which industry and our very lives must slow down, to work towards the healing of nature. To make matters worse, industrialists and national leaders continue to focus on profiteering, and there is an emergence of entire groups of people who believe that climate change is a hoax.

At such a time, the politics inherent in writing about the environment comes to the fore, and the work of writers becomes vital, to remind us of what is at stake, and what is already lost.

Sometimes, their work can take the form of non-fiction like Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement, or a more academically-oriented label such as 'ecocriticism'. At other times, it can emerge from a place of intimacy and connectedness; the feeling that the environment is not merely a backdrop to our lives or a weekend getaway, but a part of our very identities.

Open Your Eyes, a new anthology of poetry and prose edited by poet and translator Vinita Agrawal and published by Hawakal, draws our attention to the Earth and the ways in which it is hurting, shorn of sloganeering. It features works by a host of writers, including Adil Jussawalla, Jayanta Mahapatra and Arundhathi Subramaniam.

Consider this line from poet, curator and cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote’s Foreword: “We have imagined ourselves to be the owners of the Earth, when we are merely its unruly and transient tenants.”

Consider also this from Agrawal’s Introduction to the anthology: that while it is easy to feel afraid and paralysed at the news, “it is essential for us to be driven to present a different narrative around climate change – one of warning, but also optimism and action.”

Firstpost hosted a panel featuring Agrawal, Hoskote and Sumana Roy, author of How I Became a Tree, whose work is featured in the anthology. Through this conversation, we look at the ways in which literature engages with the environment, and what the effects of such an engagement can be – in terms of making readers more empathetic, and nudging them to build and envision a better world.

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