Sunday, November 9, 2008

Amitav Ghosh and Unity in Suffering

The beautiful Fullerton Auditorium at the Art Institute of Chicago was nearly full on Saturday morning, although it was the sort of cold, windy, spitty day best suited for staying home. I've heard many an inspiring lecture there and was rather astonished to find myself on the stage instead of in the audience. I was there to speak with Amitav Ghosh, the imaginative and erudite author of profoundly entertaining, history-steeped, and humanist novels, among them The Glass Palace, The Hungry Tide, and his newest, Sea of Poppies.

Ghosh seems to absorb history, including that discovered in such primary sources as court documents, as naturally and productively as a plant absorbs sunlight. His fiction is many-faceted, rich in tragedy and wit, romance and social concerns. He loves spending "long, dreamy days" at his desk writing, and his pleasure in language and story are palpable. Brilliant and fluent, Ghosh responded to each question with a beautifully formed story or thoughtfully expressed observation. When I asked him how he is able to write of dire things--slavery, torture, imprisonment, addiction, exile--without losing a sense of life's vibrancy and humor, he replied by talking about how, even in the darkest moments, the most oppressive places, people come together and find comfort in community, solace in making the best of the little they have--a patch of sun or shade, a hand to hold, food to share, however simple. We take heart; we distribute the sorrow, help carry the weight. We rekindle gratitude and hope, appreciation for beauty and laughter. That's just the way we are. We come together and find strength.

I couldn't help but think of the extraordinary community that coalesced around Barack Obama. We recognized the light of a true leader. Now we need to continue to support our new president, and each other. All of Ghosh's characters end up on a ship, the Ibis. It's no cliche to say that we truly are all in the same boat, that we all rise and fall together, and that we can make this new start a voyage into a more sane, responsible, just, and sustainable future.

I'm so grateful to Amitav Ghosh for all the compassion, art, and ardor he brings to his writing, for his generosity, and for the joy he finds in writing. In life.

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