Literary fiction has an obligation to environmental refugees

img_20170118_165131“For a long time I missed home; it was a missing tooth,” said Sholeh Wolpe, an award-winning Iranian-American poet and literary translator. She was recently in India to talk about her experience of living an exiled life. She left Iran at the age of 13 when the Iranian Revolution stifled freedom and fettered people’s dreams.

The sense of banishment from one’s own land was palpitating in the expression of Valzhyna Mort—a Belarusian poet who now lives in the US—when she narrated the helplessness of her grandparents who saw their lands being taken away by Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution and given to collective farms for “better good” of the people. “Everything that’s ours has also been claimed by others,” she sighed.

These stories of anguish and living in parts are worded and recited across the world.  But there’s another form of forced migration that we don’t get to hear or read: climate-induced migration. Islands in the US and Canada are vanishing fast against the rising sea level; people in Bangladesh are seeing their lands being gobbled up by raging river and those in the Horn of Africa have turned into reluctant itinerants due to the staggering pace of desertification and prolong drought.

We are not deprived of an impressive line-up of academic books on refugee crisis across the world, especially Middle East and Africa, but those are mostly critical analyses of State-engineered subjugation and religious conflicts. They succumb to statistics and academic jargons.

While I was reviewing UR Anathamurthy’s ‘Bara’ (meaning drought)—written in the 70s and translated into English by Chandan Gowda—it occurred to me how truth can be told without moving away from the literary landscape and how political inaction and machination can turn an extreme weather event into full-scale disaster. Literary fictions, which would imagine beyond the current crisis and expose layered victimisation of those who are hounded by extreme weather events, must exist. Is it the lack of awareness or lack of creative imagination that is preventing contemporary litterateurs from writing about the disenfranchised lot living at the mercy of weather gods? I don’t know.

Author Amitav Ghosh recently sparked off a flurry of discussion on whether the issue of climate refugees has been largely ignored in contemporary literary fiction. “If we believe that the arts are meant to look ahead, open doors, then how is this huge issue of our time, absent from the arts? It’s like death, no one wants to talk about it,” he rued recently. His latest book, ‘The Great Derangement’ is an evocative work of fiction on climate catastrophe and its impacts.

The Nigerian author Chinua Achebe used to say, “It is difficult to identify with someone you don’t see, who’s very far away and who eats a different kind of food. When you begin to do that then literature is really performing its wonders.” We must heed his words.




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