Of friends and mentors…

Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh speaking at the SoUS Conference, Yerevan, Armenia. Courtesy of Blind Dates Project.

What determines which individuals become companions and which serve as inspiration? That friends can offer the same insight over and over yet it takes a stranger’s assertion before one hears the validity of the words? Individuals who trust in strength beyond their own limitations carry that passion forward into their endeavors. We admire them for this and give them our attention in return. Sometimes affection clouds the boundaries of that admiration; we are after all human – beings who care – but that is a longer, more complicated discussion. What I recognize today is a subtle (un)silencing: the permission …no, the imperative to speak!

I recently participated in a conference in Yerevan, Armenia that addressed strategies of uncovering repressed histories, triggering tensions among the conference participants themselves. The final panel discussion ended in a heated debate over the legitimacy of narrating a story – who has the right to speak of suffering? Can the fiction-writing novelist relay a history that s/he has not directly experienced? Or, on the other hand, does the personal experience of one have any relevancy to the broader perspective of many? The argument became so contested that I thought it might end in blows when the essayist and novelist Amitav Ghosh stood and said calmly: …from tension comes creativity!

I have a low threshold for conflict and so a kind of nauseous freeze blocked the debate, whose words flew like hornets threatening to overwhelm my senses. My hearing hummed in a muted haze but with that simple pronouncement I was breathing sound again. The next evening I joined Amitav Ghosh and two others for dinner and found myself telling a story of anguish that I had never before recounted. When my tale was told, there was a moment of affirmation from my listeners that I will not forget. You have to write your story, Amitav insisted. How can I write a story that relies on those I have no right to tell? I resisted. Stop, stop right there! And he offered a passionate argument on the right to speak honestly, for ourselves and of others as well. A new pattern of breathing began to take hold that evening.

I am impressed by Amitav’s ability to open discussion. He was introduced as a novelist and so I attributed this facility to his training in anthropology. His two published volumes of the Ibis trilogy: Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke transformed my 15-hour flights to and from the conference into a wondrous voyage. On my return to New York, I discovered that the author also had a 30-year career as a journalist and so I began reading Incendiary Circumstances. How fascinating his 1995 essay on Burma and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in light of President Obama’s recent trip! But it was the essay that gives the volume its title that struck home. Here the author describes his own coming to terms with writing and the knowledge that understanding is strengthened by both the courage and failures of our participation in life.

In “The Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi” (1995), he reflects: “To write carelessly, in such a way as to appear to endorse terrorism or repression, can add easily to the problem, and in such incendiary circumstances, words cost lives, and it is only appropriate that those who deal in words should pay scrupulous attention to what they say. It is only appropriate that they should find themselves inhibited” (Incendiary Circumstances (2005), 201). Deftly the thesis of inhibition is offset by the antithesis of necessity for he then writes of the conflict between being a writer and a citizen – both with their own particular responsibilities – and how the actions of ordinary citizens are so often neglected in print for want of pressing drama. “It is when we think of the world the aesthetic indifference might bring into being that we recognize the urgency of remembering the stories we have not written,” (203) he concludes.

As I approach the launch of this site, I find myself restless, in fact nearly sleepless. I feel unsettled and exposed as a child who has hastily dressed in the morning throwing her clothes on top of her pajamas in order to catch the school bus, her undergarments slipping down to her knees as she runs. I have been perusing other sites as formatting models and reading some for content as well. Amitav Ghosh’s site reveals an array of serious essays and light-hearted banter. Curiously, his most recent post discloses his fondness for a particular Indian undergarment: the banyan.

It is as if writing, itself, threatens to expose our underpinnings and he has made peace with that reality. I think of writing and the next review I am currently researching, which is also about the act of reading. We write to build relations – between words, sounds, thoughts, and characters – and we read to learn about ourselves through reaching out to other worlds. Writing is an art of solitude but it is also a desire to forge connections. I admire Amitav’s tremendous intellect, fearless curiosity, and the great pleasure he takes in language itself. I envy the ease with which he engages with strangers. Yet I concentrate on what one offers through writing, determined to trust in its immeasurable returns.

Kathleen MacQueen, November 28, 2012



  1. Neery Melkonian · ·

    a wonderful piece, thank you Kathleen!

  2. Kathleen MacQueen · ·

    I received some comments via email that caused me to reflect further on the use of prepositions: for example, to speak “of” rather than “for” another. Along with the imperative to speak is also the necessity to listen. I think Mr. Ghosh is clear about this in his essays and conversations but I would like to add the insight of the 20c. philosopher Edmond Jabès:

    “…it is because I have reached a crucial point in the practice of writing, the heart—and often darkest night—of an incessant questioning of letter and sign (caught at the perilous point of becoming word and book) where I can speak to—or of—others only in the intimate voice of dialogue, a voice charged with all our listening for a voice that, as we know, once broke the silence for itself.” [Edmond Jabès, The Book of Margins (1975, 1984, 1993), 39]

%d bloggers like this: