New book about four authors shows how Indian Ocean literature can reconfigure the world


Novels make worlds. They create an intuitive sense and mental picture of a place. And the senses of space produced by fiction shape how readers view the world itself, just as maps do.

For early postcolonial literature, the world of the novel was often the nation. Postcolonial novels were usually set within national borders and concerned in some way with national issues. Sometimes the whole story of the novel was taken as a allegory of the nation, whether in India or Tanzania. It was important in supporting anti-colonial nationalism, but it could also be limiting – land-centered and introverted.

my new book Write ocean worlds explores another type of world of the novel: not the village or the nation, but the world of the Indian Ocean.

The book describes a series of novels in which the Indian Ocean is at the center of the story. It focuses on novelists Amitav Ghosh, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Lindsey Collen and Joseph Conrad. Ghosh is an India-US based writer whose work includes Indian Ocean historical fiction, Gurnah is a novelist from Zanzibar, who received the 2021 award Nobel Prize in LiteratureCollen is a Mauritius-based author and activist and Joseph Conrad, is a key figure in the English literary canon.

These four authors are notable for having centered the world of the Indian Ocean in the majority of their novels. Each also covers a significant region of the Indian Ocean: phantom the eastern part, Gourna the western part, Colleen the islands and Konrad the perspective of an imperial outsider.

Their work reveals an outward-looking world – full of movement, crossing borders and south-south interconnection. They are all very different – ​​from colonialism (Conrad) to radically anti-capitalist (Collen), but together they inspire and shape a larger sense of Indian Ocean space through themes, images, metaphors and a language. This has the effect of re-mapping the world in the reader’s mind, centered on the interconnected global south.

Like the Kenyan novelist Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor said, the narrative of Africa’s interconnectedness with the world in particular “seems to have gotten lost in our post-independence and post-colonial imagination”. As she said, “much of Africa is hidden in the sea”.

My book aims to inspire readers to dive into fiction where it is.

Indian Ocean connection

Indian Ocean World is a term used to describe the very long lasting Connections between the coasts of East Africa, the Arabian coasts and South and East Asia. These connections were made possible by the geography of the Indian Ocean.

For much of history, travel by sea was much easier than by land, which meant that far-distant port cities were often more easily connected to each other than to much closer inland cities. Historical and archaeological evidence suggests that what we now call globalization has emerged in the Indian Ocean. This is the interconnected ocean world referenced and produced by the novels in my book.

‘Writing Ocean Worlds: Indian Ocean Fiction in English’. Photo credit: Palgrave Macmillan

The Indian Ocean novel in English is a small but substantial genre, also including works by MG Vassanji, Michel Ondaatje, Romesh Gunesekera and many more.

For their part, Ghosh, Gurnah, Collen, and even Conrad refer to a different set of stories and geographies than those more often found in English-language fiction. These are mostly centered in Europe or the United States, assume a background of Christianity and whiteness, and mention places like Paris and New York.

Rather, the book’s novels highlight a largely Islamic space, feature characters of color, and centralize the ports of Malindi, Mombasa, Aden, Java, and Bombay.

To take an example, in Gurnah’s novel By the sea, a teacher from Zanzibar shows his young students their place in the world, and he traces a long, continuous line around the east coast of Africa, to India, and through the Malay and Indonesian archipelagos, to China. This, he said, is where we are, circling Zanzibar and pointing east and out to sea. Just outside the classroom:

“crowds of sailboats lie plank to plank in the harbour, the sea between them glistening with slicks of their trash… the streets crowded with Somalis or Suri Arabs or Sindhis, buying and selling and engaging in incomprehensible fights and camping at night in open-air spaces, singing happy songs and brewing tea…”

It is a densely imagined and richly sensory image of a southern cosmopolitan culture which provides an expanded sense of belonging to the world.

Represent Africa

This remapping is particularly powerful for the representation of Africa. In fiction, sailors and travelers are not all European. And Africa is not portrayed as a hydrophobic continent that only welcomes rather than sends explorers. The African characters, as well as the Indian and Arab characters, are traders, nakhodas (dhow captains), runaways, villains, missionaries, and militants.

This is not to say that Indian Ocean Africa is romanticized. Migration is often a matter of strength; travel is portrayed as abandonment rather than adventure, freedoms are denied to women, and slavery is commonplace.

This means that the African part of the Indian Ocean world plays an active role in its long and rich history and therefore in that of the rest of the world.

Charne Lavery is a lecturer and research associate at the University of Pretoria.

This article first appeared on The conversation.


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