Four novelists, one ocean: how Indian Ocean literature can remap the world

Novels make worlds. They create an intuitive sense and mental image of a place. And the senses of space produced by fiction shape how readers see the world itself, just like 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 questions. Sometimes the whole story of the novel was taken as an allegory of the nation, whether India or Tanzania. This was important for supporting anti-colonial nationalism, but could also be limiting – land-focused and inward-looking.

My new book Writing Ocean Worlds explores another kind of world of the novel: not the village or nation, but the Indian Ocean world.

The book describes a set of novels in which the Indian Ocean is at the centre of the story. It focuses on the novelists Amitav Ghosh, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Lindsey Collen and Joseph Conrad. Ghosh is a writer based between India and the US whose work includes historical fiction of the Indian Ocean; Gurnah is a novelist from Zanzibar, who was awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature; Collen is an author and activist based in Mauritius; and Joseph Conrad, is a key figure of the English literary canon...

by Charne Lavery

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