Anthropology and Fiction: An Interview with Amitav Ghosh

Peer Reviewed

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of essays about anthropology and literature, including "Bombay Talkies, the Word, and the World: Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses" by Michael M. J. Fischer and Mehdi Abedi; "Montaigne and the Cannibals: Toward a Redefinition of Exoticism" by Roger Celestin; "Visions of the Archipelago: Michel Leiris, Autobiography, and Ethnographic Memory" by Marc Blanchard; "Ethnography, Literature, and Politics: Some Readings and Uses of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses" by Talal Asad; "Challenge to Authority: Bakhtin and Ethnographic Description" by Wendy A. Weiss; "Living with Medea and Thinking after Freud: Greek Drama, Gender, and Concealments" by Ayala H. Gabriel; "The Ethnographer's Textual Presence: On Three Forms of Anthropological Authorship" by Haim Hazan; and "Rimbaud's House in Aden, Yemen: Giving Voice(s) to the Silent Poet" by Lucine Taminian.

Ghosh, Amitav, "In An Antique Land." via

Amitav Ghosh published an article in Cultural Anthropology in 1994:  "The Global Reservation: Notes toward an Ethnography of International Peacekeeping."

See also the Literature, Writing, and Anthropology Curated Collection.

About the Author

Ghosh, Amitav, "Photo of the Author." November 10, 2012 via

Damien Stankiewicz is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Temple University in Philadelphia.  His research explores mass media, and producers of mass media, as means by which to better understand contemporary debates about, and re-imaginings of, national, trans-national, and cosmopolitan identities.  His dissertation, The End(s) of Imagination: Nation and Europe at the Television Channel ARTE, examines how staff at ARTE, a self-consciously trans-national and trans-regional television channel, go about crafting media intended to promulgate a trans-border and pan-European culture.  His chapter "The Discursive Disjunctions of Globalizing Media" was published in Rohit Chopra and Radhika Gajjala's edited volume Global Media, Cultures, and Identities (Routledge, 2011), and he has a forthcoming article, "Re-Gathering the Imagined Audience," in the journal Television and New Media.

More about Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh was born in Calcutta and grew up in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. He studied in Delhi, Oxford and Alexandria and is the author of The Circle of Reason (1986), The Shadow Lines (1988), In An Antique Land (1992), Dancing in Cambodia (1998), The Calcutta Chromosome (1996), The Glass Palace (2000), The Hungry Tide (2005), Sea of Poppies (2008), and River of Smoke (2011). The Circle of Reason was awarded France’s Prix Médicis in 1990, and The Shadow Lines won two presitigious Indian prizes the same year, the Sahitya Akademi Award and the Ananda Puraskar. The Calcutta Chromosome won the Arthur C. Clarke award for 1997 and The Glass Palace won the International e-Book Award at the Frankfurt book fair in 2001. In January 2005 The Hungry Tide was awarded the Crossword Book Prize, a major Indian award. His novel, Sea of Poppies (2008) was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, 2008 and was awarded the Crossword Book Prize and the IndiaPlaza Golden Quill Award.

Amitav Ghosh’s work has been translated into more than twenty languages and he has served on the Jury of the Locarno Film Festival (Switzerland) and the Venice Film Festival (2001). Amitav Ghosh’s essays have been published in The New Yorker, The New Republic and The New York Times. His essays have been published by Penguin India ("The Imam and the Indian") and Houghton Mifflin USA ("Incendiary Circumstances"). He has taught in many universities in India and the USA, including Delhi University, Columbia, Queens College and Harvard.  In January 2007 he was awarded the Padma Shri, one of India’s highest honors, by the President of India. In 2010, Amitav Ghosh was awarded honorary doctorates by Queens College, New York, and the Sorbonne, Paris. Along with Margaret Atwood, he was also a joint winner of a Dan David Award for 2010. In 2011 he was awarded the International Grand Prix of the Blue Metropolis Festival in Montreal.

His most recent novel is River of Smoke (2011), published in the U.S. by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.

Additional Weblinks and Resources

Ghosh, Amitav, "River of Smoke." November 10, 2012 via

Includes more information about the other as well as a link to his blog.

An online excerpt from Ghosh’s newest book, River of Smoke.

Fascinated by Ghosh’s explorations of language? Here the author talks more about his characters’ use of Bengali, Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Laskar—and provides a lexicon.

Amitav Ghosh’s interview with Tom Ashbrook, host of NPR’s 'On Point', from October13, 2011.

BBC Radio’s Mariella Frostrup talks to Ghosh about River of Smoke, the second book in Ghosh's Ibis Trilogy, set in the waterways around Canton during the events leading up to the start of the First Opium War in 1839.

A 2003 New Yorker piece on American Empire; see also, on imperialism, a 2002 TheNation article, “Imperial Temptation”:

Classroom Discussion Questions

Ghosh, Amitav, "Sea of Poppies." November 10, 2012 via

1.  What, as you see them, are the boundaries between "thick ethnographic description" in Geertz's sense (1973), and literature?  How can we think about the differences between ethnography and literature if we know that "fictional" literature is often based on archives and "fact," while the social "science" of ethnography must often constructs a fiction-like narrative in order to convey some larger truth?

2.  Amitav Ghosh has moved fairly fluidly between the the world of literature and his scholarly training as an anthropologist and ethnographer.  What might be the benefits of this hybridity and dual perspective?  What might be drawbacks or pitfalls of this movement?

3.  Ghosh's evocation of his approach to his work suggests that he doesn't like to draw lines between fact and fiction; between ethnography and literature; or between, perhaps in a larger sense, art and science.  Where in the article do you sense Ghosh's "discomfort" with these distinctions, or how would you articulate the way he distinguishes (or reconciles) the worlds (and methods) of literature and anthropology?

4.  Ghosh writes, "The one most important thing I learnt from anthropology (especially fieldwork) was the art of observation: how to watch interactions between people, how to listen to conversations, how to look for hidden patterns" (541).  Here Ghosh identifies some of the shared ground of novelists and anthropologists.  In what other ways is the observational work of the novelist and the anthropologist similar?  In what ways, if any, are they different?


All images except Sea of Poppies book cover courtesy of Amitav Ghosh, from; Sea of Poppies book image from

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