Writing About The Banda Islands & Nutmeg & Us

Around the time we shared a book review of Amitav Ghosh’s most recent work he gave a lecture about the Banda Islands, explaining the relationship between nutmeg and our current challenges related to climate change. It includes conversation with his host, a professor of creative writing, who draws out of Ghosh on his writing process.

The best part of the lecture is about half way through, when Ghosh talks about the agency of botanicals, a topic that many of us first encountered in the writings of Michael Pollan. Thanks to Rhoda Feng for giving Ghosh’s book another review, which led me to find the video above:


At the end of Amitav Ghosh’s SEA OF POPPIES (2008), a character reflects on how her life has been governed not by the sign of Saturn but by the poppy seed. Offering a seed to her lover, she says: ‘Here, taste it. It is the star that took us from our homes and put us on this ship. It is the planet that rules our destiny.’ SEA OF POPPIES is part of the Ibis trilogy by Ghosh – followed by RIVER OF SMOKE (2011) and FLOOD OF FIRE (2015) – about the nineteenth-century Anglo-Chinese Opium Wars. The maritime novels use opium as a vector for unlikely alliances among a disparate cast of characters: Deeti, a widowed poppy farmer; Ah Fatt, a half-Chinese, half-Parsi convict and opium addict; Neel Rattan Halder, a bankrupt Indian landowner; Zachary Reid, a white-passing opium trader; and a multitude of other lascars and indentured servants in the Indian Ocean. Each novel dramatises opium’s vast powers: to stupefy the senses, domesticate people into docility, engender hallucinations and create loopholes in linear time. Personal boundaries become porous as opium encourages characters to flout caste delineations, binding them in improbable intimacies; bringing them face to face with the uncanny power of the nonhuman, or what the Enlightenment notion of history has grouped together under the umbrella of ‘nature’. With each book, Ghosh builds up a world teeming with energy – a world where opium is not mute but mutable. 

‘This minuscule orb – at once bountiful and all-devouring, merciful and destructive, sustaining and vengeful.’ This is how Deeti, in SEA OF POPPIES, comes to think of the capricious poppy seed, which has dealt her both good and bad fortune. Her description serves just as well for the nutmeg, another commodity that has been prized as a fillip for foodies and, on the other side of the ledger, precipitated bloody conflicts in places like the Banda Islands, located on the southeastern tip of present-day Indonesia. It is the nutmeg that lends its name to Ghosh’s new work of nonfiction and serves as its central protagonist.

THE NUTMEG’S CURSE is, in many ways, a follow-up to THE GREAT DERANGEMENT, a series of lectures Ghosh gave in 2015 about the widening gyre of climate catastrophe and the narrowness of literary responses to it. In it, he locates modernity’s ‘derangement’ in its refusal to recognise ‘that we have always been surrounded by beings of all sorts who share elements of that which we had thought to be most distinctively our own: the capacities of will, thought, and consciousness.’ It’s this kernel of insight that Ghosh returns to in THE NUTMEG’S CURSE. (One might say there’s a way in which each of his books proleptically begets the next, spiraling from poppy seeds, to global warming, to nutmeg.) If THE GREAT DERANGEMENT casts mainland Asia as ‘both protagonist and victim’ of the climate crisis, in Ghosh’s new book, the role of protagonist is supplanted by the nutmeg. THE NUTMEG’S CURSE is both an unauthorised biography of the spice and a call to reanimate our politics in a way that respects the agency or ‘vitality’ of non-human beings all around us.

THE NUTMEG’S CURSE begins in medias res. The year is 1621 and the setting is a clutch of volcanic islands in the Banda Sea. One of the islands, Run, was traded by the British to the Dutch for Manhattan in the seventeenth century. The British legacy included an obsession with nutmeg, a fragrant spice, which in 1621, was worth more than gold. It makes for a heady contrast: a swampy island in New Amsterdam becomes a global trade centre, while a speck in an archipelago three kilometres long comes to be associated almost exclusively with a small but incredibly valuable nut…

Read the whole review here.


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