how Indian Ocean literature can remap the world

Novels create worlds. They create an intuitive feeling and mental image of a place. And the sense of space created by fiction shapes 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 mostly took place within national borders and dealt with national issues in some way. Sometimes the whole story of the novel was taken as an allegory of the nation, whether India or Tanzania. This was important in supporting anti-colonial nationalism, but could also be limiting—land-centric and inward-looking.

my new book writing marine worlds explores another 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 central to the story. The focus is on novelists Amitav Ghosh, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Lindsey Collen and Joseph Conrad. Ghosh is an Indian-US writer whose work includes historical fiction about the Indian Ocean; Gurnah is a novelist from Zanzibar who won the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature; Collen is an author and activist from Mauritius; and Joseph Conrad, is a key figure in the English literary canon.



Read more: The novel by Nobel Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah depicts small lives with wit and tenderness


These four authors are notable for having placed the world of the Indian Ocean at the center of most of their novels. Each also covers an important region of the Indian Ocean: Ghosh the eastern part, Gurnah the western part, Collen the islands, and Conrad an imperial exterior view.

Her work shows an outward-looking world – full of movement, crossing borders and South-South interdependence. They are all very different – from colonial-leaning (Conrad) to radically anti-capitalist (Collen), but together they draw and shape a broader understanding of the Indian Ocean through theme, imagery, metaphor and language. This has the effect of re-imagining the world in the reader’s mind as centered in the interconnected Global South.



Read more: Explore the Indian Ocean as a rich archive of history – above and below the waterline


As Kenyan writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor has said, the narrative of Africa’s particular interdependence with the world “seems to have gotten lost in our post-independent, post-colonial imagination”. As she puts it, “so much of Africa lies hidden in the sea”.

My book aims to entice readers to delve into fiction where it can be found.

The connection to the Indian Ocean

The Indian Ocean world is a term used to describe the very long-lived 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, meaning that very distant port cities were often more easily connected to one another than to much closer inland cities. Historical and archaeological evidence suggests that what we now call globalization first occurred in the Indian Ocean. This is the interconnected oceanic world that the novels in my book refer to and create.

The Indian Ocean novel in English is a small but significant genre that also includes works by MG Vassanji, Michael Ondaatje, Romesh Gunesekera and many others.



Read more: Literature illuminates the history and mystery of the Southern Ocean


For their part, Ghosh, Gurnah, Collen, and even Conrad refer to a different set of stories and geographies than those most commonly found in English fiction. These mostly focus on Europe or the US, assume a Christian and white background, and mention places like Paris and New York.

The novels in the book instead highlight a largely Islamic space, feature colorful characters, and centralize the ports of Malindi, Mombasa, Aden, Java, and Bombay.

For example, in Gurnah’s novel By the Sea, a teacher in Zanzibar shows his young students their place in the world, drawing a long continuous line around the east coast of Africa to India and through the Malay and Indonesian archipelagos to China. Here we are, he says, circumnavigating Zanzibar and pointing east and out to sea. Right in front of the classroom:

Crowds of sailing ships lie plank to plank in the harbour, the sea between them gleaming with their refuse… the streets are full of Somalis or Suri Arabs or Sindhis who buy and sell and break out in incomprehensible fights and camp out in the open at night, singing merry songs sing and make tea…

It is a densely imagined, sensual image of a southern cosmopolitan culture that provides an expanded sense of place in the world.

represent Africa

This remapping is particularly effective for representing Africa. In fiction, sailors and travelers are not all European. And Africa is not portrayed as a water-shy continent that only receives explorers, not sends them out. African as well as Indian and Arab characters are traders, nakhodas (dhow ship captains), runaways, scoundrels, missionaries, activists.

This does not mean that Africa in the Indian Ocean is being romanticized. Migration is often a matter of violence; Travel is presented as a passion rather than an adventure; Freedoms are denied to women; and slavery is rampant.

What it means is that the African part of the Indian Ocean world plays an active role in its long, rich history and, by extension, that of the rest of the world.

About Sonia Martinez

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