Four Novelists, One Ocean: How Indian Ocean Literature Can Remap the World

Jerri-Lynn here. When I first started visiting India, I sought out and read lots of Indian literature – either books written by Indian authors, or books about India itself. At that time, I discovered the work of Amitav Ghosh and can recommend it highly. Years ago, I read some of Joseph Conrad’s classics.  I’ve yet to read anything by either Abdulrazak Gurnah or Lindsey Collen but will now seek out their work.

By Charne Lavery, Lecturer and Research Associate, University of Pretoria. Originally published at The Conversation

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.

These four authors are notable for having centred the Indian Ocean world in the majority 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 outsider’s view.

Their work reveals a world that is outward-looking – full of movement, border-crossing and south-south interconnection. They’re all very different – from colonially inclined (Conrad) to radically anti-capitalist (Collen), but together draw on and shape a wider sense of Indian Ocean space through themes, images, metaphors and language. This has the effect of remapping the world in the reader’s mind, as centred in the interconnected global south.

As the Kenyan novelist Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor has said, the narrative of particularly Africa’s interconnection with the world “seems to have been lost in our post-independence, postcolonial imagination”. As she says, “so much of Africa lies hidden in the sea”.

My book aims to tempt readers to dive into the fiction where it can be found.

The Indian Ocean Connection

The Indian Ocean world is a term used to describe the very long-lasting connections among the coasts of east Africa, the Arab 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 port cities very far apart were often more easily connected to each other than to much closer inland cities. Historical and archaeological evidence suggests that what we now call globalisation first appeared in the Indian Ocean. This is the interconnected oceanic world referenced and produced by the novels in my book.

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

For their part Ghosh, Gurnah, Collen and even Conrad reference a different set of histories and geographies than the ones most commonly found in fiction in English. Those are mostly centred in Europe or the US, assume a background of Christianity and whiteness, and mention places like Paris and New York.

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

To take one example, in Gurnah’s novel By the Sea, a teacher in Zanzibar is showing his young students their place in the world, and he draws a long continuous line around the east coast of Africa, up and around to India, and through the Malay and Indonesian archipelagos, all the way to China. This, he says, is where we are, circling Zanzibar and pointing eastwards and out to sea. Just outside the classroom:

crowds of sailing ships lie plank to plank in the harbour, the sea between them glistening with slicks of their waste … the streets thronged with Somalis or Suri Arabs or Sindhis, buying and selling and breaking into incomprehensible fights, and at night camping in the open spaces, singing cheerful songs and brewing tea…

It is a densely imagined, richly sensory image of a southern cosmopolitan culture which provides for an enlarged sense of place in the world.

Representing Africa

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

This does not mean that Indian Ocean Africa is romanticised. Migration is often a matter of force; travel is portrayed as abandonment rather than adventure; freedoms are kept from women; and slavery is rife.

What it does mean is that the African part of the Indian Ocean world plays an active role in its long, rich history, and therefore in that of the wider world.

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  1. Colonel Smithers

    Thank you, Jerri.

    This is a wonderful and timely post.

    I would add that the region’s literature is much richer than that and includes lusophone from Mozambique. gives a brief flavour of the richness of Mauritian literature. The line up includes my distant relative and Nobel laureate Jean-Marie Leclezio, a surname some readers with a business background may recognise from Lonrho.

    Mauritians may be puzzled that Lindsay Collen is that highly thought of. She espouses many apparently left wing causes which may impress people back in her native England and raises her profile, but Mauritians have more basic priorities.

    The lack of visibility of Mauritian, especially Creole, literature may be due to it being largely, but not exclusively, francophone. It helps that Mauritian aristocrat Philippe Rey left a storied Parisian publisher to start his own Parisian house and gives prominence to francophone authors from outside Metropolitan France.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Thanks for these details. Even more books to add to my to-read pile!

  2. ForgotMyHandle

    Along this line, Sanjeev Sanyal (whose day job is member of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India) has written a book titled The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History. The book opened a new world to me, covering vast swathes of history that are simply invisible to most westerners. Not a novel, but still a mesmerizing journey into the heart of a vibrant civilization centered on the Indian Ocean.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Looks to be an interesting book. Thanks for drawing my attention to it.

  3. .Tom

    This is an article about an academic text book about 4 novels. Writing Ocean Worlds is not an anthology containing the 4 novels. Right?

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      You’re correct. The two writers whose work I’m familiar with – Ghosh and Conrad – each wrote several novels. The other two authors may have as well but as yet, I’m not familiar with their work.

  4. Mike Smitka

    Sea routes were important, but there were also high value-added products (horses!) that tied east and west through central asia via the silk road(s), with technology, art, religion, and other cultural interchanges part of that. Peter Frankopan writes eloquently on the topic. Mass migrations (why is a central asian language spoken in Turkey?!) and armies are an overland phenomenon; long-distance naval action wasn’t to my knowledge important until the 1500s.

    Not that there hasn’t been long-distance migration via ocean routes: my wife from the northernmost tip of the Philippines (Ilokano) can pick out bits and pieces of Malagasy. Then there’s Easter Island and Hawaii.

    I know there was long-distance travel in the pre-Columbian americas, and early Jesuit accounts note that indigenous people traveled a lot over their lifetimes. Globalization has a long, long history. Ocean routes are important, but it’s a richer story than that.

    It’s nevertheless neat to know of these writers. Thank you!

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      I can’t say enough good things about Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. Get yourself a copy!

  5. Clif

    I seem to always particularly enjoy my morning reads on days J-LS posts.


    Love the tone, mix and focus.

  6. The Rev Kev

    This is a region that has been long neglected by the west in historical studies. There are rich histories and rich cultures scattered along these coastlines but the trouble is that we are more taught about the Mediterranean or those early voyages of European exploration. Would you believe that the ancient Egyptians once sent a mission that actually went around the entire coastline of Africa and returned to port coming from the opposite direction? I got a taste about what this region was like reading about Thor Hyerdahl’s voyage aboard the Tigris and was seriously impressed-

  7. JEHR

    As I get older and older, I realize how confined my reading has been by concentrating on English Literature. There are so many more places in the world with equally important histories and novels. I like Michael Ondaatje’s work some of which is located in and around the Indian Ocean. He was born in Sri Lanka but lives in Canada. You have probably seen his films and plays too, some of which are based on his novels.

      1. CanCyn

        Try your public library. If they don’t have it, they can borrow it from another library for you. Also if you’re near a university, most have a community borrower card that allows you to borrow books even if you’re not registered for classes.

  8. Revenant

    Hashish by Henri de Monfreid is a sympathetic outsider’s account of the black market sea trade between Asia Minor and Zanzibar via the Horn of Africa. It’s a good read. HdM was the inspiration for a character of Tin Tin!

  9. David

    Conrad is an interesting character, partly because he was one of the few novelists to write in a third language (French was his second) and partly because so much of his early work, at least, was based on his own first-hand experience at sea. Ironically, although his family was Polish, he was born in what its now Ukraine. Nothing is ever really new.

    I was struck by the passing reference to slavery. In fact, much of the Indian Ocean traffic from pre-Classical times was in slaves, and Zanzibar was a major slaving centre until the British eventually forced the Sultan to stop the trade in 1873. The best estimates are that some eight million slaves were trafficked from East Africa, mainly to the Gulf area, and the consequences of that trade, and the various communities’ involvement in it, continue to poison politics in the area to the present day.

    Another book for your collection: Raoul McLaughlin, The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean, which actually covers the whole of the ancient world economy, and is very reasonably priced.

    1. Colonel Smithers

      Thank you, David. One hopes you will visit les Mascareignes.

      Conrad was not the only author to hang around Mauritius for a while.

      Charles Baudelaire, Mark Twain and Charles Darwin did, too, and, in addition to their day jobs, chronicled many aspects of the colonial society.

  10. Mike Smitka

    For the novels themselves, Audible has audiobooks from Amitav Ghosh, Abdulrazak Gurnah, and Joseph Conrad (but not Lindsey Collen). Raoul McLaughlin’s The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean, Sanjeev Sanya’s The Ocean of Churn and Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads are also available. Listening to history, rather than reading, can however be tough, especially when there are reams of unfamiliar names.

    1. mistah charley, ph.d.

      It’s not a novel, but Amitav Ghosh’s The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis has caught my eye, and I will be looking for it at the library today.

      The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis frames climate change and the Anthropocene as the culmination of a history that begins with the discovery of the New World and of the sea route to the Indian Ocean. Ghosh makes the case that the political dynamics of climate change today are rooted in the centuries-old geopolitical order that was constructed by Western colonialism. This argument is set within a broader narrative about human entanglements with botanical matter-spices, tea, sugarcane, opium, and fossil fuels-and the continuities that bind human history with these earthly materials. Ghosh also writes explicitly against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests, and international immigration debates, among other pressing issues, framing these ongoing crises in a new way by showing how the colonialist extractive mindset is directly connected to the deep inequality we see around us today.

      1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

        I bought a copy earlier this year but haven’t had the chance to read it yet. I think I’ll move it closer to the top of my to-read pile.

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