Rappahannock Review Fiction Editors: In “The Ants are Thirsty,” we really empathize with Eva’s detachment regarding the climate crisis and its effects on her family. How much of this outlook is reflective of your own outlook on climate change?

Amita Basu: Climate change and the destruction of the environment worry me immensely. These issues preoccupy a lot of people. But, given the scale of the problem, I, like many others, feel overwhelmed and, often, paralyzed into inaction. We know that we can’t do enough, and this keeps us from doing the little we can. Our knowledge of the problem, and our guilt about inaction, then translate into behavior that a third-party observer would brand indifference. But very often it isn’t, really—it’s caused by deep disaffection and a sense of helplessness. Instead of doing what we can, we block out all bad news and turn our focus inwards, onto our own inner lives, or safeguarding our families, or accumulating material possessions in some blind hope of protecting ourselves from the common fate. 

Eva does care, as I do, as so many people do—but she doesn’t know what to do about the problem, and it hurts to care, it hurts to feel helpless. So she blocks out that knowledge. In the short run, this head-in-the-sand attitude protects our individual psyches from pain; in the long run, collective inaction is the worst possible response. Many forms of addictive and compulsive behavior are on the rise, from binge-eating to binge-shopping. I suspect this is partly a response to our distress, grief, and anger about environmental destruction. We feel helpless to change the world, we feel responsible, we don’t want to feel responsible—so we’re turning inwards on ourselves, punishing ourselves.

RR: On your website, you write that you were fascinated by irrationality and the structures in place that allow such behavior. Would you say that the nihilism in this piece is an example of that? If so, what societal structures would you say most facilitate this kind of thinking?

AB: Eva’s willful blindness is a good example of irrationality, yes. In fact, our behavioural and psychological response to climate change is rife with irrationalities. For instance, many of the worst outcomes (e.g. the devastation of major coastal cities) are not certain but probabilistic, not immediate but delayed—they might or mightn’t happen, and if they do happen, they’ll happen decades down the line. We tend to treat delayed outcomes, and probabilistic outcomes, sort of as if they will never happen. (We display similar irrationalities with our health—e.g. we smoke, or eat poorly, today, refusing to worry about delayed and uncertain outcomes.) Our miscalibrated beliefs, and the inaction they produce, often guarantee that the worst possible outcome will occur. 

The consumerist culture we live in today facilitates this individual inconsiderateness—it encourages us to think only of what we can produce and consume today. Social fragmentation and global mobility make us less able than ever before in human history to rely on the wisdom of extended family networks. Religious affiliation has fallen globally—which personally I think is a wonderful thing—but religious institutions have often not been replaced fully by secular institutions that can offer hope and wisdom and constructive avenues for collective action. 

There are numerous organizations around the world today, from university research initiatives to citizen action groups—who are taking action on environmental issues—from wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, to restoring damaged local lakes. I urge everyone to find out how they can contribute their time, money, and expertise. Don’t put it off till you’ve found the best possible way to get involved—don’t take “effective altruism” too far. Do a tiny bit, but do it, and start now.

RR: In the pursuit of raising awareness about climate change with your writing, do you think stories like yours are an effective way to ignite further interest into such topics?

AB: Narratives are powerful tools in how we understand and engage with reality. We need to become surrounded by such narratives, which force us to confront what’s happening. ASU’s annual Everything Change Climate Fiction Contest is a wonderful initiative. The stories in their annual winners’ anthology are moving. In order for a story with a message to work, it has to succeed in the first place as a story. These stories do that, and more.

Art in general offers beauty, which is the ultimate sugarcoating for any necessary but hard message. The best pieces also offer hope, and maybe even some direction of what we need to do. The fact is, many readers of Rappahannock Review already know what’s happening to the environment—they mightn’t know the specific details of water shortage in India, but they know the general picture of increasing resource scarcity, with rich people retreating into the twenty-first-century equivalents of stone castles behind moats. The most powerful stories on this topic confront us with a problem, so vividly that we cannot look away—but then also offer a ray of hope. And that ray of hope is empathy and community—the reader feels empathy for this character, feels their suffering—and the answer is to organize with your local community, to empower each other, not to feel like you’re fighting this all alone, and then network with local governments and companies to demand change.

It’s hard not to feel pessimistic, but I’m trying to avoid that trap. The stories I’m writing about climate change now will, I hope, be a little more hopeful.

RR: We love your rich and direct imagery–what factors would you say are the most influential to your writing style?

AB: Whenever someone told me a story as a child, I found myself interrupting to demand that they set the stage. I wanted to know where and how, and, of course, how old I was when aforesaid events were happening. I’ve got the same bad habit now—I don’t let anyone tell me a story until I’ve got a clear picture of when and where we are. 

What I remember most fondly from my favorite books are specific scenes, where the setting was vivid, and where something momentous happened. It could be something very subtle, just a shift in the character’s mind—like in Middlemarch, when Dr. Lydgate tells Dorothea that her husband might not live very long and needs rest and recreation. Dorothea’s whole attitude to her middle-aged, unattractive and rather unpleasant spouse shifts, in this scene, from resentment to pity. This conversation with the doctor happens in the library which her sick husband used to spend all his time in, working, and is now forbidden to enter—so it’s the perfect setting for this communication. I love George Eliot and the older English novelists, who described things in a lot of detail. The challenge for me has been to adapt my love of description to contemporary tastes, which demand brevity. So in my own writing I choose one or two key, telling details—about the setting, about how someone looks and talks and moves—and scatter these across the story.

RR: How would you personally handle an ant infestation?

AB: Fortunately, most of the ants I’ve faced are the harmless tiny brown kind. Some years ago my roommate and I entered the kitchen to find ants swarming the mouth of my bottle of cider vinegar, while her sugar jar nearby (presumably better sealed) was untouched. We joked that the ants, famously trend-crazy, had hopped on to the keto wagon. 

Before fridges arrived in India, homemakers like my grandmother stored leftovers in waist-high net-fronted wooden larders, whose feet stood in bowls of water to deter ants. 

The craziest thing I’ve tried to kill ants was analgesic spray. One bored afternoon as a kid, I followed a long line of ants and sprayed them with Moov. It killed the ants instantly—drowned them, I would guess—but stained the wall. 

I once tried drinking water from a bottle crawling with thirsty ants, but they either bit my throat, or somehow got stuck in there. That was an uncomfortable couple of days. 

I can safely say that, in the event of an ant infestation, nobody should rely on me. All I’d offer is a series of failed experiments.


Read “The Ants Are Thirstyby Amita Basu in Issue 11.1.