In Conversation with Veena Nagpal

It’s that time of the year again. Come winter and drum beats for the Jaipur Literary Festival billed as the greatest literary show on earth, start sounding loud and clear. At the curtain raiser for JLF 2019 (January 24-28) Co-director Namita Gokhale announced an entire session on a brand new theme – Cli-Fi. “We have a beautiful session,” she said, “on cli-fi, on what would happen if bees disappear.”

We talk to VEENA NAGPAL, author of RADIUS 200, India’s first Cli-fi novel.


So what is this hot new literary genre – Cli-Fi?

To tell you the truth, when I was writing my latest novel Radius 200 (launched at JLF 2018) I had no inkling I was writing Cli-fi. Even when the book was being categorized for Amazon the idea did not come up because Amazon doesn’t list any such genre. Nor do bookstores, Cli-fi as a genre simply hasn’t yet made enough noise to be so recognized although it is fast coming into its own and universities world over are beginning to study it.

The term was first coined by journalist-blogger Dan Bloom to describe fiction dealing with current and projected effects of climate change.

Writers as listeners and interpreters of the world around them have always been exploring the intersection between humans and nature and weaving it into the tapestry of any genre. In that sense pre-historic cave drawings telling tales of such interaction were perhaps the first eco-fiction/cli-fi.

It is only in this century when the impact of human action on environment started assuming critical mass leading to doomsday predictions that climate change took center stage in story-telling and Cli-fi became the hot new literary genre.


Does the genre have roots in Sci-fi?

The genre may have its roots in Sci-fi but it certainly does not deal only in futurist fantasies. The stakes are far more real. The dangers posed by environmental degradation are clear and present.

In fact Annalee Newitz, founding editor of io9 one of the top science blogs in the world, pertinently points out that “Any story about the future that’s at least a century out has to include a dramatic picture of climate change.”

As with any good fiction, Cli-fi’s primary mandate is to tell a compelling story. A Cli-fi story would however be driven by strong underlying ecological issues provoking us to rethink the way we take some things in our world for granted and often, thereby generating avid discussion (which is why Cli-fi makes for excellent Book Club reads).


Would you classify your latest novel Radius 200 as Cli-fi?

I certainly would. Also, correct me if I am wrong but I think it’s the first Cli-fi novel by an Indian woman writer. I am not saying Indian author because I think Amitav Ghosh’s Hungry Tides is a real forerunner.

Radius 200, though billed as a Military Thriller in Amazon, certainly falls squarely in the Cli-fi category.

One reviewer has this to say: “This book has changed the way I look at a glass of water.” “This story,” says another reviewer, “could be a window to the future, a window (which) if not repaired in time may crash when the winds howl, allowing the gale to wreak havoc irreparable.”


Do you think Cli-fi can really help in changing the way we interact with our environment?

Faced with situations that leave us feeling helpless, we humans often go into denial. One of the oldest coping mechanisms – not just of escape but also as a means of finding ways to adapt to new realities – has been story telling.

Fiction has a way of opening hearts and minds, a way of getting messages across in a way no amount of academic discussions or even regulatory laws can.

A subject like climate change is a complex thing, something far away inching so slowly towards us that we have difficulty in imagining how it could change the way we live, what we eat, how we feel and behave and in fact, impact our very value systems. While dry data however compelling, can input one ear only to output from the other, the experiences of fictional characters unwittingly become our own in insidious ways.


Cli-fi is often dystopian in nature. What is your opinion?

I would hate to write a preachy, in-your-face climate-warning tale. To me it is very gratifying to know that reviewers seem to think the major take away from Radius 200 is one of hope and positivity.

Let me quote:

Despite addressing grim and dark issues, the story is one of immense positivity, hope and humanity.

It jolts us awake that if we don’t mend our ways now this bleak future won’t be just fiction and won’t be very far away. A must read for one and all.”

The storyteller however is bound to convey the appalling along with the appealing and truth can sometimes be terrible.

“There were few scenes that were so graphic that I had to skip them to stop the bile rising inside me,” one reviewer writes. “The pain, the anger and the waiting of the residents of the Radius 200 area, is so heart wrenching, that you feel like telling the Indian government that even in a fiction, you failed me…

Forgotten, bewildered as to why their world had changed, they are only praying to get back their water. And in order to please the gods, they are ready to do any kind of sacrifice…

The plot of the story is the winner here. Very unique. You are bound to put down the book in a few places and think – what if it was true and pray that such a day, that the author had envisaged never arrives.”


What really sums up the book, in my view, is the blurb by Sanjoy Roy (JLF):

“Radius 200 is a poignant story centering round love and longing and the very spirit of mankind to survive all odds.”

 Book Trailer:


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Twitter: @veenanagpal






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