The global novel exists, not as a genre separated from and opposed to other kinds of fiction, but as a perspective that governs the interpretation of experience. In this way, it is faithful to the way the global is actually lived–not through the abolition of place, but as a theme by which place is mediated. Life lived here is experienced in its profound and often unsettling connections with life lived elsewhere, and everywhere. The local gains dignity, and significance, insofar as it can be seen as a part of a worldwide phenomenon.
-Adam Kirsch, The Global Novel: Writing the World in the 21st Century
About the Book
This month we head to Sri Lanka, where we explore a creepy old mansion at the edge of a creepy forest. I’m already getting in the mood for autumn and haunted places, can you tell? Reading Dennis Mombauer’s The House of Drought (Stelliform Press, July 2022) was both fun and strange, in a good way. I’m always in the mood for weird fiction intersecting with ecological parables. House is a a beautifully creepy novella set in Sri Lanka about a house that never should have been built and the life that survives the ravages of colonization and climate change.
The aesthetics of a good story is one thing, but in reality, the people living in Sri Lanka are genuinely hurting. Mombauer’s novel, I feel, establishes the dangers of colonialism and climate change while tying their historical paths.
Sri Lanka, in the Indian Ocean, just southeast of India, is a densely packed pear-shaped island edging the Laccadive Sea. As Dennis and I were exchanging questions and answers, he was filled with worry about continued political and economic turmoil due to extreme inflation that’s expected to continue to rise over the next couple years as well as hope for stability and recovery for the country.
About half the population lives in low-lying coastal areas, where they are subject to heat events, droughts, floods, sea-level rise, and increased infectious diseases. Birds, amphibians, and coral reefs are also in danger.
Chat with the Author
Mary: The House of Drought is a book that brings climate change forward in beautiful, haunting prose. What led you to write this novel?
Dennis: First of all, thank you very much for this and for giving me the space to do this interview. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk a bit about the book and hopefully provide some insights on the writing process and my thoughts behind it.
What led me to write The House of Drought is probably the fact that I’m working on climate change and that I feel there isn’t enough awareness of how vast, far-reaching, and multi-faceted it is. Climate change affects so many people in different ways across a multitude of places, and there is only a tiny fraction of art and literature that really grapples with this reality and what it means for our future and maybe the human condition.
As I have been living in Sri Lanka, that’s also where the story is set (or, more accurately, in a weird, defamiliarized nowhere land very reminiscent of Sri Lanka). The story is partially based on my experiences and observations in Sri Lanka, and I have talked to many people both in my work and when writing the book. However, it’s not really a novel about Sri Lanka but rather one about climate change, colonialism, and the relationship between humans, history, and nature. If I had lived in Germany instead of Sri Lanka, it’s entirely possible that I would have written The House of Flood instead, as my home area was devastated by a once-in-a-century flood (clearly attributable to climate change) last year.
Mary: How would you describe what’s happening in Sri Lanka in regards to climate change? Can you describe some of your experiences?
Dennis: I have been living in Sri Lanka for the last five years, both for personal and professional reasons. I work for SLYCAN Trust, a non-profit think tank that focuses on climate change, sustainable development, and related thematic areas, such as food systems, adaptation, resilience-building, migration, and ecosystem conservation.
As a tropical island nation, Sri Lanka is vulnerable to climate change, and the impacts can already be seen across many different sectors and places, such as agriculture or coastal areas, which are impacted by floods, droughts, storms, and a variety of long-term processes (such as soil degradation, sea level rise, increasing pests and diseases, human-wildlife conflict, etc.). In my work, I’m mostly involved in research and policy analysis, but we also engage directly with communities on the ground, for example farming communities and youth groups. And it’s very interesting to see the different realities, priorities, perspectives, and challenges, and how many of them are influenced or even caused by climate change in a multitude of ways.
However, this is also a difficult topic to write about for me as a foreigner in Sri Lanka, especially one from a Global North country. Sri Lanka is where I live; it’s where my wife and son are, my in-laws, many of my friends and colleagues. It’s where I work and where I have seen climate change most vividly. Still, while I have done research and spoken to people, I need to acknowledge my outsider’s perspective. That’s what I mean when I say the novel is not a story about Sri Lanka, because it isn’t about uniquely Sri Lankan topics and issues from an insider’s perspective. There are many interesting stories to be told about very specific social, cultural, religious, ethnic, and historical aspects of Sri Lankan society and how they intersect with climate change, but these stories are not mine to tell.
The House of Drought, conversely, is a story set in Sri Lanka, about issues that are important for Sri Lanka (such as climate change and the legacy of colonialism), but that also have a more general and universal meaning. Accordingly, the setting is a somewhat “de-familiarized” version of Sri Lanka, which is slightly off and slightly odd and can’t be 100% pinned down. That refers to the location of the house itself, the names of characters (both Sri Lankan and German), and certain references and background aspects. The weird mode helps me to focus on the core topics, and the framework plot with the German filmmaker adds an additional meta level to the narrative that highlights the outsider’s role and perspective.
Mary: I saw the old mansion, “the house of drought,” as a symbol for our home on this planet and how humans are ruinous to their environment as they take resources out of their nearby landscapes, such as the forest. Can you lend any thoughts to that idea?
Dennis: I would agree with this interpretation to a certain extent, but I think this is also where the weird mode of writing comes in and makes everything a bit more nebulous (or complicated). Throughout the novel, there are characters interacting with the house, and I would say that the house represents different things to them. For example, it could be argued that the house is a symbol for our home on this planet, but it could also be seen as a specific way of interacting with the environment, namely colonialism and capitalism. The house was built by someone who didn’t understand the land, and it was forced upon both the surrounding communities and the natural ecosystem.
On the other hand, there is a character in the novel who seeks safety in the house and feels threatened by the Sap Mother, which perhaps presents the forces of nature, indicating that not everything about the house is bad, but that something about it has gone deeply wrong. The last words in the book are “invite her in,” referring to the Sap Mother—but if she’s let in, if she’s allowed to reclaim the house and burrow through its structure, what would that look like? Is there a possible future in which the house and the Sap Mother can both exist in the same place, even merge together?
Mary: Many characters pass through the house along time, and they seem ephemeral and yet very real. There’s a sense of ghosts and memories, and there’s a weird fiction sort of aspect to the novel. Had you written in the horror or weird genres before?
Weird fiction is one of the main genres or modes I write in, and one that I find really fascinating. There are various definitions, but for me, weird fiction is about a fascination and discomfort with the unknown, about digging deep and exploring themes and questions that are hard to really touch upon in realist writing. Weird fiction focuses on the unknown or unknowable, on dealing with forces that are very vast and inhuman, weird, unearthly, but that can (and do) shape the human condition. Climate change, for me, clearly falls into this category, and weird fiction helps me explore what that means.
There is an essay about World War II (“Losing the War” by Lee Sandlin) that notes that in a lot of American war reporting at the time, the battlefields and operations are described in terms like weird, eerie, uncanny, or unearthly. The journalists, the essay states, “resorted to a curious verbal tic, almost an involuntary distress signal, to mark the place where their verbal abilities left off and the incommunicable reality of what they were witnessing began.” Like the war, climate change is too vast, too all-encompassing and far-reaching to really be comprehensible; and maybe that is why the “weird” mode of writing appeals to me in writing about it. I’m aware of the science of climate change, of course. I work on the physical, social, cultural, environmental, human impacts, and implications—but it is still difficult to wrap my head around its true meaning and how it is transforming the world from Sri Lanka to my German hometown and beyond.
Also, just to add this, writing weird fiction is something I really enjoy, and which allows me to explore things that are beyond my ability to express directly, using a variety of techniques and stylistic devices. In The House of Drought, for example, the titular house exerts its influence throughout the pages by twisting the story structure and turning it as upside down as its own hidden interior: the chapters start at the climax and then jump back, and even some individual scenes have inverted or non-traditional structures.
Mary: I’m nodding at your descriptions of how weird fiction can be so powerful a mode of storytelling about climate change. I feel so too. Also, weird fiction causes discomfort, which is a very strong mood. Surrounding the house, on the other side of the gardens, is a wild wood with a Sap Mother in it who lures children in. I couldn’t find any literature about this mythology, so I was curious about whether you are setting up new myths for our time and age? Can you talk more on that idea?
Dennis: Gladly! There are certain elements of the Sap Mother’s myth that echo elements of Sri Lankan mythology and ghost stories, but I didn’t want to appropriate existing tales or try to explain the meaning of myths and stories that are not my own. Therefore, I created something new for the age of climate change, something that hopefully carries a universal connection and meaning. The Sap Mother was one of the most interesting characters in the book for me, and while in many places she seems to manifest as a straightforward ghost figure, she also has some odd elements to her description that don’t quite fit with this idea. She has an ambiguous relationship with the house and with the children, and she seems to have more than one form or body, which is somehow connected to the forest but also drawn to humans and human places. In Sri Lanka there are many places where humans and wild animals coexist, which sometimes leads to conflict (for example between humans and elephants, humans and leopards, humans and crocodiles, or humans and monkeys, peacocks, giant squirrels, wild boars etc.), so there was some inspiration from this side as well.
Mary: Is there anything else you would like to add about the book? And are you working on anything else at the moment?
Apart from my upcoming novel The Fertile Clay, with Nightscape Press, I’m currently working on two projects that will explore climate change from very different perspectives. One has the working title Urban Patchwork Weird and is set in a fictional city between Europe and Asia, combining attributes of both in sometimes contradictory ways. It explores the intersecting stories of twelve characters from different walks of life—such as a garbage man, a rail worker, a kiosk owner, a cab driver, a bicycle courier, an urban explorer, a homeless veteran, and more—who encounter either the mysterious figure of the Fisherman or get lost in the dry wasteland of the tangle, two aspects of (climate) change that beleaguer the city and want to transform it.
The other project is a secondary world fantasy novel about politics, refugees, academia, and architecture against the backdrop of a different, yet familiar, kind of climate change. This again has a diverse set of characters, but their stories are told in a more traditional way and through a richly realized setting.
Again, thank you so much for interviewing me and listening to my answers to these highly interesting questions!
Mary: Thank you, Dennis! And I am really looking forward to some of your upcoming work. I won’t put words in your mouth, but it seems reminiscent to stuff by China Miéville, maybe some slipstream? Regardless, I’ll be watching for it.
About the Author