SEPTEMBER 22, 2016
IN THE BEGINNING of Viet Dinh’s debut novel After Disasters, Ted — one of several international aid workers the book follows — feels a strange burning sensation on his feet. Later, Ted comes to understand this experience as a premonition, which signaled the earth’s tectonic shifts on the other side of the world. This haunting synergy between the human body and the earth sets the tone for a novel that delves into environmental trauma and the human psyche.
After Disasters is ultimately a realist novel that seizes these moments of premonition as devastatingly human attempts to make sense of tragedy and seek connection. Loosely based on a major earthquake that struck the Gujarat province of India in 2001, the novel tells the story of four men who come from across the world to join rescue efforts in the quake’s aftermath. Dinh intricately weaves together the stories of Ted, Dev, Piotr, and Andy, who each contend with painful memories and choices as they try to save others. Ted, a pharmaceutical salesman turned US-government aid worker, joins Piotr, a competent veteran who still reels from flashbacks to war-torn Saravejo. Dev, an Indian AIDS doctor, struggles with his attraction to Ted and his choice to have a heterosexual family. Andy, a young British firefighter eager to prove himself, befriends Ted after a successful rescue operation.
Dinh’s storytelling is attuned to paradox and interconnectedness, showing us that catastrophic events can change lives irrevocably while being only one of many ongoing tragedies in a short life. Can there truly be an “after” to disaster, or are human lives perpetually enmeshed in the anticipation and reverberations of traumas? Are aid workers heroic, or are they just struggling to survive in the chaos? When Ted stops his van to examine a crack in the road, he ponders this paradox:
Three inches along a vertical plane: enough to explode a tire, enough to flatten a house, enough to kill thousands. Such a small distance. An index finger. He’s always imagined earthquakes to be huge things — the ground opens up and swallows people whole, the land cracks like arctic ice, and, in between the floes, one can stare straight into the center of the earth. But it’s a tiny thing. And Ted, himself, is a tiny thing. One tiny thing responds to another.
These observations are exemplary: Dinh’s flawed yet sympathetic characters, who are but “tiny things” themselves, recognize their limited capacity to provide relief to the thousands of Indians left trapped, injured, or homeless after the earthquake. As they face the immensity of death, destruction, and violence, the characters realize that they may not survive the chaos in order to save anyone else.
Meticulously researched and vividly told, After Disasters is an ambitious page-turner that weaves together environmental devastation, queer masculinities, and postcolonial landscapes. The novel falls in line with a genealogy of Asian-American narratives concerned with identity, sexuality, and the environment, such as Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being and Matthew Salesses’s The Hundred Year Flood. Dinh’s stunning rendering of postcolonial India and the river Ganges is reminiscent of Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide. The multitude of voices exploring queer masculine intimacies and attachments at times echoes Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Dinh’s exploration of queer masculinity and desire alongside the sprawling traumatic effects of war, postcolonialism, and natural disaster is a fascinating and subversive move. After Disasters is a disaster novel that transcends: grappling with universal questions of mortality and romance while paying careful attention to the particularities of history and identity.
Dinh’s formal experimentation and poetic attentiveness to detail make the narrative stand out. Structurally, the book is divided into three sections that mirror the stages of disaster response: rescue, relief, and recovery. Though the chapter titles follow a linear timeline set in the crisis-filled hours after the earthquake, flashbacks to before the earthquake dominate each section. The structure of the novel reflects a constant blurring of temporal boundaries, revealing the ways in which past traumas always bear on the present. At times, Dinh’s prose is sparse and almost clinical, reflecting the notes and journal entries of doctors and humanitarian workers cataloging injuries or supplies. Nonprofit terminology such as “Normalcy Bias” and “IES Subscale: Intrusion” are defined alongside the recovery of a lover’s body or a description of Piotr’s wife “[walking] off the violence in her heart” after a nightmare. His detached tone emphasizes the tension between bureaucracy and the depth of intimate connections in times of danger.
As the characters’ romantic trajectories unfold through flashbacks, Dinh depicts them with compassion, offering various possibilities for queer lives to struggle and survive. While Dev enters into an arranged marriage with Padma to achieve the dream of the heterosexual family, Dinh portrays his choice not as a disavowal of his queer identity, but as an alternative way of reconciling his desires. Andy, described multiple times as a “strapping young man” who charms with his good looks, is closeted at work and constantly teased by his nemesis, Reg. His temper and insecurity about Reg’s homophobic comments lead him into a deadly chain of events. Ted’s brief but intense fling with Dev leaves him wishing for gay domestic bliss, and his unfulfilled longing punctuates their last meeting in Bhuj. The bonds between the characters are most powerful in quiet, emotionally charged moments, as when Ted’s knee touches Dev’s while they share a meal, or when Ted bathes Andy in a borrowed hotel room. Ultimately, Dinh emphasizes the gaps of communication between lovers and friends, where the impossible desire to “avert someone else’s sadness, to limit it, reduce it” gives way to a new kind of sadness.
Dinh situates his disaster relief narrative within the collective trauma of the transnational LGBTQ community during the AIDS crisis of the 1990s, a daring, subversive move, considering how LGBTQ people are both targeted and marginalized in times of crisis. Through flashbacks, we learn that Ted becomes disillusioned with his job at Avartis, a pharmaceutical company that controls the distribution of AIDS drugs. Before the earthquake, he forms significant relationships with two men — John, his first love who eventually dies from AIDS, and Dev, the US-educated Indian doctor who heads an AIDS clinic in New Delhi. When Ted arrives in India with his team after the earthquake, he realizes that international aid workers are not immune to the structural power dynamics that determines whose lives are valuable. While AIDS patients are denied adequate treatment because of homophobia and corporate avarice, thousands are dead in India after the earthquake because of poverty, crumbling infrastructure, and inadequate medical care. What seems like an act of God becomes a question of scale and human failure, and aid workers can only provide temporary relief in a broken system. The inadequacy of international aid becomes painfully clear in donated bulk cans of mystery meat that are prohibited by Hinduism and Islam, food distributors who run from the crowds after dropping off baskets, and aid workers who are airlifted to Europe after a mugging.
Despite the seeming impossibility of the race to save lives, Dinh also meditates on the brief moments of hope that sustain aid workers. After several failed missions, Andy crawls through a tunnel in a collapsed apartment building and rescues an Indian woman trapped in the debris. This woman has a profound effect on him:
Andy realizes she is making a hammering motion — she isn’t weak; she isn’t helpless; she wants to free herself. Andy hands her his hammer, and she bends at the waist to reach her foot. Stone grinds against stone […] she moves closer, a cascade of pebbles like rain, her skin washed of dust by sweat; she puts her arms up above her head, a surrender, and Andy grabs her wrists and inches backward […] as soon as she is loose, she crawls after him with fire in her eyes.
Andy realizes that the woman he rescued is not helpless, but intensely attuned to survival. A co-worker warns him that “it doesn’t get easier” from his first rescue, but Andy still believes that “out in the dark, there are people waiting to be saved.” His persistence testifies to the power of hope even in this landscape of devastation.
Dinh is particularly skilled at calling attention to postcolonial social relations in India while humanizing the aid workers. As Dev and Ted travel in India during their brief relationship, the hospitality staff assumes that Dev is Ted’s tour guide. When “high priority patients” are brought to Dev’s clinic, they are injured white rescue workers. There are scenes of seemingly benign exoticism, as Ted seeks meaning in an Indian woman’s ritual practice of tying red string to a ficus tree on the Ganges. Seeing her mysterious movements, Ted decides that “if he could understand these meanings, then maybe he could understand his own.” Dinh subtly critiques Western exoticism through Ted’s desire to seek answers in Indian rituals, believing that the smoky pyres of the Ganges could provide a solution to his troubled relationship with AIDS politics. The portrayal of Ted and Dev’s interracial relationship is compassionate and realistic, exposing Ted’s fantasy of India:
“What’s the ceremony for?”
“It’s an offering to the Ganges,” Dev said.
“And the fire?”
“An offering to the fire god, I suppose.”
“You don’t know?”
Dev shrugged. “What is there to know?”
These quiet and remarkable moments leave the reader yearning for more time with the couple, and perhaps Dinh could have allowed more space for Dev’s voice to come through. At times it seems like the narrative is focused on Ted’s experiences at the expense of the other three characters.
The most haunting moments in the novel emerge when Dinh represents the gut-wrenching experience of trauma and mourning. In the future, Dinh writes, Ted will tell a story about his strange premonition, when he felt “earth grinding against earth, playing out on his skin, as if he were indistinguishable from the world, and the world from him.” As he relives his memory, the earth’s movement continues to be felt in his blood and skin. Ted’s visceral reaction to the earthquake in India is a reminder that ecological trauma is felt in the body. The earth’s strange “grinding” on his skin is a vivid representation of the sensual connection between the human body and the liveliness of the earth. At the collapsed hospital site in Bhuj, Dev mourns the death of his old mentor, Dr. Mithram Sengupta, by acknowledging the lives embedded within the rock. The concrete is broken yet pulsing with life.
He places a hand on a broken chunk of concrete. In the concrete, there are smaller stones of different colors — individual cells in the cross section of a torso. It feels warm beneath his palm, throbbing gently, matching Dev’s own pulse. He puts his face next to the stone and whispers, “Mithram, Sushrita says she’s having trouble falling asleep; call her before you get home.”
To Dev, the concrete was not inanimate, but “warm” and “throbbing gently” like the body of a loved one. Dev whispering to the “torso” of the rubble is an intimate act of sorrow. The heartbreaking scene of Dev passing on Mithram’s wife’s message is deeply entwined with attention to the senses. The broken earth becomes almost like the body of a lover — Mithram’s body. To cope with disaster, these characters search for signs of life and connection to the earth that has both buried and nurtured lives.
After Disasters is an impressive debut, remarkable for its complexity and resistance to closure and easy answers. Though the story is contained in a brief time period leading up to the September 11 attacks, it is at its core a post-9/11 novel situated in danger and hope, and deeply relevant to our present. Dinh shows us that being “after disaster” is a fiction: we are forever implicated within ongoing disasters of varying scales. He leaves us with layered moral and political questions: Why is it easy for people to empathize with the particularities of one person’s suffering, and ignore the collective injustices of colonialism, homophobia, and environmental devastation? How does one equivocate these losses? These questions will haunt us as we find ourselves in the midst of a series of tragedies, trying to make sense of them.