ART + CULTURE: THE PHYSICS OF POWER
Arundhati Roy would rather speak her mind than tell another tale
News spread quickly. An Indian author had been given half a million pounds as an advance for her new book. The sum was unheard of, even for established writers with long, distinguished sales histories. And in 1996, Arundhati Roy was a nobody in the publishing world.
But God of Small Things was no ordinary book. Roy herself says the novel was "a collaboration between me and a little bit of magic." Based on a severely dysfunctional Indian family, the novel centers around two preternaturally connected fraternal twins, Rahel and Esthappen. Through their eyes, Roy poetically unfolds the sacrosanct codes of her homeland-the tension between ancient custom and modern practicalities, religion, colonialism, the harsh effects of the caste system, even incest.
But more important than her subject matter was Roy's language. Casual Grisham readers winced at the metaphorical playfulness, but in an elliptical and often fragmented style, Roy somehow fused the strong suits of poetry (the sound) and fiction (the tale).
When describing someone who had died at age 31, for instance, she surmised that it was "a viable, die-able age."
Since its release in 1997, God of Small Things has sold 6 million copies and been translated into 40 languages. Roy also won that year's Booker Prize, although it didn't come without dissent from famed British publisher and panel-judge Carmen Callil, who called it "an execrable book" that should never even had made its way to the shortlist.
Traditional Indians were even less pleased-Roy had grown up an outsider in her hometown of Kerala, the daughter of a Syrian Christian who had not only divorced her husband, but who would also become a political activist. You know-nasty, independent types.
Kerala's Chief Minister K. Nayanar wasn't proud of Roy; he claimed her book was only successful in the west because of its "anti-communist venom." An Indian lawyer also filed a public interest petition against Roy. Because the final chapter includes a rather lyrical and detailed description of incest, he claimed that the novel was obscene and charged her with "corrupting public morality." Roy defended herself, highly publicizing her fight against censorship.
After a criminal trial that lasted more than a year, she was sentenced to one day in jail. It was no matter-she was the biggest Indian author since Salman Rushdie. The Indian Supreme Court came to refer to Roy as "that woman."
It makes sense then, with her history, that Roy has chosen not to write another novel-not yet, at least. Instead, at the peak of her fiction-writing career, she has chosen an altogether different path-as political analyst and commentator, especially vocal against corporate globalization and American imperialism. She's published a series of political books as well as a new CD, called Come September: Arundhati Roy in Conversation with Howard Zinn.
Even for the politically inept, hearing Roy speak about Bush's war on terrorism resonates. The recording is taken from her lecture before the Lannan Foundation, a group that uses arts and literature to confront globalization.
Introduced by progressive political commentator Howard Zinn, Roy speaks in a delicate English accent. Her words are wet from the mouth, supple as she says that "writers imagine that they cull stories from the world. It's the other way around. Stories reel us from the world. They colonize us. I write about the power and powerlessness and the endless circular conflict that they're engaged in."
Recorded in September of this year, Roy's speech analyzes 9/11, empathizing with America while also pointing out that we're not the only ones. On Sept. 11, 1922, she reminds us, Britain claimed Palestine as a home for Jewish people.
"The empire on which the sun never set was free to snatch and bequeath national homes, like a school bully distributes marbles," she explains. "How carelessly Imperial power vivisected ancient civilizations. Palestine and Kashmir are imperial Britain's festering, blood-drenched gifts to the modern world. Both are fault lines in the raging international conflicts of today."
Such a historical reality check, she says, is meant neither as accusatory or provocative. Rather, "just to share the grief of history, to thin the mist a little, to say to the citizens of America, in the gentlest, most human way, "Welcome to the world.'"
She attacks the issue that those opposed to Bush's war on terror are labeled anti-Americans. What, exactly, does that mean?
"Does it mean you're anti-jazz, that you oppose free speech?" she asks. "That you don't delight in Toni Morrison or John Updike, that you have a quarrel with giant Sequoias?"
She also expresses disbelief at how the corporate media painted the war, especially the stories of women in Afghanistan now free from patriarchal oppression: "We are being asked to believe that the U.S. Marines are actually on a feminist mission. Is it possible to bomb bigotry out of India?"
Roy illustrates how the U.S. helped create the Saddam Hussein they now wish to destroy. She recounts their involvement in the assassination of Chilean dictator General Pinochet, and how corporate globalization allows for the exchange of only money-not culture, people or ideas.
She makes a strong case against imperialism and globalization, but it's not necessarily the political content of Come September that is so compelling. Like God of Small Things, Roy herself makes it compelling. She has ignored offers to make her novel into a blockbuster film, ignored pleas to write another novel while the fire's still hot, ignored almost everything. She's used her wealth and fame to become one of the most eloquent voices of resistance against globalization.
"Standing here today it's hard for me to say this, but the American way of life is simply not sustainable because it doesn't acknowledge that there is a world beyond America.
"Fortunately, power has a shelf life. When the time comes, maybe this mighty empire, like others before it, will overreach itself and implode from within. It looks as though structural cracks have already appeared. As the war on terror casts its net wider and wider, America's corporate heart is hemorrhaging."
It's a warning, said with a beauty that few possess.