By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
SINCE WINNING THE BOOKER PRIZE IN 1997 for her novel The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy has been a persistent thorn in the gargantuan but peculiarly sensitive hide of the Indian political establishment. In 1998, when all of India was in the throes of atomic ecstasy, Roy spoke out against the bomb. She has rarely been silent since, becoming one of the world's most eloquent critics of corporate globalization — "The only thing worth globalizing is dissent," she writes — of militarism, and of the Hindu fundamentalism that now holds sway in Indian government, and that took the lives of 2,000 Muslims in pogroms in Gujarat state last year. She has been an advocate for the rights of India's "untouchable" caste and, perhaps most famously, a fearless opponent of a proposed hydroelectric dam in India's Narmada Valley that would displace hundreds of thousands of people and wreak untold environmental damage. Last March, after a year of torturous legal proceedings on a contempt-of-court charge, the Indian Supreme Court sentenced Roy to one day in jail. She had refused to apologize for her criticism of the court's rulings on the dam project, thereby "scandalizing it and lowering its dignity through her statements." In the course of the trial, judges chastised Roy for her failure to behave like "a reasonable man." That, fortunately, she is not.
A small, fine-boned woman with wickedly playful eyes that hum almost audibly with intelligence and curiosity, Roy gave the closing oration at this year's World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. In a speech that has since been making the rounds on the Internet, Roy brought a packed soccer-stadium audience to its feet, challenging her listeners "not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness." I spoke to her in Porto Alegre the following morning.
L.A. WEEKLY:In a speech you gave at Amherst a couple of years ago (and that was reprinted in your bookPower Politics), you gave two rules for writers. The first was that there are no rules, the second that there is no excuse for bad art. What does "bad art" mean for you?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Bad art for me means feeling that just because you are politically correct, you can be lax on honing the art. I see that happening a lot — in India anyway. It's a pity, because then you misuse both literature and politics. When I write, I don't even think consciously of being political, because I am political. I know that even if I wrote fairy stories, they would be political. Your art is so subliminal; it comes from somewhere you barely understand yourself. I know that for me it's about a way of seeing the world — everything. It's about a way of expressing or sharing your vision of the world. The outside world sees literature and politics as two separate things. I don't. But I think the reason that the establishments have always feared writers, the reason that writers are persecuted or put into jail, is because they have that weapon of clarity, and when they choose to use it, it's deadly.
So it's not so much a question of dodging political responsibilities in art, but of dodging artistic responsibilities?
Yes, of course. I suppose in a way it's a slightly merciless thing to say, but you need to understand that there's a difference between literature and propaganda. When someone asks me, "Are you going to write a book about the dams?" or "Are you going to write a novel about life after capitalism?" it makes me want to laugh, because literature is much more than that — literature is about everything. I don't choose a topic and say, "Now I'm going to write a novel about Iraq." It's for me a philosophy, a way of being.
Is there a novel coming?
I really hope so, but I'm very, very frightened right now in India. I called a friend of mine last night to sort of squeak with excitement about what happened yesterday. She works in central India, and she said 100,000 RSS people [the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist and quasi-fascist group with ties both to massacres of Muslims and to India's ruling party] marched with swords yesterday. Writing a novel requires a kind of calm. You can't be panicked. At the moment I'm panicked. I'm all the time feeling like I have to explain this or I have to bring attention to that, and quickly. I don't know whether to say, "Okay, if you think like this, you will always be finding a situation to worry about," or think that this is a very, very dangerous, explosive situation, and whether you want to sit back and write a book or whatever, you can't — you really have to be out there. And yet, when you're one person in one life, you don't know whether this is just a terrible time or whether times have been like this before, and maybe you must say, "Okay, I'm retreating now, and I'll come back with another weapon in a while." It's always a battle between the knowledge of my own insignificance in ecological time and knowing that I do have a voice, and how should I use that best?
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