Arundhati Roy: Literature provides shelter. That’s why we need it
PEN World Voices Festival,The Guardian
In her Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture, published here, Arundhati Roy asks what it means to be a writer in a world that is rapidly hardening.
I am truly honored to have been invited by PEN America to deliver this year’s Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture. What better time than this to think together about a place for literature, at this moment when an era that we think we understand – at least vaguely, if not well – is coming to a close.
As the ice caps melt, as oceans heat up, and water tables plunge, as we rip through the delicate web of interdependence that sustains life on earth, as our formidable intelligence leads us to breach the boundaries between humans and machines, and our even more formidable hubris undermines our ability to connect the survival of our planet to our survival as a species, as we replace art with algorithms and stare into a future in which most human beings may not be needed to participate in (or be remunerated for) economic activity – at just such a time we have the steady hands of white supremacists in the White House, new imperialists in China, neo-Nazis once again massing on the streets of Europe, Hindu nationalists in India, and a host of butcher-princes and lesser dictators in other countries to guide us into the Unknown.While many of us dreamt that “Another world is possible”, these folks were dreaming that too. And it is their dream – our nightmare – that is perilously close to being realized.
Capitalism’s gratuitous wars and sanctioned greed have jeopardized the planet and filled it with refugees. Much of the blame for this rests squarely on the shoulders of the government of the United States. Seventeen years after invading Afghanistan, after bombing it into the ‘stone age’ with the sole aim of toppling the Taliban, the US government is back in talks with the very same Taliban. In the interim it has destroyed Iraq, Libya and Syria. Hundreds of thousands have lost their lives to war and sanctions, a whole region has descended into chaos, ancient cities—pounded into dust. Amidst the desolation and the rubble, a monstrosity called Daesh (Isis) has been spawned. It has spread across the world, indiscriminately murdering ordinary people who had absolutely nothing to do with America’s wars. Over these last few years, given the wars it has waged, and the international treaties it has arbitrarily reneged on, the US government perfectly fits its own definition of a rogue state. And now, resorting to the same old scare tactics, the same tired falsehoods and the same old fake news about nuclear weapons, it is gearing up to bomb Iran. That will be the biggest mistake it has ever made.
So, as we lurch into the future, in this blitzkrieg of idiocy, Facebook “likes,” fascist marches, fake-news coups, and what looks like a race toward extinction—what is literature’s place? What counts as literature? Who decides? Obviously, there is no single, edifying answer to these questions. So, if you will forgive me, I’m going to talk about my own experience of being a writer during these times—of grappling with the question of how to be a writer during these times, in particular in a country like India, a country that lives in several centuries simultaneously.
When the essays were first published (first in mass-circulation magazines, then on the Internet, and finally as books), they were viewed with baleful suspicion, at least in some quarters, often by those who didn’t necessarily even disagree with the politics. The writing sat at an angle to what is conventionally thought of as literature. Balefulness was an understandable reaction, particularly among the taxonomy-inclined—because they couldn’t decide exactly what this was—pamphlet or polemic, academic or journalistic writing, travelogue, or just plain literary adventurism? To some, it simply did not count as writing: “Oh, why have you stopped writing? We’re waiting for your next book.” Others imagined that I was just a pen for hire. All manner of offers came my way: “Darling I loved that piece you wrote on the dams, could you do one for me on child abuse?” (This actually happened.) I was sternly lectured, (mostly by upper-caste men) about how to write, the subjects I should write about, and the tone I should take.But in other places, let’s call them places off the highway, the essays were quickly translated into other Indian languages, printed as pamphlets, distributed for free in forests and river valleys, in villages that were under attack, on university campuses where students were fed up of being lied to. Because these readers, out there on the frontlines, already being singed by the spreading fire, had an entirely different idea of what literature is or should be.I mention this because it taught me that the place for literature is built by writers and readers. It’s a fragile place in some ways, but an indestructible one. When its broken, we rebuild it. Because we need shelter. I very much like the idea of literature that is needed. Literature that provides shelter. Shelter of all kinds.Over time, an unspoken compromise was arrived at. I began to be called a “writer-activist.” Implicit in this categorization was that the fiction was not political and the essays were not literary.
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