September 21, 2004 | Over the last few years Arundhati Roy has become a powerful and important global citizen writing and speaking out against the excesses of corporate globalization, privatization of essential resources, and United States imperialism. Naomi Klein says “with her writing and her actions, Roy has placed herself in opposition to anyone who treats people as collateral damage – of a mega-dam, a terrorist attack, or a military invasion,” and Roy has described herself as “a black woman from India speaking about America to an American audience.”
Roy was catapulted to fame in 1997 when she won the Booker Prize for her first novel, “The God of Small Things.” She is trained as an architect, worked as a production designer and has written the screenplays for two films. In 2002 she was convicted of contempt of court by the Supreme Court in New Delhi for accusing the court of attempting to silence protests against the Narmada Dam project, but received only a symbolic sentence of one day in prison.
Roy has also become known internationally for her literate and powerful political essays in books like “Power Politics,” “War Talk,” “The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile” (interviews with David Barsamian), and her latest, “An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire.”
Terrence McNally: You are now both a writer and an activist. How did your work and your role in the world evolve?
Arundhati Roy: I usually shy away from defining myself as one thing or another, because I always find that limiting, and it doesn’t really matter. People look at it from the outside, and they see first I studied architecture and then I worked at cinema and then I wrote a novel and now I write political essays. It could seem as though I’m really doing very different things, but in fact, right from the time that I was studying architecture or even earlier, this political way of looking at the world began. These are just each a means of expressing that politics differently. The essence of what one is looking at is deeply political, but how one chooses to express that can change – if for no other reason than that one wants to keep experimenting and not bore oneself to death, you know.
I understand. When you found yourself writing essays and speaking in front of thousands and on the air, people asking you less about literature than about the world situation – how has that transition occurred and what does it say to you?
Actually, you know, I did write non-fictional essays before I wrote “The God Of Small Things.” It’s just that I wasn’t that well-known a person. When people define me as a writer and an activist, I say that sounds like a “sofa-cum-bed” or something. In fact, isn’t literature supposed to be placed at the heart of the world? What you do and what you look at and what you write about, whether it’s personal or social or political, whether it’s about an insane aunt or whether it’s about the invasion of a country – I don’t think you can avoid looking at it as a comment on society and on yourself… more on your self.
No writer can dodge the glare of literature. Most people see it as something I’m sacrificing in order to do something else, but I don’t see it that way. I’m a pretty instinctive person and I know that when I’m ready to write another novel, I will write it. I’m not suffering through this process of writing non-fiction, even though the act of writing fiction is a more joyful act than these essays which address very searing situations. You do feel that they’re wrenched out of you in some way, but at the same time they’re both writing and I don’t think I’ve ever not been a writer. That is my medium and that’s what I do. I’m not endorsing any action or any kind of politics. I’m not a football star that’s endorsing the fact that we shouldn’t cut down the rainforest or something. I’m not external to myself in this. I’m doing what I do.
You’re writing your truth…
I just keep doing what I think I do best.
Let me shift things a bit. When I saw you speak at UCLA a year ago, I understood you to say that events like the World Social Forum are valuable as rallies, but that the current situation demands a new wave of civil disobedience to non-violently confront and damage the momentum of global corporate domination. Millions all over the world marched against Bush’s invasion of Iraq, and it didn’t even seem to slow him down. What do people do with that kind of reality? And what do you foresee that will make a difference?
I would l be surprised if the millions who marched against the war in Iraq actually expected that the march could stop the war. I don’t see that as something that was likely or possible, but I think that that march was really important. It expressed the fact that millions of people on every continent were against the war, and it indicated that to those governments who decided to go ahead and invade Iraq anyway. Obviously governments have learned to wait out these demonstrations. Resistance movements, on the other hand, have been hijacked in a way by their need to perform for the media. The theatrical aspect of civil disobedience, which is a very important aspect, has actually severed itself from the roots of real civil disobedience. So we’ve got to find those roots again, and we have to find the means by which we can actually get a foothold into this smooth cliff, this military industrial complex that is the engine of empire.
When non-violent resistance is shut down by governments, then by default, that act privileges violence. It’s as important for governments to show themselves to be open to non-violent dissent as it is for people to find ways of being effective using the techniques of non-violent resistance. It isn’t something that’s making a lot of headway now. My feeling is that the most important things to strike at are those corporations who have profited from the destruction of Iraq. The fact that those same corporations have operations across the world gives people a foothold to actually go in and shut them down. And it’s very important to do that; otherwise people keep saying something but nothing actually happens.
There are no consequences.
Then the only people who are actually engaging the forces of empire are the resistance movement in Iraq or the people in Palestine. And because they are not pristine and secular and feminist and democratic and perfect, all of us curl up in moral distaste. We have to find a way of becoming the resistance or we have to find a way of supporting whatever resistance there is.
I want to return to your idea of creating consequences…the idea of making those corporations pay. Bechtel and Halliburton keep themselves at arm’s length from consumers. They like dealing directly with governments. How would you see a boycott against them playing out?
There’s a very interesting division between the first world consumer society and third world countries regarding companies like Bechtel and Halliburton. In terms of actually boycotting consumer products, that’s not so much an issue for poor countries because most people can’t afford those products anyway.
In Latin America, Asia, Africa, India, these companies are involved in the privatization of essential infrastructure, which affects the lives of millions of people. Bechtel was the company that was chased out of Cochabamba by the movement against the privatization of water in Bolivia. Bechtel is a partner with Enron, which signed the most bizarre contract in history with the Indian government. It might break down differently in the industrialized world than in the third world. How those actions are coordinated requires a lot of talk among activists and organizations.
So, in other words, we connect some of those dots, we connect ourselves, and that leads to action.
What do you believe Americans of conscience can do? How do we make a difference in a democracy in which the media and the people themselves seem to conspire to lower the intelligence of the public? In which people feel good electing charming leaders who do not serve their interests?
Even though I know it isn’t the majority position in America right now, coming from the outside, I do have a lot of respect for the quality of the dissent that I have seen in America. To see that march against the Republican Convention was absolutely spectacular.
On the run-up to the march, the papers were full of these stupid stories about aging anarchists who had penetrated the system and were going to be violent, and about how New Yorkers had all left town. This whole cloud of fear was constructed. The march itself happened, and day after day after day spontaneous protests took place across the city, and there wasn’t any violence. The newspapers said this was only because of the extraordinary restraint of the police. It’s almost as if you’re goading people into being violent.
…I think the more absurd the corporate media gets, the more distorted Fox News gets, we have to find ways of making independent media a forum that is heard and listened to. There is good independent media here, though I suppose it’s quite marginal because we’re dealing with a very indoctrinated population.
Given the amount of propaganda people are subjected to, that a half a million people will turn out on the street tells me that something is happening. That’s thanks to this kind of under-the-surface drumbeat of the independent media of newspapers and radio stations…
…and the internet.
Exactly. I’m completely flummoxed sometimes. Since I don’t come to America often, I can’t believe that people even know who I am. I’m not published in any mainstream American paper, but obviously there are listeners and readers and there’s an audience that’s getting bigger, and that is wonderful.
One of the tragedies for me is that all the hopes and efforts of those who’ve opposed the war, whether in protests or in support of Howard Dean or Dennis Kucinich, finally depend for their expression on the idiosyncratic decisions of one man and his ten advisors.
But it cannot be idiosyncratic. That’s what I find very frightening. Given that the Democratic party must have some kind of thermometer by which they judge the popular temperature, how is it that they are not being forced to take a position against the war? They seem so terrified of appearing weak or being mocked for not being strong enough on America’s security.
It’s the same thing in India. Even if it wanted to – and I don’t know if it wants to – the Congress party seems terrified of taking a proper position on Kashmir, because it will always be outdone by the right. So everything just keeps drifting towards the right. That’s the frightening thing about this so-called game of democracy.
Let me ask a big question, and here I call on you as a storyteller. If you could look back from the year 2020 or 2025, do you sense that humanity is capable of turning things around? And again looking back – if that happened, how did we do it? What were the turning points?
I don’t know. I would hate to pretend that I have a cogent answer to that. To me, I think there are three things that would make a big difference.
One is if we can somehow break the hegemony of the mass media, and right now we’re very far from that place. It won’t happen through any direct confrontation, but it will break itself by being so ridiculous and so propagandistic that it will cease to be relevant in some ways. We will end up using its energies against itself. So that when we read the mainstream press, we will not understand from it what they want us to understand. We will read the New York Times or the Economist, but the message we get will not be the message they want us to get. That is happening now, but it has to happen on a much larger scale.
The second major issue is the process of corporate globalization. I think people haven’t yet understood the extent of deprivation and the extent of desperation that is being created by feeding this capitalist machine.
That’s where you end up saying that “peace is war” – that for millions in this world even a state of peace is a state of war for survival.
Exactly, and no amount of full spectrum dominance and no amount of nuclear weapons and no amount of accumulation of capital is really going to match the fury and the despair of the dispossessed.
Obviously there are two paths that humanity can choose to take. One is to increase inequality and then bank on weapons to maintain that, which is the project of the New American Century, and the project of any person who bids to be president of this country.
I was at the Republican convention, and I was appalled by how blatantly this is put forward – that the US must be stronger and richer and better than anyone else and than ever before.
Unfortunately the last issue – and maybe the most important – is that empires have always risen and fallen because of the physics of power, but they never had nuclear weapons. That danger looms over all of us, and has for so long that we are inured to it.
So you feel that, if we are to turn things around, those are the three challenges we must confront?
Yes, but finally you have to understand that more important than anything else is justice. The way we can turn the world around is if we are at least moving on a path toward justice. Maybe it can never be achieved in any pristine form. Right now, the powerful, and I don’t just mean the powerful in America, but the coalition of the powerful elites across the world are making it very clear that they are not even interested in justice.
One of the great abuses of language that has happened in this country is that justice out of the mouth of a politician almost always means revenge. Always justice against an enemy, never justice for all.
Yes. What means anything anymore? Everything means something else. Language has been taken away and slaughtered.
Thank you Arundhati Roy. Keep up the good work.