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Come September

Transcription of Arundhati Roy reading and Ms. Roy and Howard Zinn in conversation, Lensic Performing Arts Center Santa Fe, New Mexico, 18 September 2002

Come September
Little Boy (left) and Fat Man
Come September
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Howard Zinn : Well, thank you. [Applause]. This is a very nice crowd. [Laughter] Thank you Patrick Lannan for that introduction. I almost recognized myself. [Laughter] I'm here to introduce Arundhati Roy. I say this in hushed tones. Really, I never thought I would introduce Arundhati Roy.

I first encountered her - not personally - I encountered her when somebody said to me you must read The God of Small Things, which I did. And then, to almost everybody I met I said, you must read The God of Small Things. [Laughter]. And I was so struck by that book. You know, the passion, the eloquence, the beauty of language. I thought she must have written seven books before this. No. This is her first novel. I thought, well she will write seven books after this. No. This is her novel. Next thing I knew, I was reading essays of hers. David Barsamian showed me an interview which I listened to. An interview he did with her. Anthony Amove told me about her. People talked about her. I read this book of essays called Power Politics and another book of essays, Cost of Living and what I realized was that this was not just a novelist. This was a person who cared about what was going on in the world; who is speaking out, devoting her energy now to speaking out against the enormous corporations in India that were driving poor people off their lands. She was defying the Supreme Court of India. Anybody who defies a Supreme Court is worth listening to, [laughter] you see. The Supreme Court referred to her as "that woman" [laughter] and she was held in contempt of court, which, of course, is an honor. [Laughter]

What it was about her is that she was taking this enormous talent that she had, which everybody now recognized, which millions of people around the world recognized by buying her book and reading The God of Small Things, she was taking this enormous talent and she was not putting it at the service of the other publishers who were demanding more novels from her, or begging her to write more novels, or movie producers who were saying, oh we must turn this into a movie. No, she was taking her energy and her passion and her talent and putting it to the service of people: people in India and people around the world. And she was talking about war, and talking about globalization and talking about all of the controversial things that made the Supreme Court think that she was "that woman." This struck me because I've always had a very special, special admiration for those people who write poetry and novels and plays but who don't only do that; who take time out and speak to what is going on at the moment in the world on behalf of the children of the world, on behalf of people everywhere. This is what she has done.

She grew up...I don't know if I should go through her biography. That's what they do in introductions, right? [Laughter] A little bit. She grew up in Kerala which is a special place in India and studied architecture, which some people say accounts for the precision of her language. Who knows? There's a mystery there...about what's behind the way she uses language. She wrote screenplays. She also worked at all sorts of very ordinary jobs which is always helpful for enlarging a person's vision. And then, at a certain point, she sat down and wrote The God of Small Things. Or, she stood up and wrote The God of Small Things. I can't imagine how she wrote it, you see. [Laughter]

You might have gathered that I think it's a real honor to introduce Arundhati Roy. So, here she is.

[Applause]

Arundhati Roy : Thank you. I wish I could see you all better but it's quite dark out there. I'm so delighted to be here, and I'm so delighted that Howard Zinn is here to introduce me because I've never met him before but I think he's such a magical human being. Thank you, Howard. [Applause]

Just now, Howard asked me how do you decide what event or lecture you say yes to and how do you decide what you say no to? And I said I think it's perhaps one out of fifty on the average that I agree to do and I am very happy and proud to be doing this one because I know that those who have gone before me are people that I really admire and respect. So thank you to the Lannan Foundation for inviting me.

I have so many things to say and I hope I don't take too long to say them to you. I'm a writer, and so I've actually written what I want to say, for two reasons. One, because I'm sure that you are much more interested in the way I write than in the way I speak. And, second, because the things I have to say are complicated, dangerous things in these dangerous times and I think we have to be very, very precise about what we're saying and how we say them and the language that we use. So I hope it's okay if I read it out to you.

My talk today is called

Come September

Writers imagine that they cull stories from the world. I'm beginning to believe that vanity makes them think so. That it's actually the other way around. Stories cull writers from the world. Stories reveal themselves to us. The public narrative, the private narrative - they colonize us. They commission us. They insist on being told. Fiction and nonfiction are only different techniques of story telling. For reasons that I don't fully understand, fiction dances out of me, and nonfiction is wrenched out by the aching, broken world I wake up to every morning.

The theme of much of what I write, fiction as well as nonfiction, is the relationship between power and powerlessness and the endless, circular conflict they're engaged in. John Berger, that most wonderful writer, once wrote: "Never again will a single story be told as though it's the only one." There can never be a single story. There are only ways of seeing. So when I tell a story, I tell it not as an ideologue who wants to pit one absolutist ideology against another, but as a story-teller who wants to share her way of seeing. Though it might appear otherwise, my writing is not really about nations and histories; it's about power. About the paranoia and ruthlessness of power. About the physics of power. I believe that the accumulation of vast unfettered power by a State or a country, a corporation or an institution - or even an individual, a spouse, a friend, a sibling -regardless of ideology, results in excesses such as the ones I will recount here.

Living as I do, as millions of us do, in the shadow of the nuclear holocaust that the governments of India and Pakistan keep promising their brain-washed citizenry, and in the global neighborhood of the War Against Terror (what President Bush rather biblically calls "The Task That Never Ends"), I find myself thinking a great deal about the relationship between Citizens and the State.

In India, those of us who have expressed views on Nuclear Bombs, Big Dams, Corporate Globalization and the rising threat of communal Hindu fascism - views that are at variance with the Indian Government's - are branded 'anti- national.' While this accusation doesn't fill me with indignation, it's not an accurate description of what I do or how I think. Because an 'anti-national' is a person who is against his or her own nation and, by inference, is pro some other one. But it isn't necessary to be 'anti-national' to be deeply suspicious of all nationalism, to be anti-nationalism. Nationalism of one kind or another was the cause of most of the genocide of the twentieth century. Flags are bits of colored cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people's brains and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead. [Applause] When independent- thinking people (and here I do not include the corporate media) begin to rally under flags, when writers, painters, musicians, film makers suspend their judgment and blindly yoke their art to the service of the "Nation," it's time for all of us to sit up and worry. In India we saw it happen soon after the Nuclear tests in 1998 and during the Kargil War against Pakistan in 1999. In the U.S. we saw it during the Gulf War and we see it now during the "War Against Terror." That blizzard of Made-in-China American flags. [Laughter]

Recently, those who have criticized the actions of the U.S. government (myself included) have been called "anti-American." Anti-Americanism is in the process of being consecrated into an ideology.

The term "anti-American" is usually used by the American establishment to discredit and, not falsely - but shall we say inaccurately - define its critics. Once someone is branded anti-American, the chances are that he or she will be judged before they are heard, and the argument will be lost in the welter of bruised national pride.

But what does the term "anti-American" mean? Does it mean you are anti-jazz? Or that you're opposed to freedom of speech? That you don't delight in Toni Morrison or John Updike? That you have a quarrel with giant sequoias? Does it mean that you don't admire the hundreds of thousands of American citizens who marched against nuclear weapons, or the thousands of war resisters who forced their government to withdraw from Vietnam? Does it mean that you hate all Americans?

This sly conflation of America's culture, music, literature, the breathtaking physical beauty of the land, the ordinary pleasures of ordinary people with criticism of the U.S. government's foreign policy (about which, thanks to America's "free press", sadly most Americans know very little) is a deliberate and extremely effective strategy. It's like a retreating army taking cover in a heavily populated city, hoping that the prospect of hitting civilian targets will deter enemy fire.

But there are many Americans who would be mortified to be associated with their government's policies. The most scholarly, scathing, incisive, hilarious critiques of the hypocrisy and the contradictions in U.S. government policy come from American citizens. When the rest of the world wants to know what the U.S. government is up to, we turn to Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Howard Zinn, Ed Herman, Amy Goodman, Michael Albert, Chalmers Johnson, William Blum and Anthony Amove to tell us what's really going on.

[Applause]

Similarly, in India, not hundreds, but millions of us would be ashamed and offended if we were in any way implicated with the present Indian government's fascist policies which, apart from the perpetration of State terrorism in the valley of Kashmir (in the name of fighting terrorism), have also turned a blind eye to the recent state-supervised progrom against Muslims in Gujarat. It would be absurd to think that those who criticize the Indian government are "anti-Indian" - although the government itself never hesitates to take that line. It is dangerous to cede to the Indian government or the American government or anyone for that matter, the right to define what "India" or "America" are or ought to be.

To call someone "anti-American", indeed to be anti-American, (or for that matter, anti-Indian or anti-Timbuktuan) is not just racist, it's a failure of the imagination. An inability to see the world in terms other than those the establishment has set out for you. If you're not a Bushie you're a Taliban. If you don't love us, you hate us. If you're not Good, you're Evil. If you're not with us, you're with the terrorists.

Last year, like many others, I too made the mistake of scoffing at this post- September 11th rhetoric, dismissing it as foolish and arrogant. But I've realized it's not foolish at all. It's actually a canny recruitment drive for a misconceived, dangerous war. Everyday I'm taken aback at how many people believe that opposing the war in Afghanistan amounts to supporting terrorism, of voting for the Taliban. Now that the initial aim of the war - capturing Osama bin Laden (dead or alive) - seems to have run into bad weather, the goalposts have been moved. It's being made out that the whole point of the war was to topple the Taliban regime and liberate Afghan women from their burqas, we are being asked to believe that the U.S. marines are actually on a feminist mission [laughter, applause]. (If so, will their next stop be America's military ally Saudi Arabia?) [Laughter] Think of it this way: in India there are some pretty reprehensible social practices against "untouchables", against Christians and Muslims, against women. Pakistan and Bangladesh have even worse ways of dealing with minority communities and women. Should they be bombed? Should Delhi, Islamabad and Dhaka be destroyed? Is it possible to bomb bigotry out of India? Can we bomb our way to a feminist paradise? [Laughter] Is that how women won the vote in the U.S? Or how slavery was abolished? Can we win redress for the genocide of the millions of Native Americans upon whose corpses the United States was founded by bombing Santa Fe? [Applause]

None of us need anniversaries to remind us of what we cannot forget. So it's no more than co-incidence that I happen to be here, on American soil, in September - this month of dreadful anniversaries. Uppermost on everybody's mind of course, particularly here in America, is the horror of what has come to be known as 9/11. Nearly three thousand civilians lost their lives in that lethal terrorist strike. The grief is still deep. The rage still sharp. The tears have not dried. And a strange, deadly war is raging around the world. Yet, each person who has lost a loved one surely knows secretly, deeply, that no war, no act of revenge, no daisy-cutters dropped on someone else's loved ones or someone else's children, will blunt the edges of their pain or bring their own loved ones back. War cannot avenge those who have died. War is only a brutal desecration of their memory.

To fuel yet another war - this time against Iraq - by cynically manipulating people's grief, by packaging it for TV specials sponsored by corporations selling detergent and running shoes, is to cheapen and devalue grief, to drain it of meaning. What we are seeing now is a vulgar display of the business of grief, the commerce of grief, the pillaging of even the most private human feelings for political purpose. It is a terrible, violent thing for a State to do to its people. [Applause]

It's not a clever-enough subject to speak of from a public platform, but what I would really love to talk to you about is Loss. Loss and losing. Grief, failure, brokenness, numbness, uncertainty, fear, the death of feeling, the death of dreaming. The absolute relentless, endless, habitual, unfairness of the world. What does loss mean to individuals? What does it mean to whole cultures, whole people who have learned to live with it as a constant companion?

Since it is September 11th we're talking about, perhaps it's in the fitness of things that we remember what that date means, not only to those who lost their loved ones in America last year, but to those in other parts of the world to whom that date has long held significance. This historical dredging is not offered as an accusation or a provocation. But just to share the grief of history. To thin the mists a little. To say to the citizens of America, in the gentlest, most human way: "Welcome to the World." [Applause]

Twenty-nine years ago, in Chile, on the 11th of September 1973, General Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in a CIA-backed coup. "Chile should not be allowed to go Marxist just because its people are irresponsible," said Henry Kissinger, Nobel Peace Laureate, then the U.S. Secretary of State.

After the coup President Allende was found dead inside the presidential palace. Whether he was killed or whether he killed himself, we'll never know. In the regime of terror that ensured, thousands of people were killed. Many more simply "disappeared". Firing squads conducted public executions. Concentration camps and torture chambers were opened across the country. The dead were buried in mine shafts and unmarked graves. For seventeen years the people of Chile lived in dread of the midnight knock, of routine "disappearances", of sudden arrest and torture. Chileans tell the story of how the musician Victor Jara had his hands cut off in front of a crowd in the Santiago stadium. Before they shot him, Pinochet's soldiers threw his guitar at him and mockingly asked him to play.

In 1999, following the arrest of General Pinochet in Britain, thousands of secret documents were declassified by the U.S. government. They contain unequivocal evidence of the CIA's involvement in the coup as well as the fact that the U.S. government had detailed information about the situation in Chile during General Pinochet's reign. Yet, Kissinger assured the general of his support: "In the United States as you know, we are sympathetic to what you're trying to do," he said. "We wish your government well."

Those of us who have only ever known life in a democracy, however flawed, would find it hard to imagine what living in a dictatorship and enduring the absolute loss of freedom means.

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