A Conversation with Arundhati Roy & Colson Whitehead

15 October, 2020

Both novelists-essayists are concerned with the rise of neo-fascism in their countries.

Both nov­el­ists-essay­ists are con­cerned with the rise of neo-fas­cism in their countries.

As part of the Brook­lyn Book Fes­ti­val, Indi­an and Amer­i­can authors Arund­hati Roy and Col­son White­head were invit­ed to read from their work and to dis­cuss “What Lies Ahead.” Both have new books out. The read­ing, fol­lowed by a con­ver­sa­tion, showed how much the two largest democ­ra­cies in the world, cur­rent­ly deeply chal­lenged, have in common.

 

Melissa Chemam

 

Arund­hati Roy has been issu­ing a siren call to the world against Indi­a’s fas­cist gov­ern­ment for sev­er­al years, while Col­son White­head, as a New York writer in the Black com­mu­ni­ty, has been con­front­ed with decades of police bru­tal­i­ty, as well as the advent of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who open­ly embraces white nationalists. 

The Nickel Boys   won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction

The Nick­el Boys won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction

In a vir­tu­al con­ver­sa­tion that took place on Octo­ber 4th, sum­ma­riz­ing what for her are the com­mon­al­i­ties between her work and that of White­head, author of the Pulitzer-Prize win­ning nov­els Under­ground Rail­road and The Nick­el Boys, Arund­hati Roy—author of The God of Small Things and The Min­istry of Utmost Hap­pi­ness—mused, “It is, sad­ly, the writer’s fate to look at things with aching eyes, and not to blink…It’s the writer’s fate to look at the world’s fate.”

The two immense­ly tal­ent­ed writ­ers could­n’t be fur­ther apart, as some 11,000 kilo­me­ters lie between New Dehli, India and Long Island, New York where each resides and from where each spoke remote­ly. Yet even as you fac­tor in their dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ences in life, and their var­ied texts, when you lis­ten to them con­comi­tant­ly, the whole world starts to make sense.

For Roy, the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion is the result of the 2,000-year-old Indi­an caste sys­tem, as much as an effect of 200 years of bru­tal British colo­nial rule—a real­i­ty she com­pared with the Unit­ed States. “These two coun­tries are built on deny­ing the hor­rors of what they con­sid­er to be civ­i­liza­tion. That’s what con­nects writ­ers like Col­son and myself. 

“[White­head­’s] Under­ground Rail­road haunt­ed me for years,” she said after White­head read from his work, “first because it’s so beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten and so pow­er­ful.” She cit­ed anti-caste writ­ers before her who have point­ed out the con­nec­tions between slav­ery in the US, the caste sys­tem in India and apartheid in South Africa. “How­ev­er, there is no under­ground escape for any vic­tim of the caste sys­tem here in India. There is no way to run away from it. Here, peo­ples’ minds are so ver­ti­cal, so hier­ar­chi­cal, that Indi­ans don’t know how to make it hor­i­zon­tal and cre­ate solidarity.” 

To these thoughts, White­head respond­ed that his nov­els always depict pow­er struc­tures and their vio­lence, from slav­ery to our days, because these have to be uncov­ered. “I have to be all in,” he added, to con­front the truth of what is coun­try has remained. 

Both writ­ers have been chal­lenged by the events of 2020, whether the cur­rent pan­dem­ic or the Black Lives Mat­ter protests. 

“For me, unfor­tu­nate­ly, the cur­rent lev­el of racism in Amer­i­ca just pro­ceeds from the same old busi­ness against Black peo­ple,” lament­ed White­head. “I grew up in New York in the ‘80s, when we’d have a famous case every three years…Police bru­tal­i­ty has­n’t changed, even if now it is get­ting filmed on cell phones and these videos are seen by mil­lions of peo­ple… When my books came out in Spain and in France, read­ers wrote me that they found them so pre­scient. But how could they be to me? This has hap­pened so many times. Amer­i­ca has remained the same.” 

And the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic only ampli­fied inequal­i­ties in the Unit­ed States.

Arund­hati Roy con­curred as she com­pared the sit­u­a­tion in India. “The pan­dem­ic was like an autop­sy of a place in deep trou­ble: the lock­down forced ten mil­lion peo­ple to walk thou­sands of kilo­me­ters in one of the largest dis­place­ments in our recent his­to­ry. In India a lock­down does­n’t insure social dis­tanc­ing, only some phys­i­cal com­press­ing. It only made things worse… Mean­while, many vio­la­tions of our rights are occur­ring dai­ly. Just five min­utes from my house [in New Del­hi], there is a noto­ri­ous police sta­tion, where friends I’ve known for years are being held, are being inter­ro­gat­ed; there’s a mas­sive sweep of arrests of all activists who rose up against the anti-Mus­lim cit­i­zen­ship law. As you know, there have been hun­dreds of Mus­lims lynched by mobs which are filmed and put up on YouTube.” 

Brook­lyn Book Fes­ti­val mod­er­a­tor Ander­son Tep­per asked the two authors how the pan­dem­ic had affect­ed their writ­ing, a ques­tion that seemed to put Roy in dis­ar­ray. She blamed the lock­down for an inabil­i­ty to eas­i­ly artic­u­late the many crises India is fac­ing. “It’s like there are fir­ing squads every­where,” she said.

Tep­per also won­dered how Roy react­ed after her essay in the Finan­cial Times, “The Pan­dem­ic Is A Por­tal” cir­cled the world across the net in April, almost like a calm­ing mantra. In that piece, Roy wrote about the pri­va­ti­za­tion of health­care in India and how the free mar­ket is wreak­ing hav­oc among the less for­tu­nate. But she also wrote:

Who can think of kiss­ing a stranger, jump­ing on to a bus or send­ing their child to school with­out feel­ing real fear? Who can think of ordi­nary plea­sure and not assess its risk? Who among us is not a quack epi­demi­ol­o­gist, virol­o­gist, sta­tis­ti­cian and prophet? Which sci­en­tist or doc­tor is not secret­ly pray­ing for a mir­a­cle? Which priest is not — secret­ly, at least — sub­mit­ting to science? 

“Yet,” she reck­oned, appalled, “most peo­ple only quot­ed the last para­graph from that long essay.”

“His­tor­i­cal­ly,” she wrote at the end of the col­umn, “pan­demics have forced humans to break with the past and imag­ine their world anew. This one is no dif­fer­ent. It is a por­tal, a gate­way between one world and the next.”

Yet for now she’s observed that in her coun­try, the pan­dem­ic has only been “a por­tal for deci­sions that should­n’t be made. The Indi­an gov­ern­ment has sud­den­ly changed the laws for agri­cul­ture, cor­po­ra­tized farm­ing and pri­va­tized min­ing. The main point of my writ­ing is about the vio­lence, the pri­va­ti­za­tion of health­care, the lack of hos­pi­tals in India…That has hap­pened to a lot of my writ­ing: peo­ple take a quote from it and for­get the main points.”

She can­not say she remains opti­mistic, though social media respons­es to her essay sug­gest that she is. That’s why she start­ed writ­ing polit­i­cal essays in the first place, after the release of The God of Small Things, fac­ing praise for the nov­el but harsh back­lash for her opin­ions. Her writ­ing is now a weapon to fight the new nation­al­is­tic Hin­du project. “It’s too hard to have oth­er long-term plans,” she admit­ted dur­ing this online event.


Arundhati Roy's new collection from  Haymarket Books .

Arund­hati Roy’s new col­lec­tion from Hay­mar­ket Books.

Her new col­lec­tion of essays, Aza­di: Free­dom. Fas­cism. Fic­tion, pub­lished by Hay­mar­ket Books this fall, helps us find par­al­lels in the numer­ous cas­es of extreme rightwing fas­cism all over the world, from the US to Turkey and Brazil. It includes texts and lec­tures writ­ten over the past two years.

The first roots of nation­al­ism in South Asia, the book reminds us, were con­se­quences of the post-colo­nial era—India obtained its inde­pen­dence from the British Empire in 1947 at the cost of a par­ti­tion with Pak­istan and Bangladesh, along with dead­ly wars and huge shifts of pop­u­la­tions, now respon­si­ble for Mus­lim-Hin­du hatred. The pol­i­tics of nation­al­ism also result­ed in an increas­ing dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion in the lan­guages them­selves, in the for­mer “Hin­dus­tan” into two sep­a­rate ones, with dis­crete scripts—now called Hin­di and Urdu—which enabled more discrimination.

The oth­er root cause of the rise of vio­lence emerged slow­ly after the col­lapse of the Sovi­et Union, when Indi­a’s alliance with the US opened wider doors to a stronger, more destruc­tive form of capitalism. 

Like many oth­er observers, Roy hoped that Modi would­n’t be reelect­ed in 2019. But he was. “Only a year into his sec­ond term,” Roy wrote in the Paris Review in Sep­tem­ber this year, “through a series of hor­ri­fy­ing moves, Modi has changed India beyond recog­ni­tion. The infra­struc­ture of fas­cism is star­ing us in the face, the pan­dem­ic is speed­ing up that process in unimag­in­able ways, and yet we hes­i­tate to call it by its name.” And she can only see par­al­lels with the sit­u­a­tion in the Unit­ed States.

Roy sees writ­ing as a form of response. “My mind is in a mess right now! I haven’t found a way to write fur­ther about all this at the moment; there are so many crises on so many lev­els.” But when asked, “What lies ahead?” Roy pondered…and final­ly replied: “Reimag­in­ing the world. Only that.” And who could disagree?

As for Col­son White­head, he tries to remain opti­mistic. “If I thought Don­ald Trump were to be re-elect­ed again in Novem­ber, I’d prob­a­bly go insane,” he told The Observ­er recent­ly. “So, I have to think it won’t hap­pen for my own san­i­ty’s sake and for my chil­dren’s futures. One wants to be cau­tious­ly opti­mistic that these protests will make some­thing hap­pen, but also they might not.”

His new nov­el, Harlem Shuf­fle, will be pub­lished in 2021, and he’s already start­ed work­ing on anoth­er one. “There is always a fear of screw­ing up,” he con­fessed, “but I’m still doing the work. My anx­i­ety has become some good qual­i­ty control.”

These days—like the main char­ac­ter in her nov­el The Min­istry of Utmost Hap­pi­ness, Arund­hati Roy remains anx­ious about the future of Indi­a’s com­mu­ni­ties, espe­cial­ly for the new gen­er­a­tion, increas­ing­ly divid­ed by Mod­i’s fas­cist and anti-Mus­lim rhetoric. As for Col­son White­head, we will revis­it with him on mat­ters of anti-Black racism, police bru­tal­i­ty and the neo-fas­cism of Don­ald Trump, after Novem­ber 3rd.

Melis­sa Chemam is a Bris­tol-based jour­nal­ist and author, and a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at The Markaz Review.