I am an enormous admirer of Arundhati Roy, the Indian writer who is perhaps best known for her novels The God of Small Things (1997) and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017). While both of these books are undeniably masterful, and I love them, it is actually her nonfiction that has impacted me most.
For one thing, her essay writing is every bit as gorgeous as her narrative prose, if not more so. One of her pieces in particular, “Confronting Empire” — which was originally delivered as a speech at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2003, and then published in her book-of-the-same-year War Talk — is quoted from constantly. In fact, you will probably recognize its stirring last lines: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
For another, her nonfiction always reflects the committed engagement of a true activist, and the good, old-fashioned, shoe-leather research of a journalist; she’s the furthest thing in the world from an ivory tower dilettante, writing from on the ground and in meaningful solidarity with those on whose behalf she speaks. By way of an example, when Roy wanted to write about Edward Snowden and his revelations, she got on a plane to Moscow with Daniel Ellsberg and actor John Cusack and went directly to the source. (The resultant book, Things that Can and Cannot Be Said: Essays and Conversations, which she co-authored with Cusack, was published by Haymarket Books in 2016.) To me, she is in a class by herself when it comes to contemporary political essayism.
Enamored as I am with Roy’s work, I read her recent Guardian Q&A with keen interest. To his credit, interviewer Tim Lewis calls attention to a phrase that I confess I hadn’t noticed her use on multiple occasions to talk about her nonfiction: “urgent interventions.” For example, in her 2009 book Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy, she explains that “all [of its] essays were written as urgent, public interventions at critical moments in India… Often they were not just responses to events, they were responses to the responses” (pg. 3; emphasis added). Similarly, in an interview with the Irish Times last year, she says: “When I’m writing non-fiction, it’s a weapon, it’s an argument. It has an immediate and urgent purpose. Every essay of mine is an intervention into something…” (emphasis added).
Roy’s description of her essays as “urgent interventions” is not only lovely but spot-on as well: the goal of her nonfiction writing is to interrupt the conventional wisdom that prevents us from attending to critical needs. Her purpose in writing these pieces is to put up The Good Fight, and at those decisive moments when it so crucially needs to be fought.
It’s a testament to both the efficacy and the righteousness of her work that she has found herself in so much hot water over the years: if what she was doing was futile and insignificant, would the powers that really care so much? In 2010, for example, India’s home ministry and the Delhi police attempted to charge her with sedition for giving a speech about violence in Kashmir. Speaking to the Guardian at the time, she explained that this ultimately failed attempt to imprison her came from the government’s “panic about many voices, even in India, being raised against what is happening in Kashmir… Threatening me with legal action is meant to frighten the civil rights groups and young journalists into keeping quiet.” As episodes like this demonstrate, there really is no better phrase to encapsulate Roy’s nonfiction than “urgent interventions.”
Though I very seriously doubt I’ll ever produce even one piece of work as effective or eloquent as anything by Roy, her kind of effectiveness and eloquence are definitely what I aspire towards.
Obviously, my saying this betrays a certain partiality towards writing. Indeed, of all the different practices and disciplines I’ve undertaken in my life, it is the one that has been with me the longest, and that I really have the strongest affinity towards. Whatever intellectual development I have made definitely started when I began writing — first with letters to the editor of my hometown newspaper, and then for student publications in high school and college — and continues with each and every word I produce. Also, if I’m being honest, the most precious moments in any given week (beyond those spent with my partner Steph, of course) are those when I’m able to steal away to read and/or write in some peace and quiet.
In addition, now that I’ve reached the midpoint of my M.F.A. studies in Documentary Media at Ryerson University, I think I can say with some confidence that I feel best suited to those documentary mediums that are literary in nature (creative nonfiction, literary oral history, etc.). For better or worse, I prefer it to something like documentary filmmaking, which is by necessity a “team effort” and not terribly cheap. To do oral historical work, write, or edit, I need only myself, an audio recording device, and something to write with — that feels very liberating to idiosyncratic old me.
All of this in mind, I’ve made a decision to recommit myself to nonfiction work of this sort, personally and professionally. One component of this will be a return to blogging. In the past, I was most productive (and prolific) when I had a blog, and regularly composing posts helped sharpen both my thinking and my writing practice.
In whatever nonfiction form they take, “urgent interventions” seems very necessary now, as so many right-wing and far-right-wing elements occupy positions of power around the world. But we needed more of this kind of work before the dark age we are currently living through. We will need more after it has passed as well. This kind of work (and so many other kinds) needs to be constant and unceasing, so I’m going to roll up my sleeves and contribute what I can.
But are literary works really what we need right now? And aren’t blogs becoming an anachronism?
Blogs may well be an anachronism. And, broadly speaking, the written word seems to be taking something of a beating these days. The most recent findings of the American Time Use Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example, indicate that “the share of Americans who read for pleasure on a given day has fallen by more than 30 percent since 2004.” Even more distressing, a Federal District Court judge this week “dismissed a class-action lawsuit filed by students at troubled schools in Detroit,” ruling that “access to literacy” is not a constitutional right. So, it’s not exactly a bull market right now in terms of literary projects.
However, to my way of thinking, intentional participation in reading and writing, and working against their eradication, can’t but do some good. Granted, it would be hard to disagree with Chris Hedges, who has observed that “the core values of our open society, the ability to think for oneself, to draw independent conclusions, to express dissent when judgment and common sense indicate something is wrong, to be self-critical, to challenge authority, to understand historical facts, to separate truth from lies, to advocate for change and to acknowledge that there are other views, different ways of being, that are morally and socially acceptable, are dying.” But if there is any hope to be drawn from Hedges’s analysis, it would seem to be in subverting what he has elsewhere referred to as “the triumph of spectacle,” and bolstering our “literate, print-based culture.” This would be consistent with the view of the mighty Wendell Berry, who wrote decades ago:
We must know a better language. We must speak, and teach our children to speak, a language precise and articulate and lively enough to tell the truth about the world as we know it. And to do this we must know something of the roots and resources of our language; we must know its literature. The only defense against the worst is a knowledge of the best. By their ignorance people enfranchise their exploiters.
This is not to say that this blog has no interest at all in audiovisual media. While the written word will be afforded a privileged position at this site, I do plan on punctuating regular posts (reviewing books, thinking through issues in documentary work, opining, and so on) with photo, video, and audio content.
Lastly, I won’t be hosting comments at this site. Why? Because I’m with Jessica Valenti on this, and, besides, this is the internet — if you’ve got something to say, there’s no shortage of places where you can say it.
So, welcome to what I hope will be a rebirth of this site! Thanks for reading this lengthy introduction. And here we go…