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 essay as effective or eloquent as anything by Roy, her type of work is definitely what I aspire towards. I find nonfiction in all of its wonderfully varied forms and manifestations to be important, of course, but her writerly insurgencies are the gold standard as far as I’m concerned.
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 MFA 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 (oral history, creative nonfiction, etc.). For better or worse, I prefer the relative solitude and simplicity of writing to something like documentary filmmaking, which is by necessity a “team effort” and not terribly cheap. To write, I need only myself 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 writing, 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.
This time, though, I’m going to try to be more focused in terms of the content. If there’s a goal post I’ve set for myself, it is most certainly (you guessed it) “urgent interventions” à la Roy. What I intend definitely has antecedents in things like I.F. Stone’s Weekly and TomDispatch as well. Put simply, I would like to use this space to offer analysis and commentary on politics and culture that is both timely and directed in service of needed change. Again, I’m sure this blog will mostly strain after the exemplars I’ve named; at its very best, though, it will do so at a respectable distance from them.
Work like Roy’s seems especially vital now, as so many right-wing and far-right-wing elements occupy positions of power around the world. But we needed more such “urgent interventions” 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 is more “opinion content” really what we need right now? And aren’t blogs becoming an anachronism?
To answer the first question, we should probably clarify things a bit. On the one hand, yes, we’re overwhelmed with opinions as it is — look no further than television, social media, podcasts, YouTube, and so on. On the other hand, though, when it comes to professional opinion writing, that’s a different story. As Deron Lee writes for the Columbia Journalism Review, “Papers across the [U.S.] have cut their editorial output and staff, severely compromising their capacity to provide that essential hub of opinion and dialogue.” He continues: “Too often, papers have filled the hole left by departed local opinion writers with ‘guest columns’ by public officials and advocacy groups — leaving their editorial sections nearly devoid of independent local voices.”
In addition, those opinions that do find their way into mainstream publications are usually quite narrow in scope. Those of us firmly left-of-center don’t see our point of view reflected by popular newspaper and magazines all that often, for example. Worse still, as Jon Allsop notes for the Columbia Journalism Review, when op-ed sections do entertain voices from the left, “those pieces are almost always written about those voices, rather than by them” (emphasis added). The recent addition of Michelle Alexander to the New York Times‘s lineup of columnists (which otherwise spans from the liberal center to the far right) is a step in the right direction, but there’s still a very long way to go. To that end, every little bit of radical opining helps — even if it comes from the margins.
As to the second question, blogs may well be an anachronism; 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 “columns” with vlogs and audio interviews.
I imagine most of my vlogs will fall into the category of “BookTubing”. For the uninitiated, “BookTube” refers to a corner of the vlogging world that is preoccupied with books. “BookTubers” vlog their reviews, lists, site visits, and so on. Part of being a good writer is being a good reader, and making these kinds of video posts should help keep me honest in that respect.
In addition to the vlog, I will also be sharing audio interviews with others who are working on “urgent interventions” of one sort or another. In both form and content, these posts will pay homage to Studs Terkel‘s and David Barsamian‘s radio shows: sparely produced and unpretentious conversations with everyday and not-so-everyday people. The interviewees will be voices I need to hear for one reason or another, and perhaps you might too. (These posts will be made available in podcast form, and you can subscribe to the feed here.)
As for other housekeeping, I’ll be sharing recommended articles on my Pocket profile, which you can find here. You can also see what book I’m currently reading on my WorldCat profile, which you can find here.
Lastly, I won’t be hosting comments at this site. Why? Because I’m with Jessica Valenti on this: 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 this site’s rebirth as a delivery system for “urgent Interventions.” Thanks for reading this lengthy introduction. And here we go…