“We are meant to be dangerous people, fiction writers are. Because only in fiction can you link gender violence, the conflict in Kashmir, the suffering of the poor, love and disenchantment, poetry, and so much more.”
These were the words of Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy on June 16th at the Kaaitheater in Brussels. The event was organized by Passaporta House of Literature, Kaaitheater and the publishing house Prometheus. Wearing blue jeans and a checkered flannel shirt, Roy talked to writer and journalist Annelies Beck about her latest novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Though she has over the years written several essays, nearly all of them about the political landscape in India, Roy did not write any other work of fiction after her first novel, The God of Small Things, was published twenty years ago. The book catapulted her into the center stage of the literary world.
“I wrote a lot of essays about nuclear testing, the building of dams, the massacre of muslims in Gujarat in 2002, all of them symbols of what’s happening in the so called new India,” she said. “And when people asked me about fiction I’d just say, ‘I’m waiting. Maybe it will be visit me one day.’ For me, the moment understanding the world becomes too complicated, it’s when I know I need to turn to fiction.”
For her new novel, Roy wanted to experiment with new narrative techniques where a story could be experienced the way a city is, with its beauty and chaos, different layers of symbiotic existence, some more visible than others, people living within the confines of the urban landscape, others completely excluded. Her essay writing follows a more straight-forward way, a desire to bring a point across the most efficient way, which is not what she wants for her novels.
“Fiction is too powerful for that, too beautiful for that,” she said. “For this book, for instance, it’s not that I have one specific message I want to convey. It’s about creating a universe. That’s why it takes me so much time to write.”
The thin, dark lines of eyeliner finely drawn around her eyes made her pupils look even lighter; she often brought her hand to the top of her head, touched her hair with an almost blissful delight, her silvery curls glimmering under the white light.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness tells the story of Aftab and Anjum, a boy and a girl, both living in the same body. In India there is a word for Aftab and Anjum: hijra, which describes a person who, though biologically male, feels female. Hijras constitute a long-recognized sub culture in India, though they’ve also been the target of persecution in the past. There is now a social leaning towards acceptance of a ‘third sex’ in India.
“I spend a lot of time in the north of Delhi,” Roy said. “And there are a lot of people like Anjum there. Muslims, Hindus, different casts. It’s a crossing of different borders. And that’s something I wanted to explore.”
One of Roy’s most recurrent topics is inequality, the gap that has continued to grow between rich and poor in her country. To her, the new India was built on the backs of the poor and writing about it has earned her the title of writer-activist, a term she shuns every time she hears it.
“The moment a writer turns to write something political, she becomes an activist. Why? When was the term activist coined? This is something I’ve pondered over a lot, and I believe the use of the word is really very recent.”
In the audience someone brought up the recent debate on ‘cultural appropriation,’ namely the three Canadian newspaper editors who were forced to step down after having supported the right for white artists to write or express themselves from the perspective of African American people. What would her reaction be, the person in the audience asked Roy, if someone challenged her right to adopt the perspective of a hijra, or of muslim people in Kashmir.
“It’s a delicate topic,” she said. “And minorities should be protected. If we were to create words for all the different genders that exist in the world, that’d be great. As long as it doesn’t mean we use those words to isolate them. But what happens if we stick to writing about who we are? No. Writing means being able to understand and care about the other. There’d be no literature without being able to become someone else on the page.”