A Language of Dissent

“Don’t you feel proud of your country?” Arundhati Roy has been asked.

India is considered to be a rising star by the growth rate. India’s cities are booming. Money is being made.

The University of Westminster hosted a conference on Democracy and Dissent in China and India in June of last year, where Arundhati Roy had a conversation with Dibyesh Anand about the notion of democracy.

Roy considers the darker side of the question: She says that although India has been presented as a huge success story, 800 million people live on less than 30 cents a day. It is a country were the numbers of displaced people– displaced to slums and the underbelly of big cities– are larger than the populations of European countries. But it not just that. The poor people of India don’t have voices. As Roy puts it, “You are not allowed to feel  about your river or valley or your people because somewhere, someone has drawn a mark that tells you who you are and who you are not.”

Aravind Adiga was faced with the same question in his 2008 Booker Prize winning novel, The White Tiger. Is it the duty of a writer to voice the opinions of the poor and those who can’t speak for themselves? Is Adiga’s voice the voice of someone actually in this position or is it something else? How can we, as readers, consider the context of this plot without creating an exotic India that has never existed?

Adiga, in an interview with The Guardian, answers some of these questions. Adiga points out that if the people of India were to write into the social constraints they were born into then only 5% of India would be represented.

A poor man in India has no place to voice his opinion. Balram explains: a man who tries to vote is killed. He writes,

“‘What are you doing here?’

‘Voting,’ he shouted back. “isn’t it the election today?”

I cannot confirm what happened next, even though I was only a few feet behind him… I never saw what they did to that brave, mad man” (85). Only a few paragraphs down Balram explains that he learned that the man was beaten brutally.

Who will speak for a man like this?

A writer should speak in the language that creates change in the world if the writer has the skills to do so– that is the writer’s most treasured power. If writers never strove to make a difference with their words, the novel wouldn’t make the kind of impact that it does– we wouldn’t be having this discussion right now. The danger in this is that the voice presented may create a caricature of the voice it intended to bring to light. But how does anyone know, when the voice being represented can’t speak for itself? This is a dangerous road to walk along, and it’s something that Adiga does admirably. For example, his main character in The White Tiger speaks plainly of the problems of politics in India. There have been critics, an example of which this blog post discusses, who have made the point that Balram speaks in a voice that is unrealistic for a taxi driver. Adiga himself notes that in his travels around India he was amazed at the intelligence of the working class and poor. Perhaps they are simply pushed into a role– a big belly versus a smaller belly that is eaten– and not allowed to voice their opinion.

But how can the cycle change? Only when writers use ever means available to them to give those people a voice. Give them room to speak, and the world will start listening. This is what writers do. This is why writers must keep creating. Even if we as readers don’t understand the whole picture yet– even if we see an image that isn’t true to reality– at least we can get in the conversation.

Monkey Business

Over this past Christmas break my schedule was light. In fact, I didn’t really have all that much to do. I inevitably turned to Netflix to feel as though I was engaging in something (I read too, but that only gets me so far into the day). Through my perusing of what was available to watch, I found a documentary called: We Live in Public. (http://www.weliveinpublicthemovie.com/). The documentary was all about how one man essentially predicted reality television and the same level of personal use over the internet that sites like Facebook and YouTube allow individuals. Most notably from the film was the experiment Quiet:We Live in Public (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=saupV-QUAjA), which was the Real World, but actually and truly unscripted and without rules. Naturally this got me thinking about sites like Facebook and YouTube and how in today’s society anyone anywhere can film anyone doing anything and post it, leaving it subject to the viewer.

This is where I feel Kushner can be brought in, “If culture can be thought of as both the exalted and the quotidian expressions of a people’s life, then all culture is ideological, political, rooted in history and informed by present circumstance.” (44). Here Kushner is saying that one’s culture and politics are not necessarily two separate concepts. Kushner is arguing the opposite: one’s culture and politics are inherent to one another. Furthermore Kushner goes on to say that every individual across the globe has and is a part of a specific culture (43), and all the videos, comments, etc posted on the internet are certain art as people are interacting with them, despite their sincerity or depth of interaction, and in some way are affected and shaped by such interaction.

And here is where I feel it is necessary to bring in Roy, who states on the subject of being active politically, “One is not involved by virtue of being a writer or activist. One is involved because one is a human being” (24). As individuals of a society where anything and everything can become the next internet sensation we must realize that our lives, as Roy states, can be and are a type of political activism and we must realize and accept this responsibility and do something other than throw our shit at the internet to see what becomes popular.

Works Cited

Kushner, Tony. “Some Questions About Tolerance” New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1995. Print.

Roy, Arundhati. “Power Politics” Boston: South End Press, 2002. Print.

Link

Everyone likes talking about what they are interested in, and writers are no exception. Writers also happen to typically be very opinionated people (why would we write if we did not feel that we had something to say?). Writers also seem to have no shortage of opinions on what it means to be a writer, what the writer’s  place is in society, and what responsibility and significance goes along with it. The overarching argument is about responsibility and what exactly that responsibility is.

Tony Kushner says in his essay, “Some Questions About Tolerance” that the writers responsibility is to make good art, any other responsibilities come after that.

Arundhati Roy in “Power Politics” says that the writers responsibility is to “ask ourselves some very uncomfortable questions” and “take sides” because these are “our responsibilities as citizens.”

Edwidge Danticat says that the writer’s responsibility is to her audience. She argues that we are called upon to “create dangerously, for people who read dangerously.”

The responsibility of the writer is foremost to be good at writing, I do not think that is easy to argue against. However, when writing is laced with the any broader political ideology, it gains a greater urgency to be good art. Kushner says, very succinctly, that  “If art […] has any political impact, and I believe it does, it seems to me that it’s most likely to have it by being effective art […]” As I have suggested, this seems obvious, but there is an edge to it.

Slam poet Taylor Mali, in his poem “How to Write a Political Poem ” speaks somewhat flippantly to the point that Roy brings up when she asks, “if what we have to say doesn’t ’sell’ will we still say it?” Mali takes a different approach to talking about writing the political than Roy or Kushner or Danticat. Mali talks about the craft of writing and how we try to formulate our political arguments. He points out that we are selling it from the moment we sit down to write. He points out that we have to “have a hook” and right at the start he says that “however it begins, its gotta be loud.” By saying this he is suggesting that no mater what you say, there is a certain way that you have to say it to help make people believe you.

Mali also brings out a larger point about how when we are selling our ideas (as that is what we do when we write, we try to sell the truth of what we are trying to say, just as I am doing now) it is exactly that, selling. Roy brings up the issue of commercialization of writing and Mali brings out a more resonant point that the idea of selling happens before, and in a different way than the idea of publishing and marketing. The selling happens as soon as one sits down to try to convince someone of your political point. The political, just as the literary, is always about selling your truth and that truth is our responsibility. How we choose to write that truth is up to each individual writer.

Works Cited

Danticat, Edwidge. “Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work” New York: Vintage, 2010. 1-20. Print.

Kushner, Tony. “Some Questions About Tolerance” New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1995. Print.

Mali, Taylor. “How to Write a Political Poem” Youtube. 13 Oct. 2009. 30 Jan. 2012. Web.

Roy, Arundhati. “Power Politics” Boston: South End Press, 2002. Print.

The Politics of Being a Woman Writer

In Power Politics Arundhati Roy expresses her aversion to being labeled a “writer-activist”: “why should it be that the person who wrote The God of Small Things is called a writer, and the person who wrote the political essays is called an activist?” (10). This is not the only label used to define and limit the power of an author’s writing. Women who write have often times been labeled as women writers instead of being regarded as part of the collective writing society. The question is, does being a woman impact the way the author writes? What is the importance and difference in what women write in comparison to men? Roy’s power as a writer is limited by defining her in a such a specific role. Only those who are interested in political activism will be interested in reading her work (this is a general statement on the purpose of creating the label). In this same way, only women will want to read women’s writing and what they have to say is no longer as important or impacting as those writers who are recognized as part of the writing society as a whole. By creating this division in the writing world does it change the way a women author’s writing is accepted and perceived? Is a woman’s political opinion taken as seriously as a man’s?

Virginia Woolf addresses the idea of what it should mean to be a writer, especially a woman writer writing about being oppressed by the male dominated society, in her essay “A Room of One’s Own”. Woolf makes a statement about what writing should do or really not do: “The mind of the artist, in order to achieve the prodigious effort of freeing whole and entire work that is in him, must be incandescent…there must be no obstacle in it, no foreign matter consumed” and continues referring to William Shakespeare and his success as a writer, “All desire to protest, to preach, to proclaim and injury, to pay off a score to, to make the world the witness of some hardship or grievance was fired out of him and consumed. Therefore his poetry flows

free and unimpeded” (DeShazer 43).

This entire idea of the artist or writer keeping agendas and anger out of their writing or filtering out specific complaints about injustices they have perceived reminded me of Kushner’s essay Some Questions About Tolerance. Kushner states: “political agendas can’t successfully be imposed on the act of making art, creation, for all that those agendas will invariably surface from within once the art is made” (44). Perhaps Kushner and Woolf are correct in saying those ideas take away from the art or writing, but perhaps there is something special and influential in making blatant statements about political and social issues. Political opinion should not detract from the sta

tion of the writer; it is simply a characteristic of their writing. A characteristic which has impacted many a reader and should be valued as much as the writing that is perhaps not as obvious or directed.

DeShazer, Mary K. “A Room of One’s Own.” The Longman Anthology of Women’s Literature. New York: Longman, 2001. 16-72. Print.Kushner, Tony. “Some Questions About Tolerance.” Thinking about the

Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness: Essays, a Play, Two Poems, and a Prayer. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1995. 41-47. Print.

Moss, Tara. Women Writer’s Book. Digital image. The Book Post. Tara Moss, 16 Oct. 2010. Web. 30 Jan. 2012. <http://blog.taramoss.com/media/2/womenwritersbook.jpg&gt;.

Roy, Arundhati. Power Politics. Boston: South End, 2002. Print.

This video is a clip of blogger and author Jessica Valenti on her book Full Frontal Feminism. While she doesn’t specifically talk about what it means to write the poltical, she does address what her purpose is. She comments that with her web site, Feministing.com, she often forgets about people who are not yet feminists. It’s easy to forget that there are tons of people out there that don’t understand the patriarchal restrictions that oppress everyone and it’s much easier to write about feminism from a more enlightened viewpoint. I thought it was really interesting to note the importance of keeping in mind who may stumble across your writing and how beneficial it is to get your message out there in many ways.

This video reminded me of all three authors, but specifically of Roy. While Roy and Valenti are from two very different walks of life, they are both considered writer-activists. Valenti’s activism is perhaps even more blatant given the nature of her writing. Unlike Roy, Valenti is writing strictly in a political sense and pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a woman. Her book asks what the worst names for a woman are. They include things like “slut” and “whore.” Then she asks what the worst names for a man are. They include “pussy” and “mangina,” pointing out that the worst thing you can call a man is a woman.

Roy asks “do we have Really Free Speech? If what we have to say doesn’t “sell,” will we still say it?” I think Valenti is an interesting answer to this. It doesn’t seem as though we have free speech.Think about it, if we tend to go against the crowd we are often called names and torn down. Just recently a girl worked to get a prayer banner taken down in a public school and she has dealt with incessant bullying since. Valenti is lucky in that she was able to us the internet as a platform to find like minded individuals to support and spread her message. The school girl didn’t have that same option. I don’t know that Valenti would have been able to publish any of her books had she not been affiliated with Feministing.com and gained such a loyal internet fanbase. She was lucky enough to have power in numbers. Unfortunately, power usually comes in the form of money.

Roy, Arundhati. Power Politics. Boston: South End Press, 2002. Print.

Valenti, Jessica, perf. Book TV: Jessica Valenti, author of “Full Frontal Feminism”. Web. 30 Jan 2012

The Impossibility of Writing (and Living) Apolitically

In a July 5, 2010 interview with Democracy NOW!, filmmaker Michael Moore discusses   the redundancy of the term “activist,” stating, “I’m a citizen in a democracy, so that automatically implies I’m an activist, you’re an activist, you’re all activists. Anybody who decides to reside in the democracy is an activist. If you’re not an activist, if we’re not, then the democracy ceases to exist. So, there is no choice but for all of us to be active.”

Similarly, in the opening chapter of Power Politics, Arundhati Roy writes, “One is not involved by virtue of being a writer or activist. One is involved because one is a human being” (24).

To Moore, participation is vital to a democracy; Roy takes this idea a step further in stating that participation, or involvement, is an integral part of human existence.

So, is it possible not to be an activist? To write, to create, to exist — all apolitically?

I mean, maybe you don’t vote. Maybe you haven’t made a habit of exercising your right to peaceably assemble; to speak out against your government. Maybe you’ve never participated in a sit-in or a stand-in or a walk-out or any other such verb-preposition combination. Maybe you don’t even live in a democratic nation.

But I think Roy would definitely argue that your existence still has political implications. Is complicity not just as political an act as protest? Is defending, accepting, or willfully succumbing to the status quo, just or unjust as it may be, not a political statement in and of itself?

Kushner, in his essay, arrives at a similar conclusion, though he gets there a little differently: “[E]ach culture is different; the artistic expressions of each culture embody those differences in form and content, and indeed one might say that the art a culture produces is the clearest statement that culture can make of difference” (43).

Whether the artist wants it to or not, his art is going to reflect his culture, his background, perhaps even the political circumstances under which a given piece was produced — much like the individual, whether he recognizes it or not, is “involved,” is an activist, simply by virtue of his existing.

Michael Moore’s Democracy NOW! interview

Kushner, Tony. Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness. New York: Theater Communications Group, 1995. 41-47. Print.

“Michael Moore on His Life, His Films, and His Activism.” Democracy NOW! democracynow.org. 5 July 2010. Accessed 30 Jan. 2012.

Roy, Arundhati. Power Politics. Boston: South End Press, 2002. 4-33. Print.

Each writer takes a pen to paper for a different reason

Arundhati Roy asks the tough questions in her essay, Power Politics.  She begs, “What is the role of writers and artists in society? Do they have a definable role? Can it be fixed, described, characterized in any definite way? Should it be?” All of those questions in hand force a boundary that maybe has already been set by a standard in society. Each writer individually takes a pen to paper for a different reason. Roy’s argument of responsibility to the literate audience may take a precedent when it comes to a political stance; however, even if I’m a literate member of society in an actively political society, does that mean I have the responsibility to state my opinion.

The role of the writer is undefinable. The role to ones’ self is also. Virginia Woolf once said, “Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money.” She wrote about women’s rights and how women should act out and write, but not just on the political issues. I myself enjoy writing for the fun of it. I do know, however, that in the future, I do want to publish and write for the financial responsibility of my life.  Roy says, “There is an intricate web of morality, rigor, and responsibility that art, that writing itself, imposes on a writer. It’s singular, it’s individual, but nevertheless, it’s there.”  Roy may have a good argument here, but art itself is meant to break the boundaries of responsibility and force the artist to interact with their own thoughts.

I believe that writing the political is meant to restore faith in the artist. Losing faith is easy, especially in today’s world. Roy believes the artist is “accountable” to write the truth, the political, but I say that isn’t always the case. Being political and speaking out can be an internal thing, not necessarily a public domain. Roy is almost advocating the idea of selling out to produce her goal.  She is expressing that it is the responsibility of the writer to publish political works to get a message across. It seems like if “people” don’t have the same views as Roy, however, that she’ll shut it down. Roy’s argument is bias because she has such a strong opinion.

Roy, Arundhati. “Power Politics.” Boston: South End Press, 2002.