As a 19-year-old studying film and television at Brunel University, Guy Gunaratne came across an anonymous video of a narrated essay over archival footage. It turned out to be Arundhati Roy’s ‘Come September’ and was, he says, ‘the beginning of everything.’
Nearly two decades later Guy is a Fellow Commoner in the Creative Arts at Trinity, a documentary maker and award-winning novelist. Guy remembers the impact of that video – long before internet, YouTube and social media. ‘It was like watching contraband material in my bedroom and made a deep impression,’ he said. ‘Her words were so powerful that I immediately searched for the original video and then went on to read the essay itself.’
Here he asks Arundhati about her writing practices, navigating crises, and how she focuses on hope rather than despair.
GG: Much of your writing has been dedicated to exploring the work of peoples’ movements around the world. Communities that have fought against corporate and state-sponsored attacks, whether environmental vandalism, labour laws or destructive policy.
I am interested in how you navigate your practice as a writer in these cases. The angle of the stories you take, more specifically, as stories of great courage in the face of terrible odds, resolve in the face of failure. In moments when so much pessimism is closer at hand, what makes it possible for you as a writer to focus on hope rather than despair?
AR: I am actually not aware of ‘navigating my practice’ in any conscious way, I work completely by instinct. Mostly I don’t see the battles that people are waging as a separate picture or landscape outside of myself about which I am reporting. We are all in the picture in one way or another, and if we locate ourselves honestly, then it’s not hard to tell the story.
All the people and places that I’ve written about have become a part of me. When I write, I write to explain things to myself, and the understanding that I gain layers my next piece of work. I grow like a tree, I think I am made up of those rings you see when trees are cut down. That’s why when people ask me if I will leave India I say it’s like asking a tree to move to another forest. I guess I could, but it would involve a lot of trauma. My leaves might fall and not come back for a while. It has nothing to do with national pride. I don’t think trees have those kinds of feelings.
About hope – you know many of the battles I have written about are existential ones. The ones in which people have to resist to exist. So, it’s not about hope and despair. It’s about something that must be done, whether you win or lose. When you are inside that universe – even in the most horrifying situations, there’s humour and humanity. If there wasn’t, what would be the point of it all.
GG: I also get the sense that for this kind of work, and to maintain clarity in thinking more generally, some degree of withdrawal is necessary. I am talking here, in terms of stepping back from what you once described as part of a ‘blitzkrieg of idiocy’, the distraction of network news cycles, social media and the various surface outrages that plague debates that occur here. If that is the case, how do you maintain that distance? And what day-to-day practices help you focus on the things that matter?
AR: Well…again my answer is instinct. I don’t have any particular practices. But oddly, although I don’t watch TV and I am not on social media, I don’t feel as though I’m living in a bubble of isolation. It’s easy to visit those spaces when you have to or want to, without being welded to them. And then there is my —I guess what you could describe as almost goofy – love for non-human creatures. I wake up every morning and bite my dogs. That’s a vital part of my day. I guess you could call it a practice. There – I’ve contradicted myself.
GG: And in terms of fiction – and novels specifically, as a formal space in which to interrogate our faltering societies – of what should novelists, both here and elsewhere (as well as those in between), be mindful? What should we be paying attention to – or is it the case that our crises are all interconnected?
AR: There should be no rules for novels and novelists. It should be beautiful, anarchic, un-ruled territory.
Arundhati Roy’s Clark Lecture 2020 is The Graveyard Talks Back-Fiction in the Time of Fake News