Writings of the general word's body

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Roy and Lahiri: India, home and diaspora

'They are trying to keep me destabilised-' so begins a recent interview with Arundhati Roy, published in the UK Guardian on the eve of the release of 'Broken Republic', the latest in an ever elongating list of non-fiction books by the author of the great Booker Prize winning novel, 'The God of Small Things'.

Ms Roy may be writing's equivalent of Lauryn Hill, the influential singer without whom we may not have had neo-soul spawns like Jill Scott, India Arie and Alicia Keys, to name a few. 1998's
'The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill' broke all kinds of records at the time, making the former Fugee star the first female to win 5 Grammy awards for one album. While still in her twenties, Hill became the kind of legend that made Oscar winning actress Mira Sorvino gush to her from the stage at an award ceremony, "You're a goddess." Whatever was supposed to happen with Hill's career after the groundbreaking 'Miseducation', life and hindsight have borne a contrary testimony. For over a decade, fans have waited in despair for a follow-up to their 'Miseducation' - while Lauryn Hill disappeared into the haze of a murky 'spiritual' union with Rohan Marley, five kids and rumours of bipolar and other disorders. Just when she seemed to be getting her act together and hope kicked up for the possibility of a comeback album, Ms Hill announced she'd be taking time off yet again because of a sixth pregnancy. Meanwhile, Rohan, whose only distinction is the fact that he was fathered by Bob Marley, has denied paternity of the unborn child, "until I say out of my mouth to the contrary." So what now?

With Arundhati Roy, we've waited for a second novel for over a decade, in vain. In 2007 the author announced she was writing it but has failed to deliver the goods. She keeps churning out polemics instead. The novelist has given way to an outspoken critic of the Indian government on Deforestation, globalisation, Kashmir and so on. Like Hill, Roy's detractors paint her as shrill, a loony, even her interviewer in The Guardian could hardly keep such insinuations from his text of the interview. In this part of the world, we've never had problems with our writers being activists as long as they remain faithful to the calling that gave them a platform and a listening/reading public in the first place. After buying Roy's 'An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire' years ago, I'm refraining from buying any more of her non-fiction work (and this, from a committed reader and writer of non-fiction!) in the hope she gets that damned second novel out already.

From Arundhati Roy's interview
Roy has likened writing fiction and polemic to the difference between dancing and walking. Does she not want to dance again? "Of course I do." Is she working on a new novel? "I have been," she says with a laugh, "but I don't get much time to do it." Does it bother her that the followup to The God of Small Things has been so long in coming? "I'm a highly unambitious person," she says. "What does it matter if there is or isn't a novel? I really don't look at it that way. For me, nothing would have been worth not going into that forest."

It's hard to judge whether there will be a second novel. The God of Small Things drew so much on her own life – her charismatic but overbearing mother; a drunken tea-planter father whom her mother left when Roy was very young; her own departure from home in her late teens – that it may be a one-off, a book as much lived as written. She gives ambiguous answers about whether she expects a second novel to appear. On the one hand, she says she is engaged with the resistance movement and that it dominates her thoughts. But almost in the same breath she says others have "picked up the baton" and she would like to return to fiction, to dance again.

Trading Stories: Notes from a literary appreticeship
There are a rarified few writers whose new writings we are only allowed to read in the New Yorker. Jhumpa Lahiri, the author whose 'Unaccumstomed Earth' made a shortlist unnecessary on her way to winning the Frank O'Connor Prize, is the leader in this regard. She has a new non-fiction piece in, where else? She discusses how in childhood reading opened for her a world into which her Bengali immigrant parents had no access. The road to adulthood and writing; and how writing was a way of showing her parents that though a stranger to their world, she understood it. Something like that. Lahiri's recollection of the inspiration for her story 'A Temporary Matter', is particularly poignant. And here's something to which the average Nigerian writer can relate: even after she won the Pullitzer, Lahiri's father sounded what to him would have been a perfectly reasonable caution, that writing is not to be counted on, other jobs are better. And so Lahiri has learned to listen and not listen, to be deaf and blind to 'good' advice, as every writer must learn, eventually.

From Jhumpa Lahiri's essay
For much of my life, I wanted to be other people; here was the central dilemma, the reason, I believe, for my creative stasis. I was always falling short of people’s expectations: my immigrant parents’, my Indian relatives’, my American peers’, above all my own. The writer in me wanted to edit myself. If only there was a little more this, a little less that, depending on the circumstances: then the asterisk that accompanied me would be removed. My upbringing, an amalgam of two hemispheres, was heterodox and complicated; I wanted it to be conventional and contained. I wanted to be anonymous and ordinary, to look like other people, to behave as others did. To anticipate an alternate future, having sprung from a different past. This had been the lure of acting—the comfort of erasing my identity and adopting another. How could I want to be a writer, to articulate what was within me, when I did not wish to be myself?

It was not in my nature to be an assertive person. I was used to looking to others for guidance, for influence, sometimes for the most basic cues of life. And yet writing stories is one of the most assertive things a person can do. Fiction is an act of willfulness, a deliberate effort to reconceive, to rearrange, to reconstitute nothing short of reality itself. Even among the most reluctant and doubtful of writers, this willfulness must emerge. Being a writer means taking the leap from listening to saying, “Listen to me.”

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