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Arundhati Roy on the Power of Fiction: Literature is “The Simplest Way of Saying a Complicated Thing”

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We speak with world-renowned author Arundhati Roy on the importance of reading and writing literature, even in the most dire of political times. On Sunday night, Roy delivered the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, invoking James Baldwin to argue that literature can tell the truth when all other avenues fail. Roy told her audience, “I very much like the idea of literature that is needed. Literature that provides shelter. Shelter of all kinds.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Thank you, Arundhati, for reading from your lecture last night at the Apollo. Could you say a little bit more about—I mean, as the writer of two beautiful novels as well as literally hundreds and hundreds of literary nonfiction, what you see as the role of literature in this context? You referred to it, in fact, in that same lecture, this context, as a blitzkrieg of idiocy. And the other point you made about literature being essential, fiction being essential to saying what cannot in any other context be said? And you cited Kashmir.

ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, yes, I cited Kashmir, and I cited James Baldwin, who says that “and they wouldn’t believe me, precisely because they knew that what I was saying was true.” So basically, I think—to me, the reason—I wonder sometimes, in this age of so much WhatsApp and video and Netflix and movies and living in a country where so many people are either semi-literate or illiterate, why is it that a certain kind of writing, like say my essays and even my books now, they are translated—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Your novels.

ARUNDHATI ROY: —my novels—spontaneously into so many languages. Into 51 languages in the case of The Ministry. Many Indian languages. When I go to speak in places like anywhere in India, literally thousands show up. Why? Not because I am some superstar, but because everybody is looking to understand what is happening at this moment, when really the era that we think we know and understand is coming to an end. And this is the simplest way of saying a complicated thing, you know? Literature is.

And I feel that the radical understanding now has to come from not thinking of climate— “Oh, I’m a specialist in climate change”; “I’m a specialist in river valleys”; “I’m a specialist on Kashmir”; “I’m a specialist—.” You know, this kind of compartmentalization is actually reducing the real problem that we have. Because now you have to understand there’s a connection between caste and climate change and capitalism and nationalism and internationalism. And I think this is where literature and a way of grappling with history as a kind of supple narrative is important.

AMY GOODMAN: Telling truths, as you quote James Baldwin, saying it is easier to often tell those truths in fiction rather than nonfiction. Which is your preferred way of writing? As we move into your next book coming out in June—1,000 pages of your nonfiction essays.

ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, as I said in my lecture yesterday, people—apart from which is my preferred way, other people have their preferred forms of my writing. But to me, they are both part of my body. They are both part of the way I think. And I would only say that the nonfiction that I have written has always been an urgent intervention. And together, somehow when I looked at it together, the urgency put together over 20 years creates a special kind of narrative, a special kind of history. Because even the nonfiction I see when I read it—

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

ARUNDHATI ROY: —I’m always telling stories.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to do part two and post it online at Democracynow.org, and there we will ask you about Kashmir as a nuclear flashpoint. Arundhati Roy, the great writer. I’m Amy Goodman with Nermeen Shaikh.

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