Critics for Everyman
- News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
The Straits Times
JUNE 1, 2004
Critics for Everyman
Writers Arundhati Roy and Naomi Klein are both able to cut
through rhetoric to the lives of ordinary people in their
By Clarissa Oon
WHEN it comes to taking the world by storm with your first
book, one would be hard-pressed to find more obvious
examples than Indian novelist Arundhati Roy and Canadian
journalist Naomi Klein.
An architecture student-turned-bohemian aerobics instructor,
Roy found her calling as a wordsmith with her poetically
charged 1997 novel The God Of Small Things, which won
Britain's premier Booker Prize.
Two years later, it was the turn of Klein, whose bestseller
No Logo was a systematic and engrossing expose of the
manipulative practices of some of the world's most powerful
brands like Nike, Starbucks and The Gap.
Today, both women writers have proven their staying power as
influential left-of-centre critics of the United States-led
war in Iraq, their commentaries making it to the pages of
European opinion-making dailies like Britain's The Guardian
and France's Le Monde.
Roy seems the more unlikely activist of the two for her
background in literary fiction. Indeed, she has not written
another novel since The God Of Small Things, publishing
instead several collections of essays.
She is known for her vivid, impassioned polemics, as opposed
to Klein's crisp, anecdote-flavoured journalistic style.
One could say, however, that both are alike in their ability
to cut through high-flown rhetoric and statistics to the
lives of the man in the street.
The title of Roy's most recent collection of essays, The
Ordinary Person's Guide To Empire, testifies to that.
This is not to say that either is a pioneer or original as
champion of the dispossessed.
Writing from the standpoint of an India rife with class,
caste and religious fault lines -- a country she describes
as 'an ancient people learning to live in a recent nation'
-- Roy owes a debt to postcolonial scholars like her
countrywoman Gayatri Spivak. The latter's writings are known
to be incredibly dense even for academics.
As a critique of corporate imaging and the ills of
globalisation, Klein's No Logo occupies the accessible end
of a spectrum of related philosophical tracts such as Guy
Debord's The Society Of The Spectacle and Michael Hardt and
Antonio Negri's Empire.
And as conscientious objectors to the evasions or outright
abuses of the American military-industrial complex, both
women writers have clearly been inspired by the political
writings of Noam Chomsky.
Nonetheless, for the time-strapped, attention-deficient
Everyman, Roy and Klein's strengths lie in their
distillation of complex ideas, backed up by facts, figures
Attacking India's amassing of nuclear weapons and its
dam-building projects that have resulted in the displacement
of millions of villagers, Roy's essays in her 2002
collection The Algebra Of Infinite Justice question the
nature of India's democracy and the assumptions of progress.
They hark back, repeatedly and eloquently, to the fragile
and precious connection between man and the land, sea and
sky, arguing persuasively against holding a country ransom
to its nuclear stockpile.
Klein casts her net even wider in No Logo and the later
collection of essays, Fences And Windows.
In the former, she tracks, among other things, the 1990s
trafficking of black American, 'ghetto' culture by Adidas
and Tommy Hilfiger brand consultants, and the appalling work
conditions in the sweatshops and Free-Trade Zones of the
Third World where teenage girls are employed to make Nike
shoes and The Gap clothing.
Today, both writers are still hard at work, making vital
connections and critiques at a time when America's moral
grandstanding in the war in Iraq has been exposed as a sham,
first by the absence in Iraq of alleged weapons of mass
destruction, and then the chilling photographic evidence of
the humiliation and torture of Iraqi prisoners by American
Filing regular dispatches from Baghdad, Klein in a recent
Guardian column questioned US President George W. Bush's
attempts to steer American voters' attention from the Abu
Ghraib prison scandal to the recovering job market.
She points to a growing class divide in America, arguing
that the so-called job growth comes in bottom-end jobs such
as fast-food workers and prison guards, precisely what
brought the young Abu Ghraib torturers to Iraq in the first
For Roy, the fight against terrorism should not be taken as
an excuse by governments around the world to crush or
belittle peaceful, reasoned dissent.
As she argues succinctly in an essay in The Ordinary
Person's Guide To Empire, 'if we do not respect and honour
(non-violent resistance movements), by default we privilege
those who turn to violent means'.
Hawks, hardnosed pragmatists, supporters of laissez-faire
economics and development-at-all-costs advocates can and
will dispute these writers.
Still, a striking achievement of Klein and Roy lies in their
pointing powerfully to the role of the writer in bringing
the sad, brutal, complex realities of the world 'into the
realm of common understanding'.
The quote is Roy's, who writes that it is 'the writers, the
poets, the artists, the singers, the film-makers -- who can
translate cash-flow charts and scintillating boardroom
speeches into real stories about real people with real lives'.
Equally heartening is that like them, there are artists who
are grappling with that challenge.
At the ongoing Singapore Arts Festival, they include the
recently-concluded dance production Ma by London's Akram
Khan Company -- incidentally inspired by Roy's The Algebra
Of Infinite Justice -- and the forthcoming Sandakan Threnody.
The latter is a Singaporean-Australian-Japanese
co-production reflecting on the enforced World War II death
march of Australian POWs in Borneo.
In its social conscience and boundless imagination, art
stands as a corrective to the black-and-white polarisations
of politicians and armies.
Against such sweeping ideologies, the written word of the
individual may well be a kind of god of small things.
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