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Critics for Everyman

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  • Dan Clore
    News & Views for Anarchists & Activists: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/smygo The Straits Times JUNE 1, 2004 Critics for Everyman Writers Arundhati Roy and
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 1, 2004
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      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
      social criticism

      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
      and voices.

      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.

      # Send your comments to

      Dan Clore

      Now available: _The Unspeakable and Others_
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