Take the case of Arundhati Roy. Her first and only novel, The God of Small Things, won the Man Booker Prize in 1997, which brought her instant international acclaim. She traded on this in the best of ways, donating time, money and attention on the issues at the heart of her novel: communism, the Indian caste system and the treatment of untouchables, and the far-reaching effects of colonialism on Indian life. A slew of other prizes followed: in 2002, she won the Lannan Cultural Freedom Prize; and, in 2004, she was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize for her advocacy of non-violence and social justice.
For Roy, the work of art is not only to bear witness but to get people thinking, talking and acting. In her case, before all the accolades and prizes, Roy was charged with obscenity in India, which made her aware of the real value of literature: the right to speak freely.
She first heard of the accusations when she was on a book tour. Obscenity is a criminal offense in India and, at the time, Roy risked imprisonment. She returned home immediately and began the fight to restore her name. Speaking of it later in an interview with Salon, Roy said, “One cannot hide from the glare of one’s own writing.”
Eventually, she was cleared of the charges, but for Roy the real fight had only begun. To have her novel associated with obscenity took attention away from the issues she was hoping to bring to light and, consequently, incited Roy to deeper, more meaningful activism.
To get people thinking: There is a unique relationship between art and engagement. According to Eva Sallis, “A writer is neither exactly private nor exactly expert.” What a writer brings to an issue, however, is an ability to represent, to communicate effectively and emotionally, to convince.
The academic Brigid Rooney looks at the intersection of writers and activism in her new book, Literary Activists: Writer Intellectuals and Australian Public Life. Despite the fact that the title sounds much like that of a PhD thesis, her book is highly readable, well-informed and full of fascinating anecdotes. It’s impossible to do the book justice in this space but worth mentioning, in terms of the discussion of Roy above, that Australia too has a long history of literary figures using their writing to bring attention to social causes. Rooney presents several Australian literary figures from Patrick White to Oodgeroo Noonuccal to Les Murray. Each of the cases are interesting and well worth a look; however, the two that most engaged me were the almost opposite stories of Helen Garner and Tim Winton.
To get people talking: Rooney focuses on Garner’s experience with her book The First Stone, which concerns the sexual harassment allegations made by two female students against Melbourne University’s Master of Ormond College and the ensuing court case. Garner is portrayed as a ‘public interventionist’ for having pre-empted public consensus by writing a letter of sympathy to the accused man, who lost his job and his good reputation. At the time, this event, according to Rooney, “ripened swirling debates about academic elites, ‘culture wars’ and ‘political correctness’”. Where one stood on the issue at the time largely depended on age, education, gender, and other factors.
Garner’s letter was seen as speaking for the public at large at a moment when the public was at odds. Its existence froze the debate, and it hasn’t unthawed in all these years. Even now, controversy rages around Garner, with many young women refusing to read her books because they consider her a traitor to feminism. Still, Garner regularly ranks in the Top Ten lists of Australian intellectuals. The fact that she riles and stirs debate is considered to be a good thing.
To get people acting: Tim Winton excites us differently. Rather than dividing public opinion and stirring controversy, he is extolled for engaging the masses en large. Being described as a ‘littoralist’, someone, in other words, “who picks over things at the edges” is a label that delights Winton. He is literary and popular at the same time.
In a speech delivered at the State Library of Queensland in 2007, Winton began:
I don’t know what other special right I have to be addressing you. Certainly not as a novelist. Who cares what a novelist thinks?
He asserts that it is his sense of social responsibility and his concern for the environment that give him the right to speak. What he’s missing, however, is that many of us possess the same concern and the sense of responsibility; and yet we are not asked to speak at the State Library on conservation issues. It is precisely Winton’s status as a writer, his command of language and his ability to communicate, in addition to his passion for protecting the environment, that qualify Winton to speak. Crowds turn up to hear Winton. Not because he has written books, but because his books have touched us. They’ve helped to solidify our own jumbled sense of nature and the wild and why we must protect it.
Because of his books, we have a clear sense where he stands. We can trust him to put into words something we feel and know but can’t necessarily articulate.
The spotlight of engagement: In very different ways, each of these writers looks unblinkingly at what their writing has illuminated; each stands in the spotlight of engagement, no matter how uncomfortable the glare. Action worthy of gratitude and emulation.