The London Literature Festival 2009 kicked off at the Southbank Centre last night with the author and political activist Arundhati Roy in a discussion on the idea of democracy. The last time she was here was to pick up the Booker Prize in 1997 for her novel The God of Small Things.
Warned from the offset that it would be a 'dark talk', Roy launched into an impassioned speech about what she saw as the 'language heist' among so-called democracies who use encrypted words to mask their real political and social intent (Operation Iraqi Freedom comes into mind). Roy has been an outspoken activist on issues such as Kashmir, Sri Lanka's attack on Tamils, and most famously the water dam issues in India when she was arrested and served time in jail for criticizing the Indian Supreme Court.
Sharp and precise as an army knife but as poetic as a first-class fiction writer, Roy discussed a post-9/11 world, where Islam replaced communism as the imminent threat, and now countries (namely China, Pakistan, and India) are preparing 'war on their own people'. According to Roy, 'the language heist was the beginning of our undoing' as governments around the world use the guise of 'development' to wipe out the poor and indigenous to profit from large corporations.
It was at just about this point when the moderator started playing with her pen, waving it around as though to will the seriousness out of the air. But no amount of frenetic energy could sway Roy into talking about gentler subjects. When asked about what she thought of President Obama, Roy responded that we shouldn't get too misty-eyed.
The night ended with Roy reading from her next book 'Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy'. It is worthwhile to note that the final word of the talk was not spoken by her, but by a piece of music she had chosen to end the night. She may have refused to offer us any empty words of hope, but she left us with a bit of tunage to soften the blow, just a bit.
By Abby Chau. Look out for a preview of the wider festival later this afternoon.