Arundhati Roy, 'An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire'

IssueApril 2005
Review by Theresa Wolfwood

This collection of essays and speeches by India's award winning writer ranges across the world on many important issues from globalisation to AIDS.

Roy's acceptance speech for the USA Lannan Prize for Cultural Freedom urges her US audience to remember their history of brave resistance. She speaks as “a subject of the American Empire” when she says the change has to begin in America. She calls on its citizens and says, “The only institution more powerful than the US government is American civil society.”

In “When the Saints Go Marching Out” Roy examines the myths and the cult of personality surrounding Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Their stories have been packaged and commodified; their actions and motives forgotten. The living hero, Mandela, the symbol of freedom for Africa, has commodified his country, passing it from one form of oppression to another. Dreams have been betrayed and for those who call these icons, heroes, it is time to take up their causes again, and leave the T-shirts behind.

In “Do Turkeys Enjoy Thanksgiving?” she uses the allegory of quaint historic practices - like saving one good turkey and slaughtering millions - to say that there are always a few good turkeys from minority or oppressed groups that get rewarded, while the vast majority are penned and imprisoned. She warns us that the forces against us are too great for any one person, even a charismatic leader, to challenge. We must get back to meaningful actions, like the Salt Marches in India, which strike at the economic underpinnings of the powerful. We must be wary of settling for “feel-good political theatre”. She urges us to start with focussed actions, like boycotts on war-makers, which will show an economic effect. It's already happening - here and everywhere. If we want justice and survival, she says we have to shut them down and “we must consider ourselves at war”.

This is a slim but rich volume; I will not try to paraphrase all the analyses Roy makes. In her last essay on empowerment in a time of global power, she ends with this call and warning, “Fearlessly, but non-violently, we must disable the working parts of the machine that is consuming us. We're running out of time... the circle is closing in... change will come. It could be bloody, or it could be beautiful. It depends on us.”

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