For Arundhati Roy, the St. Louis Literary Award allowed her to see the river of her childhood dreams
Tonight, the Indian writer Arundhati Roy receives the St. Louis Literary Award from St. Louis University. But before the acclaimed author takes the stage at the Sheldon Concert Hall, she wanted to see for herself the city that was awarding the prize.
So she arrived in St. Louis five days early — and has spent the time quietly exploring Missouri and Illinois.
Roy grew up in the Indian state of Kerala, which provides the setting for her 1997 bestseller “The God of Small Things.” As a child, she felt a kinship between her river, the Meenachil, and the American river she knew only from stories and songs.
“I used to sit on the banks of that river, and I used to dream about the Mississippi,” Roy recalled on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air. “Really, I used to think about it so much, about the slave ships and about the huge stories that I grew up [with].”
She even remembers her mother playing Paul Robeson’s recording of “Ol’ Man River,” which remains a touchstone to this day.
“My mother is 88 years old and sometimes, her oxygen levels dip because she's very severely asthmatic,” she said. “And then you become a little hallucinatory. You forget things. And if I play ‘Ol’ Man River’ to her, she sings it back to me.”
In St. Louis this week, Roy got to see the Mississippi in person for the first time, taking a trip up the Great River Road. She also went to visit Ferguson, which she had read up about and was curious to see.
“Obviously, just going there doesn't show me what happened, but somehow I'm that writer who needs to touch and smell and feel a place,” she explained.
“The God of Small Things” made Roy a literary sensation in late 1990s, winning rave reviews and the Man Booker Prize on its way to selling more than 6 million copies.
But in the 25 years since its publication, Roy has only written one additional novel. Instead, she’s brought the righteous anger that underpins the novel to the fore, focusing on political writing and activism.
She sees her fiction and her nonfiction as complementary, saying she doesn’t see any competition between them — even for her time. “The essays are really written with some sort of urgency,” she explained. “And they also form the layers of understanding that then become a novel.”
She continued, “To write fiction, I need to live through things and understand things and understand also the imagination of those of us who are resisting.”
Roy feels a deep obligation to speak out against injustice, particularly in India. It’s gotten her in trouble more than once (in addition to being brought up on obscenity charges for “The God of Small Things,” she was ordered to spend a day in jail for her criticism of the government — and she served her time). That, in some ways, has been the price of her literary fame: She feels a duty to resist.
“As a writer, I keep saying that, in order to create the moral space in which you can write fiction, you have to stand up to this other stuff, because otherwise, it's a kind of pusillanimity — because keeping quiet is a kind of politics,” she explained. Even silence about the policies of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi would be a form of tacit collusion: “I'm the kind of person then that could be claimed as the source of Indian pride — international awards and so on — and I could be used to further this project, which I so despise.”
Even so, Roy acknowledged that she’s been able to keep a twinkle in her eye. She finds amusement in the endless factionalism of her fellow leftists. She also can’t help laughing at her critics, no matter what side of the political spectrum.
“You know, you can’t let these people get to you, because that's what they want. They want to destabilize you,” she said. “And really, they only deserve to be mocked. They only deserve your contempt. They certainly do not deserve you to lose your balance, your peace of mind. You have to be cool to fight them.”
What: 2022 St. Louis Literary Award
When: 7-9 p.m. April 28
Where: Sheldon Concert Hall, 3648 Washington Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63108
What: Craft Talk with author Arundhati Roy
When: 1-3 p.m. April 29
Where: Chaifetz School of Business Cook Hall, 3674 Lindell Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63108
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.