Political is Personal – Arundhati Roy interviewed by Stephen Moss

This blog post is almost two years old but somehow never made it online. The topic, however, of how male journalists talk to/write about women they interview is still a problem that needs to be addressed.

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I feel a twinge at seeing Stephen Moss’s by-line on the Guardian interview with Arundhati Roy. He is a middle-aged white man with an improbably thick neck who describes himself as a “keen but useless chess player” and is the editor of The Wisden Anthology 1978-2006: Cricket’s Age of Revolution. I wonder what qualifies him to interview a feminist, social-activist Indian writer whose book, Broken Republic, is comprised of three essays about indigenous resistance movements in India. Did they send him to interview her because she’s Indian and he likes cricket?”

My misgiving grows when, in paragraph two, Moss makes the suspiciously sweeping statement that Roy is “a prominent opponent of everything connected with globalisation.” He makes her sound fanatical and antiquated, as if she wants the world to return to carriages and lamplight. In doing so he ignores her own assertion that: “I’m not an anti-development junkie, nor a proselytiser for the eternal upholding of custom and tradition” (The Greater Common Good, 1999).

Moss quickly turns patronising: “There is intense anger in the book, I say, implying that if she toned it down she might find a readier audience.” The air in the interview room must have been thick with condescension, cloying as baby powder. Roy replies: “It’s less [anger] than I actually feel” (considerably less, I suspect, than she felt at that moment). Moss persists, telling her that, “her critics call her shrill.” The word screeches like a nail on a blackboard. Shrill. Like “shrew” and “hysteric” a word used to suggest that women’s anger is irrational and objectionable. Where does Roy find the grace to parry such privileged thrusts?

Given how supercilious Moss is to Roy in person, it’s no surprise his editorialising is downright offensive. She relates to him (paragraph nine) that international correspondents have told her they are instructed to not report negative news from India for fear of damaging investor interest. “I find the suggestion that such an injunction exists… ridiculous. Foreign reporting of India might well be lazy or myopic, but I don’t believe it’s corrupt,” Moss huffs, as if his belief is a determining factor in whether or not what she says is true.

The digs and disrespect continue. Moss dismisses Roy’s award-winning, best-selling novel The God of Small Things by saying it: “drew so much on her own life… that it may be a one-off, a book as much lived as written” – as if she vomited up the words without volition. He questions her agency in life as well in art. He demands to know why she lives separately from her husband, why she chose to not have children. It is impossible to imagine that level of impertinence being directed at – or tolerated by – a male author. Nor would a man be labelled “strong-willed,” as Roy is by Moss, merely for wanting control of the cover-image of his book.

From start to finish Moss proves himself unable, or unwilling, to take Roy seriously as a writer, or as a fellow human being. It is a tribute to her superior intelligence that she tolerated him at all. Unfortunately, putting up with self-appointed guardians of the patriarchy is the price women pay for writing and thinking seriously. Every achievement is questioned, undermined, categorised, belittled, and assailed with irrelevance. Who cares that Arundhati Roy doesn’t have children, where her husband lives, or what her relationship is with her mother? She is a gifted, alert, unsparing writer who is passionately engaged in exactly the sort of cause one would expect the Guardian to support. She deserves better than to be talked down to by a fat-neck cricket fan.

5 thoughts on “Political is Personal – Arundhati Roy interviewed by Stephen Moss

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The Hanging of Afzal Guru by Arundhati Roy | Hues of A Soul

  2. As a feminist, I completely agree with the premise of this post; namely, that prominent women are more likely to be asked inappropriate and sexist questions. However, I can’t help but balk at your specific example of this micro-agression. Arundhati Roy’s book “The God of Small Things” accepts and even romanticizes incest- a concept that is repulsive morally, especially for those fighting for women’s rights. Again, I firmly agree on your main point that sexism is alive and thriving in journalism, but I do wish you had chosen another instance to back up this case- there are plenty others.

  3. Arundhati Roy~! The grand unrequited passion of my life … I haven’t read TGOST but much of her other stuff. She has a unique and very powerful style that draws you in and leaves you breathless.

    And now to read your post …

  4. I’m very anti-Globalisation myself. As is Ms Roy, unless she’s changed. Globalisation seeks to concentrate ever more power in the hands of the few—Ms Roy tries desperately to return power to the people, on small capable scales. (Well—she used to.)

    Now I have to read that interview …

  5. If those were the questions—and sometimes I’m met with the equivalents for males—I would (and do) fire them right back. I meet buffoons with buffoonery, idiots with idiocy (trust me: well qualified) and nice with nice.

    It took me a long time to break free of conditioning and realise that I do NOT have to be nice to the un-nice; so I ain’t—meet people on their ground with their methods and they go to pieces.

    In New Zealand we have a cartoonist (Murray Ball) whose hero (a sheepdog) is a lovable innocent—told to round up The Bull (a colossus) he gives it a suicidal try and ends up suspended by his paws from the bull’s horns staring into its eyes from just inches away. A well trained sheep dog he gives it a smiling best shot using the tools at hand … “The secret is not to blink!”

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