Book Review: An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire
An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire, Arundhati Roy
South End Press, 2004
$US12 paperback; $US40 hardback: www.southendpress.org
Imagine a bookshelf with a pair of bookends, both of which represent women novelists who have grown up in the British Commonwealth and written bestselling books. At one end would be the Australian, Colleen McCullough -- author of 1977's third most popular book, The Thorn Birds -- who contributed a policy paper to an influential 1990s forum on "US Foreign Policy in the 21st Century" that urged the US to model itself on the Roman Empire.
At the other end would be Indian writer Arundhati Roy -- author of Booker Prize-winning novel, The God of Small Things -- who, at the World Social Forum in 2003, said: "The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling - their ideas, their version of history, their war, their weapons, their notion of inevitability. Remember this: We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them. Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."
"We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them." That, above all, is the argument that The Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire seeks to clarify. The book consists of six speeches given by Arundhati Roy between March 7, 2003 and April 6, 2004, plus the article of the same name that was published in the Guardian on April 2, 2003, just after the US invasion of Iraq. (Mysteriously, the title essay is missing from the paperback edition's table of contents.)
South End Press is a non-profit, collectively run book publisher with an impressive author list. Its goal is "to publish books that encourage critical thinking and constructive action on the key political, cultural, social, economic, and ecological issues shaping lie in the United States and in the world." Roy could choose to be published by big-name companies but her fit with South End is obvious once you start reading her work. She doesn't preach or exhort or alarm; she startles you into action.
I, for one, would not have been on the 2003 Great March Against the Invasion of Iraq if I hadn't that morning heard a re-broadcast of her speech to the World Social Forum. Another world is possible? What a startling idea in these depressed and oppressive times. Let me at it! (Her 2003 WSF speech is not in this book, but her 2004 one is.)
To read Roy is also to be chastened. She writes in Do Turkeys Enjoy Thanksgiving?: "It was wonderful that on February 15, 2003, in a spectacular display of public morality, ten million people in five continents marched against the war on Iraq. It was wonderful, but it was not enough. February 15 was a weekend. Nobody had to so much as miss a day of work."
In Peace is War she writes: "It is utterly urgent for resistance movements and those of us who support them to reclaim the space for civil disobedience. To do this we will have to liberate ourselves from being manipulated, perverted, and headed off in the wrong direction by the desire to feed the media's endless appetite for theater. Because that saps energy and imagination."
Although much of her writing relates to events and social movements in India, her explanation and analysis of them elucidates -- as is inevitable in a world that is so interconnected and dominated by global finance -- the forces that work against ordinary people everywhere. But she also illustrates the great strength those ordinary people can muster if they collaborate in opposing, for example, the building of a dam that will wipe out the homes and livelihoods of thousands of people.
Between the covers of this book is a light you can have shine on the darkest day.