How to Fight Fascism Through Literature

Arundhati Roy’s new book “Azadi” raises important questions about how we can resist authoritarianism by expressing not only outrage but joy.

Apoorva Tadepalli Illustration by Kim Ryu

Illustration by Kim Ryu

In the ear­ly 2000s, his­to­ri­an Ramachan­dra Guha called Arund­hati Roy crazy. For years Roy had been writ­ing scathing essays against glob­al­iza­tion and the myth of progress, detail­ing the human cost of big government’s efforts toward nuclear devel­op­ment and indus­tri­al dams. Through­out her career Roy has lam­bast­ed the treat­ment of Kash­miris, Mus­lims, Nax­alites, Dal­its and poor vil­lagers; Guha dis­ap­proved of her wide range of issues, imply­ing that she lacked seri­ous­ness as she hops from cause to cause.” In an inter­view with Front­line, Roy respond­ed: He’s right. I am hys­ter­i­cal. I am scream­ing from the bloody rooftops. And he is going Shh­hh … you’ll wake the neigh­bors!”

"Outrage alone is insufficient in the face of fascism. We also need the little joys of daily life."

Roy has been try­ing to wake the neigh­bors for more than two decades, pub­lish­ing numer­ous books of acer­bic non­fic­tion. Her lat­est essay col­lec­tion, Aza­di: Free­dom. Fas­cism. Fic­tion. (pub­lished in Sep­tem­ber), responds to cat­a­stro­phes in India and around the world, recent­ly and through­out his­to­ry. Aza­di (Urdu for free­dom”) explores the idea that lit­er­a­ture pro­vides shel­ter” from these cat­a­stro­phes — places off the high­way,” frag­ile” but inde­struc­tible,” built and rebuilt by read­ers and writers.

Roy has a long his­to­ry of activism against fas­cism. She believes writ­ing offers a unique way of clar­i­fy­ing and pro­cess­ing the world around us, espe­cial­ly a world so full of chaos and cor­rup­tion. To chal­lenge fas­cism, Roy argues, one must chal­lenge the sophis­ti­cat­ed set of fake his­to­ries” that fas­cism ped­dles. Naren­dra Modi’s Hin­du nation­al­ism and Don­ald Trump’s Amer­i­can excep­tion­al­ism mir­ror each oth­er in these efforts, ril­ing up vot­ers with hatred and false ori­gin sto­ries about what has been tak­en from them. With fic­tion, Roy writes, one can explore how sto­ries inter­sect below the sur­face of the grand nar­ra­tive of class and capital.”

In Roy’s non­fic­tion, the grand nar­ra­tive of class and cap­i­tal is an omnipresent frame­work for descrip­tions of injus­tice. She is explic­it about call­ing out oppres­sors for what they are. Her jour­nal­ism and essays por­tray end­less images of the unprece­dent­ed atroc­i­ties car­ried out in Kash­mir on the pre­text of anti-ter­ror­ism. In Aza­di, she recounts sto­ries of sol­diers enter­ing vil­lagers’ homes and mix­ing fer­til­iz­er and kerosene into their win­ter food stocks … teenagers, their bod­ies pep­pered with shot­gun pel­lets … hun­dreds of chil­dren being whisked away in the dead of night.” Her tal­ent is in expos­ing these sto­ries of pow­er and abuse — by gov­ern­ments, cor­po­ra­tions, reli­gious com­mu­ni­ties — with hor­rif­ic detail. Stun­ning­ly, Roy has not become desen­si­tized. Her objec­tive is to make sure we don’t, either.

Under­stand­ably, then, Roy’s trade­mark voice is one of urgency, alter­nat­ing­ly plead­ing and furi­ous, heart­bro­ken and drip­ping with sar­casm. Anger comes quick­ly to her, albeit jus­ti­fi­ably. Her writ­ing often com­pris­es long lists of things we must not look away from.” The essays in Aza­di are pierc­ing­ly human.

Roy is par­tic­u­lar­ly unfor­giv­ing about our own com­plic­i­ty in atroc­i­ties — when we accept them as inevitable — com­mit­ted by pow­er­ful peo­ple and insti­tu­tions. Her fury is direct­ed toward the way fas­cism takes hold not only in gov­ern­ment but in our hearts, how quick­ly we lose the ener­gy and the spir­it for out­rage. For the sake of cred­i­bil­i­ty and good man­ners, we groom the crea­ture that has sunk its teeth into us — we comb out its hair and wipe its drip­ping jaw to make it more per­son­able in polite com­pa­ny,” she seethes in Aza­di. The out­rage Roy inspires is her anti­dote to this every­day com­plic­i­ty with the project of fascism.

Accord­ing to Roy, her non­fic­tion and fic­tion take on the same task of resis­tance, but in dia­met­ri­cal­ly oppo­site ways: The for­mer is quick, urgent and pub­lic,” the lat­ter slow-cooked.” Both strug­gle against fascism’s attempts to silence lit­er­a­ture. Hope lies in the texts which keep alive our intri­ca­cy, our com­plex­i­ty and our den­si­ty against the onslaught of the ter­ri­fy­ing, sweep­ing sim­pli­fi­ca­tions of fas­cism,” she writes in Aza­di. Fic­tion, though, is unique­ly posi­tioned” because it has the capa­cious­ness … to hold out a uni­verse of infi­nite com­plex­i­ty.” Roy’s writ­ing about fic­tion prais­es its abil­i­ty to treat every human being as a Russ­ian doll” con­tain­ing iden­ti­ties with­in iden­ti­ties, each of which can be shuf­fled around.”

Roy’s most recent nov­el, The Min­istry of Utmost Hap­pi­ness (2017), is excerpt­ed heav­i­ly in the essays in Aza­di. At the cen­ter of Min­istry—amid an increas­ing­ly glob­al­ized, unequal city and a whirl­wind of Maoist and Kash­miri insur­gency — is the char­ac­ter Anjum, who builds Jan­nat (“par­adise”) Guest House in a Del­hi grave­yard as a place explic­it­ly for shel­ter­ing the poor, oppressed and mar­gin­al­ized. The nov­el takes an activist, almost jour­nal­is­tic tone toward injus­tice and seems to view the world in terms of oppres­sor and oppressed, vic­tim and ene­my. Con­se­quent­ly, the only moral response to fas­cism is out­rage. In a lec­ture Roy deliv­ered at Trin­i­ty Col­lege, Uni­ver­si­ty of Cam­bridge in Feb­ru­ary, print­ed in Aza­di, Roy notes: My world … is divid­ed very sim­ply into two kinds of peo­ple — those whom Anjum will agree to accom­mo­date in her guest house… and those she will not.”

To be so moral­ly sure of one’s role and com­mu­ni­ty — indeed, to be so sure of any­thing — seems a strange choice for a nov­el­ist try­ing to resist sweep­ing sim­pli­fi­ca­tions.” Roy’s out­rage is nec­es­sary for a more just world, but at times it can tip into a depress­ing deter­min­ism. What does it mean to go to school,” she asks in Aza­di, when Kash­miri chil­dren return after sev­en months of lock­down, while every­thing around you is slow­ly throttled?”

Roy doesn’t seem inter­est­ed in explic­it­ly answer­ing her own ques­tion, but Ital­ian nov­el­ist and essay­ist Natalia Ginzburg—whose sto­ries are often set against the back­drop of fas­cism — often answers it quite well. Despite the fury of Roy’s writ­ing, she advo­cates for fic­tion that is more ten­der and sen­si­tive to indi­vid­ual human nature than num­bers and news reports (in Aza­di essay The Grave­yard Talks Back: Fic­tion in the Time of Fake News,” first pre­sent­ed as a lec­ture at Trin­i­ty Col­lege, Uni­ver­si­ty of Cam­bridge). The les­son is an urgent and valu­able one — upon which Ginzburg has much to teach.

Sev­er­al of Ginzburg’s books have been reis­sued in the past few years, intro­duc­ing her to a new gen­er­a­tion of Amer­i­can read­ers. Where Roy’s work responds to fas­cism with high-vol­ume anger, Ginzburg meets tyran­ny with a qui­et watch­ful­ness and poignant mun­dan­i­ties, a rad­i­cal­ly undra­mat­ic nar­ra­tive voice. Domes­tic life, its frus­tra­tions and mis­eries, occu­pies the fore­ground,” one review­er says of Ginzburg’s writ­ing, the out­side world bare­ly dis­cernible at the edges.”

Ginzburg’s sto­ry­telling answers Roy’s ques­tion neat­ly: What does it mean to go to school — or car­ry out any of life’s dai­ly activ­i­ties — while the world is unrav­el­ing? For the young child Natalia Levi, the pro­tag­o­nist of Ginzburg’s auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal nov­el Fam­i­ly Lex­i­con, life was rich and lay­ered even despite Mussolini’s fas­cism; it con­tained what Roy might call a uni­verse of infi­nite com­plex­i­ty.” The mem­bers of the Levi fam­i­ly are more than sim­ply vic­tims of an author­i­tar­i­an gov­ern­ment; each is a walk­ing sheaf of identities.”

By con­trast, Roy’s descrip­tions fall short in Min­istry, whose char­ac­ters are too defined by moral absolutes to live up to this com­plex­i­ty. Roy’s pain and anger are invalu­able, but unsus­tain­able. Out­rage alone is insuf­fi­cient in the face of fas­cism. We also need the lit­tle joys and unhap­pi­ness­es of dai­ly life. Natalia Levi’s fam­i­ly shows us these pieces of irre­press­ible human­i­ty. Around the din­ner table, the mez­zo­ra­do (a yogurt base) is referred to as the moth­er.” All over­ripe fruit is hand­ed imme­di­ate­ly to her father, Giuseppe, who laughs and eats them in two bites. Dur­ing meals, her moth­er, Lidia, talks end­less­ly about the cheese, her father end­less­ly about wal­nuts; they scold each oth­er for repeat­ing them­selves and Giuseppe insists it’s vul­gar to talk about food all the time. Nitwit­ter­ies!” he shouts. Giuseppe is a pes­simistic, over­bear­ing bul­ly; Lidia sings every­where she goes, reads Proust and bathes in cold water, joy­ful­ly shout­ing, I’m freez­ing!” The fam­i­ly con­stant­ly fights about pol­i­tics, though they are all staunch­ly antifas­cist. Being on the right side of his­to­ry, it would seem, comes in many shades of human.

Mus­soli­ni is cen­tral to the Levi fam­i­ly — and many of Ginzburg’s oth­er sto­ries — but Mus­soli­ni is large­ly wit­nessed from this van­tage of per­func­to­ry fam­i­ly life. Lidia is always doing new things to not be bored,” play­ing piano and learn­ing Russ­ian and mak­ing clothes. She plays soli­taire, turn­ing cards over and pre­tend­ing to read the future: Let’s see if Alber­to will become a great doc­tor. Let’s see if some­one will give me a love­ly cot­tage. Let’s see if fas­cism will last for a while.” When Giuseppe is arrest­ed, Lidia takes him fresh clothes and nuts and oranges in prison. She goes out in the morn­ing to the mar­ket with her bas­ket, singing, I’m going to see if fas­cism is still on its feet. I am going to see if they’ve top­pled Mussolini.”

To answer Roy: Per­haps every­day life goes on, for bet­ter and for worse. For many, life car­ries on even against the back­drop of fas­cism. Our aspi­ra­tions, dreams and per­son­al strug­gles con­tin­ue to mat­ter in spite of every­thing. Per­haps, when Lidia is wring­ing water out of her hair and danc­ing around the house singing about top­pling Mus­soli­ni, Mus­soli­ni becomes small and insignif­i­cant in a way that anger and activism can­not make him. Vit­to­rio Foa, a friend of Ginzburg’s, observes in her writ­ing a strong coex­is­tence between the con­ti­nu­ity of dai­ly life — with its tiny details, its tedious­ness, its lit­tle unhap­pi­ness­es — and the trag­ic inter­rup­tions.” Foa goes on: Natalia pays atten­tion to the per­son and not pure­ly to the polit­i­cal machine.”

In our increas­ing­ly unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic world, we must make room for Roy’s tire­less fury toward the insti­tu­tion as well as Ginzburg’s lov­ing atten­tion to the indi­vid­ual, the mun­dane, the sim­ple plea­sures that remind us why we fight in the first place — because life mat­ters. While Ginzburg’s own grand­daugh­ter calls her style sober and aus­tere,” it may be that Roy’s writ­ing is actu­al­ly the harsh­er of the two, more close­ly attuned to the polit­i­cal machine”— and Ginzburg’s work may actu­al­ly be clos­er to the Russ­ian doll that con­tains iden­ti­ties with­in iden­ti­ties.” Even when the under­cur­rent of Ginzburg’s sto­ries is tragedy wrought by fas­cism, her nar­ra­tive voice takes on a ten­der­ness and a love of peo­ple that fas­cism is inca­pable of doing. The details of her sto­ries can be shuf­fled around, infi­nite­ly lay­ered and — in brief and remark­able glimpses — be seen as some­thing like joy.

Apoor­va Tade­pal­li is a free­lance writer from Bom­bay. Her work has appeared in The Point, Guer­ni­ca, Elec­tric Lit­er­a­ture and elsewhere.

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