This is the text of the 2020 Clark Lecture in English Literature, instituted by Trinity College, Cambridge. Arundhati Roy is the first Indian writer invited to deliver it.
Thank you for inviting me to deliver this, the Clark Lecture, now in its one hundred and thirty-second year. When I received the invitation, I scrolled down the list of previous speakers, the many “Sirs” and Sir-sounding names who have spoken on topics as varied as “Literary criticism of the age of Queen Anne,” “Shakespeare as criticised in France from the time of Voltaire,” “The crowning privilege: professional standards in English poetry” and “Makers and materials: The poetry of Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Yeats, and Eliot.” In the cartoon version of this story, at this point the character playing me would furrow her brow, and her speech balloon would say, “Huh?” I was reassured when my eye fell on “Studies in American Africanism” by Toni Morrison, but only momentarily. I asked John Marenbon, who invited me, if I could look at the texts of some previous lectures, since I couldn’t find them on the internet. He most helpfully replied that speakers were never asked to deposit their lectures with Trinity, but that TS Eliot’s The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry had evolved from his Clark lecture, as had EM Forster’s Aspects of the Novel.
In other words—No pressure.
This lecture has evolved from a series of recent talks I have given about the place for literature in the times in which we live and about the politics of language, both public and private. This makes my task a little slippery. It might occasionally involve the presumption that many of you are familiar with my work, which may not be the case and for which I apologise.