Episode 01 — First Portal: Reading With Arundhati Roy            

Jacqueline Barrios & Gus Wendel

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“How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No? By slowly becoming everything.”

-Ministry of Utmost Happiness

In Arundhati Roy’s newest novel,  The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, an urban space opens and closes the work’s dizzying array of character, plot and genre—the city graveyard. The novel’s protagonist, a Muslim trans-woman named Anjum, counter-colonizes the cemetery into a place of residence where she begins to draw in outcast figures of the city into collective life and healing, including, Tilo, an ex-architecture student entangled in the fight for Kashmiri independence. 

Throughout the narrative, the graveyard diversifies its programming—hosting funerals as well as music lessons, sustaining a vegetable garden and celebrations: “a People’s Pool, a People’s Zoo and a People’s School, things were going well in the old graveyard,” Roy writes. 

We had the incredible opportunity to chat with Ms. Roy, to whom we credit the theme of Season 1: The Portal. She was imagining this place, she said, when she memorably  wrote that the pandemic is a portal.

Our episode has three parts. In part 1, we discuss the first chapter of the novel. What we find out from this reading is that the portal is a place, that at least fictionally, can be inhabited. Written before the pandemic, the novel’s centering of the setting, a cemetery where radically new ways of living flourish, has now taken on more complicated registers. 

In part 2, we are happy to share excerpts from our talk with Ms. Roy, where we explore the importance of the graveyard site, along with her thoughts on architecture, urban planning and the city. 

Finally, in part 3, we wonder what Roy’s provocation, that this pandemic is a portal, might mean for us, scholars and practitioners of urban humanities, by previewing  the episodes that will follow.
Episode Credits:

Music notes: Cello arranged and performed by Gus Wendel, featuring an adaptation of Georges Bizet’s Habanera-Carmen. The episode score also includes sound sampled from walks conducted by Gus Wendel around Koreatown, Los Angeles, during the duration of the episode’s production in the summer of 2020. Other sounds were taken with permission from the sonic archive, “Found Sounds of Never Say Die” produced by Jacqueline Barrios’ students from field recordings they conducted in South LA. Prompted to document what the neighborhood sounded like 25 years since the LA 1992 uprising, students scavenged sounds that commemorate what had been lost, what has endured and what they wished to preserve.

Interview: We would like to express gratitude to Arundhati Roy, for agreeing, miraculously, to speak to us in an interview conducted on June 24, 2020.

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Anvil Publishing, 2016.
Roy, Arundhati. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Penguin Books, 2018.

Gus Wendel is an urban humanist whose scholarly and artistic investigations blend interests in art, identity, and the politics of space. He is currently the Associate Director of cityLAB-UCLA, where he manages several design-research projects and co-manages the Digital Salon. He will begin his PhD in Urban Planning at UCLA this fall. Gus’ favorite ice cream is double fudge brownie.

Jacqueline Barrios is a PhD Candidate at UCLA's Department of English studying London and 19C British/American literature.  Her current project investigates London-Pacific transurban imaginaries—geographies of East Asian Pacific Rim entanglement with the British capital. She is a research associate with UCLA’s Urban Humanities Initiative, a research program linking architecture, urban planning and humanities scholars on city-based inquiry. Her interdisciplinary interests connects her research to her role as a veteran public school teacher of underrepresented youth in South Los Angeles, for whom she directs LitLabs, fusing visual performing arts and public humanities to imagine new pedagogy for the 21st century urban teen reader of the 19th century novel. https://litlab.ucsc.edu  Jacqueline’s favorite ice cream at the moment is salted caramel.