Salman Rushdie: On Writing, Writers, Free Speech


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I love living in a big city, rife with culture. I could experience something amazing every single day if I had enough energy. Often, I don’t. But this weekend I did, and boy was I glad.

I won’t recount my whole weekend, but I do want to share one piece of it: a discussion featuring Salman Rushdie, which was offered as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival.

Salman-stage-375Interviewed by Chicago Tribune editorial page editor Bruce Dold, Rushdie touched on a wide range of subjects ranging from artistic freedom and the fatwa (death sentence) issued against him in 1989 by Iran’s then leader Ayatollah Khomeini, to the future of writing and reading, and the nature and meaning of education.

Some of my favorite moments:

  • Rushdie rejects the notion that young people don’t read and can’t put together a decent sentence. (Me, too!) “I’m really quite encouraged” by the number of young people who read passionately, write or follow literary blogs, and number among his fans, he said. Every new form of technology from the printing press to mobile phones and texting has been predicted to mean the death of books, he pointed out; “yet they still exist.”
  • He is inspired by a new generation of American writers who are “immigrants from everywhere” and who bring that to their writing – among them novelists Chang-Rae Lee and Junot Díaz, and poet Li-Young Lee. These are people, he said, who arrived in the United States with suitcases and stories, who unpacked their suitcases along with their stories, and “their stories become American stories. … And I thought, ‘I have those stories, too.’ ”
  • “The problem with the phrase ‘magical realism’ is that when people hear it, they only hear the word magic.” The realism is crucial because the characters, even those who may be magical, behave as real people do, Rushdie said. Magical realism, including Rushdie’s own fiction, explores how we react “when the unexpected … the unfathomable happens to us.”
  • Though knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his contributions to literature, Rushdie struggled as a writer early on and might have given up if his second novel, Midnight’s Children, had not been successful. (Fortunately, it won him the 1981 Booker Prize; let’s call that success.) Rushdie came of age, he said, with a generation of British writers, such as Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro, “who seemed to know what they were doing … out of the egg.” Unlike them, he said, he struggled at first. “Sometimes you have to work out who you are and what kind of books you should write. It just took me longer.”
  • Rushdie wasn’t initially comfortable with the free-speech guarantees of the First Amendment, having been accustomed to British law that outlaws certain types of speech. But he said he has come to embrace the First Amendment approach. “You need to allow ideas to be expressed so that you can knock them down,” he said. “Bad ideas don’t cease to exist” just because they’re not expressed. If you decide that it’s alright to limit speech, “who sets that limit?”
  • A university, in particular, “should be a safe space for the life of the mind. That’s what it’s for.” College students are there “to think, to learn, and to grow up.” Rushdie scoffed at a group of incoming Duke University students who balked this year at an assignment to read Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel Fun Home because it included references to her lesbianism and drawings depicting lesbian sexual activity. “Maybe you shouldn’t be at Duke,” he said. “Maybe you should just step down and make room for people who really want to learn.” (Our very own comics writer Phil Maish made very much the same point here on Escape Into Life a couple of months back!)
  • Rushdie also discussed the slaughter of cartoonists and other workers at the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, who were attacked because of cartoons the paper had published depicting the prophet Mohammed (another topic that Phil Maish has covered). “What happened to me is now happening to all of us,” Rushdie said, referring to the fatwa issued against him. Survivors of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, he said, have told him that their staff often disagree internally about what cartoons they should run, saying, “We fight all the time.” But he said self-censoring because of a dangerous or “inappropriate” message would be unforgivable. “What would a respectful political cartoon look like?” he asked.

Rushdie2years-smRushdie also discussed his latest novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights, one of the books on my 2015 Christmas wish list even though it hasn’t received great reviews. While he has been criticized for trying to include too much in the book (The New York Times described it as “a breathless mash-up of wormholes, mythical creatures, current affairs and disquisitions on philosophy and theology.”), Rushdie said it is intentionally overcrowded. He wanted to represent a city, he said, where a cacophony of unconnected stories are playing out simultaneously, and where you might pass by or through some of those stories every day – for example, while walking down a street – and might even want to follow them to see what happens, but you’re not able to do so because you are on your own path, following a different story.

I say that’s an interesting idea, and if anyone can pull it off, it’s Rushdie. I fell in love with his work the instant I read The Satanic Verses, the novel that resulted in the fatwa issued against him; and I’ve found magic in every book I’ve read by him. I found magic again while seeing and listening to him speak. There’s always risk of being disappointed when you finally get to see someone you’ve loved from afar. But Rushdie captivated me early on and never let me down. He was funny; he was self-deprecating; and he spoke my mind in more than one instance.

I’m sad to say the Chicago Humanities Festival, which brought me this wonderful experience, is over for the year. This was its closing weekend. I’m already looking forward to next year.

KimTankMich-eilKim Kishbaugh is no kind of artist at all, but a lover of art in many different forms. She travels through life with an open mind and open eyes in search of magic, and sometimes finds it. She is Escape Into Life‘s social media editor and a long-time journalist with an unsettling history of seeing the companies she works for go out of business. She blogs occasionally at kkish.net

Phil Maish on Charlie Hebdo at EIL

Phil Maish on Charlie Hebdo Again

Phil Maish on Alison Bechdel at EIL

Chicago Humanities Festival

NY Times review of Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights