Campus News

Salman Rushdie on Writing and Free Speech

Story posted February 28, 2006

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Salman Rushdie.

Salman Rushdie - one of the most successful and controversial novelists of his generation - spoke to a packed Common Hour audience in Pickard Theater on February 24, 2006.

Rushdie, whose books include Midnight's Children, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, The Satanic Verses, and his most recent novel, Shalimar the Clown, discussed writing, politics, free speech, and the "fatwa" issued against him in 1989 by the Ayatollah Khomeini who deemed The Satanic Verses "blasphemous against Islam." Khomeini offered a $3 million reward to anyone who killed Rushdie, forcing the novelist into hiding for many years. Following are some highlights of his lecture at Bowdoin.

  • Rushdie describes himself as a "big city writer" - the clashes and noise of the big city are key details in his books. He likes dirt, and calls cleansing dangerous. Cleanliness and purity lead to mass murder, he observes, as happened through Hitler's ethnic cleansing. "I espouse the idea of dirt," the sensibility of the city, the clash, the multiplicity, he says. He found that one of his great challenges writing Shalimar the Clown was its "village sensibility." As an urban person himself, he found he had to "take off my city clothes to enter that other way of life." He advises writers to try "not to be narrow," and pro-actively to enter other realms.

  • "Great literary writing should be compelling storytelling." The importance of story in fiction cannot be underestimated, Rushdie states. During the first part of the 20th century, a split occurred between literary fiction and popular fiction. Literary fiction was characterized by beautiful language and important themes, but "no story." Popular fiction, meanwhile, seemed to have "too much story" and little else. "I make a point to put a strong narrative engine at the center of my books....You can play all kinds of strange games [in the book], but as long as people are intrigued by the story - you can get away with murder, so to speak." Rushdie also embraces the tradition of the "oral narrative, a better way of telling a story....I've tried to digress as much as possible" in telling stories.

  • "You can stay away from politics in rich countries, because there is a buffer. Not so in Third World countries." Growing up in India, Rushdie has always had an interest in politics. And if you have an opinion, he notes, you are going to say things that people don't like. "The defense of free speech begins there - it doesn't end there. That's when you discover if you believe in free speech or not. You discover what you think about freedom." The Ayatollah Khomeini infamously issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie to be killed following the publication of the novel, The Satanic Verses. Rushdie calls this occurrence "ridiculous....It would be comical if it weren't so unfunny. Do you kill people because you don't like their books? It's really not a very interesting conversation. The interesting thing is, who has control over the stories inside which we live?" You re-examine the stories of your life, of society, of the world. And you remake them. That's progress. If you don't? That's tyranny. "Are stories enabling, or are stories prisons? That's what's going on with The Satanic Verses."

  • Rushdie was the subject of a film that portrayed him as a drunken, scimitar-wielding, blaspheming terrorist. When the filmmakers wanted to screen the film in London, the film board attempted to ban it. They sought Rushdie's input, and the author was faced with an ironic dilemma about free speech and censorship. He told them to show the film as is, and waived any right to seek legal damages. A censorship battle, he declared, would only make people want to see the film. "But let it be seen, and it shriveled up. It really wasn't a very good movie." It's a good metaphor for free speech, he said. "Better to be out in the open than under a rock."

  • "To make a work of art requires you to go to some dangerous edges - not the safe, middle ground....Art seeks to open the universe a little more. That's why we have it. That's why we go to it. That's the job" of the writer, or artist.

  • "We live in a screwed up world. When something like [the fatwa] happens, there's this little voice, whispering in your ear, saying, 'Great material!'" This type of strange, world event is what can give the writer, the lover of free speech, "traction" under his feet. He says to himself, "I can write about them."

  • "Is autobiography the key to understanding fiction?" Journalists' most frequently asked question to novelists is, "'How autobiographical is it?'" According to Rushdie, the wrong answer is: "'It isn't.' The correct answer is: 'it's completely autobiographical, based on my life, my family, and best friends.' Say this, and the journalist will be satisfied and move on to the next question. The danger in answering this way, of course, is that it simply isn't true." The protagonist of Rushdie's novel Fury was a victim of sexual abuse (Rushdie was not); the character almost murders his wife and child (not so Rushdie); he flees to America and begins to suffer blackouts, leading him to suspect he may be a serial killer (not Rushdie, of course). So when reporters ask if Fury is autobiographical, he answers, "For the record, no....With apologies to Oprah. Though one need never feel too sorry for Oprah Winfrey."

  • "So, there's some confusion in the mind of the reader: how does the novel, then, come about?" Rushdie explains, "You draw from your life in a more interesting way." He grew up in India, surrounded by many religions, and the miraculous and the everyday co-exist. Thus, "reality" is not "realistic," because the real world does not reflect reality. For example, when a certain U.S. politician says (that is, as Rushdie paraphrases), "It's OK to shoot your friend in the face," that is reality, but not realistic. "This is the world we live in." To write a realistic novel, then, you deal with these odd things that "pop up." Further, it's a "fiction" that our lives are "normal." Life, after all, is "a war zone," he says, full of tawdriness, secrets, and dirt.

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