Rushdie speaks at Freedom-to-Write Festival

Friday, November 17, 2006

Award-winning author Salman Rushdie spoke about misperceptions of his infamous novel “The Satanic Verses” and converting real-life experience to fiction in a packed Salomon 101 yesterday evening.

Rushdie spoke as part of “Strange Times, My Dear, A Freedom-to-Write Literary Festival,” which was co-sponsored by the Program in Literary Arts and the Watson Institute for International Studies. In addition to “The Satanic Verses,” he read excerpts from “Midnight’s Children,” “The Moor’s Last Sigh” and his most recent novel, “Shalimar the Clown.”

The Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s assassination soon after the 1988 release of “The Satanic Verses.” Khomeini decried the author for his blasphemous portrayal of the prophet Muhammad in the novel. The bounty placed on Rushdie’s head forced him to go into hiding for several years.

Still, as Director of the Program in Literary Arts Brian Evenson said, “Rushdie is not first and foremost, a political victim. He is, first and foremost a writer.” In his novels, Rushdie “performs dazzling verbal acrobatics that would make any other writer jealous,” Evenson said.

In fact, Rushdie kept his comments on “The Satanic Verses” to a minimum, instead choosing to let what he called “one of these troublesome passages” speak for itself.

In the excerpt, a disillusioned follower of Muhammad complains to a friend that the prophet used the angel Gabriel to validate Muhammad’s personal beliefs as religious law.

“The only thing I want to say about the bad review I received is that one of us is dead,” Rushdie quipped, referring to the Ayatollah, who died of cancer a few months after he issued the fatwa.

Though political conflict drastically changed his life, Rushdie did not shy away from writing about such conflict, particularly in his country of birth, India.

He read from his 1995 novel “The Moor’s Last Sigh,” which was written at a time when the “growth of the Hindu extremist politics” was defining India as a nation primarily for followers of the majority religion, Hinduism, he said. The novel focuses on a half-Jewish, half-Christian – but still very much Indian – protagonist. “India belongs to everyone, not to the most populous majority,” Rushdie said. “That was part of my unspoken desire to write the novel.”

Rushdie paused while reading from “The Moor’s Last Sigh” and said “there’s more stuff, but I will cut to the sex scene.”

Rushdie also spoke of the commonly-held belief that he uses real people as the basis for his fictional characters. Some of his readers have claimed that Rushdie’s characters are based on them, even though Rushdie has never actually met them, he said.

Rushdie, however, said he has used people from his life to create characters in his novels. The section he chose to read from “Midnight’s Children” was based on his own experiences as a schoolboy in Mumbai during the 1950s and 1960s, he said.

“It is obviously true that some of the friends who are childhood characters of Saleem (the protagonist of the novel) are composites of people I knew as a boy,” Rushdie said. One of these childhood friends, who provided the basis for the “tidy” friend who is “good in school,” approached Rushdie at a reading in Mumbai. The character was named Hairoil, because he always had his hair slicked back neatly with hair oil, Rushdie said.

“Somebody came up to me in Mumbai and said to me, ‘Hello Salman, I’m Hairoil,'” Rushdie said. “The sad thing was that – this is the bitter revenge of writing – was that he had lost all his hair.”

That one of his childhood friends introduced himself to Rushdie using a nickname that Rushdie penned struck the author as “so strange.”

“When people accuse my work of being fantastic, I say (my novels) are understatements,” Rushdie said. “Because the truth is so fantastic you wouldn’t believe it.”

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