Lessons Learned From Salman Rushdie on Writers, Religion, Civil and Personal Rights

Salman Rushdie appeared in Buffalo’s Kleinhan’s Music Hall on Friday, April 16, 2010 as part of the Babel series of the Just Buffalo Literary Center. He also spoke with WBFO’s radio interviewer, Joyce Kryszak.

During his morning interview with Joyce Kryszak, Salmon Rushdie addressed not only writers, but character development.

“Writers will write what they will write”, he said, adding that “history of literature is resisting all kinds of threats”. Writers write “in spite of considerable danger to them. Writers continue to confront the issues of terrorism and other forms of oppression. Writers have the courage to take on these issues.”

Kryszak: “Has it tempered your writing in any way?”

Rushdie: “No, not at all. In a way, maybe it did the opposite. When people try to silence you, the best answer is to speak louder. I don’t see myself as a writer about religion (not motivated to write about religion). I’m more of an urban and cosmopolitan writer. My subject is to show how the world adds up, how one part of the world connects to another.”

Rushdie says that the “individual has to be understood in the very big context of his society and the history of that society.”

About his book, Midnight’s Children, Rushdie says “the central character takes so long to get born…you have to read about generations that come before him. When children are born, they don’t come naked into the world, so to speak, they come with carrying the baggage of their history, and that history and family history, as well as national history, already shapes them, already shapes a lot about the kind of person that child will be, even from the moment of birth.”

“The book (Midnight’s Children) tries to show how the lives of the main character’s grandparents, then his parents, how all of those lives are enormously important in the kind of child that he then grows up to be.”

Kryszak: “I would think, too, the ongoing history would have to be consumed.”

Rushdie: “Yes, indeed. …The boy is born at the same moment (of India’s) independence. …That they are twins born at the same time, one would have to tell the story of both twins. It became a novel about the way in which the individual life (of the hero) and the history of the country that he is growing up in interacts with each other and shape each other.”

At the evening lecture, Salmon Rushdie began with comments on “writing the novel” and the writer. He said he was content at being the writer and that when he began writing over three decades ago that he never thought so many people would gather together to listen to a writer speak. He said that writing has “a social function; writing is good at strangeness”. Very often, he said, “truth in writing conflicts with official truth”. That is where political novels come in. “History collides with literature” and the “writer’s response to history is to defend privacy; that there is a public life vs private life: the center of the novel is the human being”.

“The subject changes with time,” Rushdie said. “A public issue may make a book out of date, but that “character (of a human in the novel) is destiny… Events we have no control over shape our lives. Human character is still at the heart of outside events”.

“Who has power over stories?”, Rushdie asks, then answers his own question.“Interpretation. Is slavery acceptable or not? It is Society’s ability to argue about it that makes it a free society.

About his book, Satanic Verses, (for which he was exiled by death threats) Rushdie states that “the battle was won by people at the publishing companies, bookstores that sold the book. People did not give in to opposition and attitudes. (Many people were shot and killed or wounded defending the book) “It is what people value. Nobody owns” the story. It is “one individual voice spreading in its own way; it doesn’t belong to anyone. If you don’t like it (the story, the book)…” At that point, Rushdie’s voice trailed into a mumbled “mift”.

“Artists try to measure the sum total to understand, to push out the boundaries. Powerful voices try to shut down counter voices. That’s their job. Writers question. View history by having access to facts and different occupations. The interests of the writer who imagines, interprets, the past” makes “objective history tricky… one can remember well or badly”. On memory, Rushdie says, “No one can agree on remembering the past.” He “prefers memories” and points out that there is a “strange fallibility beyond memory” and that “artists and writers” find it “difficult to be optimistic”.

Did he do it on purpose (write Satanic Verses)? Rushdie says he wrote it to “start interesting arguments”. He acknowledges that “controversy creates argument” and that there was personal risk.

Was it acceptable to kill writers?

“No”, he says.

“Writers are obstinate creatures. Writing is vocational.”  Writers “can’t censor yourself” and must “feel free to speak out. Do it with all your heart, or, don’t do it.”

Writers often have “conflict with religious or secular authority” and “deliberately use blasphemy to make a point”.

Rushdie’s take on religion is that “it is personal” and that “imposing is not my business” but when there is religion in public affairs, “then it is my business”. Salman Rushdie is a proponent of separation of church and state: “Keep religion out of public affairs”.

A few closing quips:

“The world is a mess. It’s not my fault, I’m just noticing it”.

What came out of the 1960s is that “personal actors, individuals, can change the world. …The Civil Rights Movement, by direct action and individuals acting together, large numbers of people can influence and change the world.”

“A writer first imagines things. By invention, imagination becomes reality. Writers must have determination and talent.”


~ ~ ~ posted by Joan M Wheeler, BA, BSW, author of Forbidden Family: A Half Orphan’s Account of Her Adoption, Reunion and Social Activism, Trafford Publishing, Nov 2009.