Salman Rushdie
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SAL Presents

Salman Rushdie

Past Event: Tuesday, January 23, 1996

Salman Rushdie, author of several novels, a collection of short stories, a book of reportage, and two volumes of essays, may indeed be the most famous writer living today.

Unfortunately, his fame is in part due to the reaction of Muslim fundamentalists to his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses (1989). Shortly after its publication, the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran pronounced a fatwa on Rushdie, sentencing him—and all involved in the publication of the novel—to death, claiming that the book was “against Islam, the Prophet, and the Koran.” A reward of $1.5 million was offered to anyone who killed Rushdie. In the summer of 1991, the Japanese translator was murdered, and the Italian translator was repeatedly stabbed and left for dead. Recalling the first day that he was given protection in England, Rushdie comments that “nobody—not the politicians, not the Special Branch, not I—thought that it would last for more than a few days.”

Born in Bombay in 1947 with British citizenship, Rushdie has become accomplished at bridging the chasm between his Eastern Muslim heritage and his cosmopolitan Western existence. Writing fluidly about both cultures, he explores the question of identity, the concepts of home and exile, and those of family and friendship. He first came to the attention of the world’s literary community with his Booker Prize-winning novel Midnight’s Children (1980), an exuberant allegory of post-independence India. In 1992, Midnight’s Children was named the “Booker of the Bookers,” the best novel of the prize’s twenty-five-year history. His next novel, Shame (1983), portrayed a similar mix of history, politics, and myth set in a country that “is not Pakistan, or not quite.” A master storyteller, Rushdie slyly toys with the notion of historical fact in fiction. He asserts that The Satanic Verses (1989), a novel of pilgrimage and prophecy, is actually a comic story: “There’s a part of me which thinks that what’s happened is one of the greatest failures of sense of humor in history! At one level this is a battle between people who understand what it is to be comic and people who can’t take a joke.”

For ten years, Rushdie has had to endure living a protected life, guarded around the clock by agents from the Special Branch of the London police. His public appearances are rare and never spontaneous. Last September offered some hope for relief from this restricted lifestyle when the Iranian government finally rescinded its nine-year fatwa against the novelist. After a few brief days of freedom, certain hard-line groups in Iran declared that they would continue to offer a bounty for his death. However, Rushdie, who lives in London with his third wife, Elizabeth, and their twenty-one-month-old daughter, Milan, feels optimistic that little by little he is reclaiming his life.

Excerpt from The Ground Beneath her Feet (1999)
England may be my immediate destination but it is not my goal, Ormus’s clothes announce, old England cannot hold me, it may pretend to be swinging but I know it’s just plain hanged. Not funky but defunct. History moves on. Nowadays England is ersatz America, America’s delayed echo, America driving on the left. Sure, Jesse Garon Parker was white American trash who wanted to sing like a black boy, but the Beatles, for goodness’ sake, the Beatles are white English trash trying to sing like American girls. Crystals Ronettes Shirelles Chantels Chiffons Vandellas Marvelettes, why not wear some spangly dresses, boys, why not get some beehive hairdos instead of those lovable moptops and have the sex change operations too, go the whole way, do it right.

These reflections before even setting foot in England or America or any place except the land where he was born, which he is leaving for good, without regrets, without a backward glance: I like to be in America, America where everyone’s like me, because everyone comes from somewhere else. All those histories, persecutions, massacres, piracies, slaveries; all those secret ceremonies, hanged witches, weeping wooden virgins and horned unyielding gods; all that yearning, hope, greed, excess, the whole lot adding up to a fabulous noisy historyless self-inventing citizenry of jumbles and confusions; all those variform manglings of English adding up to the livingest English in the world; and above everything else, all that smuggled-in music. The drums of Africa that once beat out messages across a giant landscape in which even the trees made music, for example when they absorbed water after a drought, listen and you’ll hear them, yikitaka yikitaka yikitak. The Polish dances, the Italian weddings, the zorba-zithering Greeks. The drunken rhythm of the salsa saints. The cool heart music that heals our aching souls, and the hot democratic music that leaves a hole in the beat and makes our pants want to get up and dance. But it’s this boy from Bombay who will complete the American story, who will take the music and throw it up in the air and the way it falls will inspire a generation, two generations, three. Yay, America. Play it as it lays.

While he is required to remain seated he occupies his narrow chair as if it were a throne, managing somehow in that confined space to lounge, to give the impression of consummate, even royal, ease. In the countries below him other kings are going about their business. The King of Afghanistan is acting as tourist guide to well-heeled travellers while blocks of hashish bearing government seals of quality and grade are sold in the high-street stores of his capital city; the Shah of Iran makes love to his wife, whose moans of pleasure mingle with the screams of the vanished thousand in the torture chambers of SAVAK; the Queen of England dines with the Lion of Judah; the King of Egypt lies dying. . . .

And the earth continues, unpredictably, wrongly, to move.

Selected Work
Fury (2001)
The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999)
The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995)
East, West (1994)
Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990)
The Satanic Verses (1989)
Shame (1983)
Midnight’s Children (1980)
Grimus (1975)

Links interview with Rushdie
New York Times featured author