Friday, April 11, 2008

Salman Rushdie Lecture at U of South Carolina

So, a special thanks to Professor Janette Turner Hospital for inviting the public to hear world-famous author Salman Rushdie lecture on his masterpiece Midnight's Children on Wednesday night, for free. Rushdie is my favorite living English-language author (Gabriel García Márquez is my favorite) and I considered it a once-in-a-lifetime chance to catch him live. Even though I couldn't get into the actual room to see the lecture (we watched on CCTV in another room), I did go in and catch a glimpse while he was signing books; he looks like you would expect him to.

There was ample security, men with wires in their ears, dressed in dark suits and mistrusting everyone who asked them questions, as they are paid to do. One student asked him this rambling 8AM-MLA-session-farking-endless question about what he felt his role was in dispelling the concept of the Arab world consisting solely of the three "B's" (as she put it): bellydancers, billionaire shieks, and bombers, asking him if he felt a responsibility to putting these stereotypes to rest. He politely dismissed her question by saying "I don't think like that," and "you can't write books that way." She was obviously Arabic and asking that question seemed like she was trying to scold him a little for the Satanic Verses. But, he's not an Arab, and I don't think he would (or should) feel responsible, in any way, for the unholy reaction of the Muslim world in 1989 to his book. Now, I can see why spiritually immature people would react angrily to the kind of insult to their faith found in the novel and yes, I have read every page of it; it's my favorite work in English in el Siglo Veinte; but, that still doesn't mean he should be hunted down and slain for a work of fiction--fiction people!

If I wrote a book that seriously upset, oh let's say, Costa Ricans' beliefs, I then wouldn't feel the need, as an American writer, to try and paint a pretty picture of Costa Rica with my other fiction.

He could have turned the question around on her and asked why the Arab world insists on freaking-out every time someone "insults" Islam, but he had the maturity and decorum to not start anything. I guess when you're as (in)famous as he is, anything you say (against Islam) can, and will, be held against you.

He was also very insightfully critical of the place of his letters in literary history. While Midnight's Children might be a wonderful novel now, while memory of The Emergency in India is still alive in the minds of those who lived it, he wondered whether or not the novel would endure as a literary masterpiece (my words), or whether it would slowly fade away as a historical novel. I found this humble ability to look awry at himself to be superbly insightful, though I think his place in history has been cemented forever by the high-quality of his writing, let alone the irhabist fatwa.

I read Midnight's Children in 1999, and I still remember it. It's one of those books that you can read and re-read. I'll probably get back to it in the next couple of years. I'm grateful to our Dean for paying for the van and gas so we could take some students, to Professor Turner Hospital for organizing the lecture series, and to the University of South Carolina for hosting the event. I will never forget that night.

Link: An excellent newspaper article by Professor Claudia Smith Brinson of Columbia College.
Link: A really good interview with Rushdie about Islam
Link: One of my old post about why he deserves the Nobel Prize, but will never get it.

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