Guest blogger Tara Campbell attends a presentation by Salman Rushdie at George Washington University.
Salman Rushdie is known for his sweeping, multigenerational family sagas featuring willful matriarchs and larger-than-life patriarchs. In his novels, history and magical realism intertwine, and the legends and burdens of family and nation follow the South Asian diaspora throughout continents and generations.
Even people who haven’t read any of Rushdie’s works know about the furor over his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses and the fatwa that followed. Islamic clerics whipped millions of Muslims around the world into a frenzy of protest and violence over his alleged blasphemy, and it wasn’t until ten years later that Rushdie began to emerge from under the death sentence issued by Ayatollah Khomeini.
Rushdie’s new memoir, Joseph Anton, chronicles the author’s life before, during and after his decade in hiding. Rushdie discussed the book and his experiences at a sold-out event at the George Washington University Lisner Auditorium on Monday night. Robert Siegel of NPR fame conducted the interview and presented written questions from the audience.
Rushdie and Siegel’s discussion covered a range of weighty topics including the role of the writer in confronting tyranny and speaking truth to power; the courage of authors, editors and publishers who risked their lives to defend Rushdie; and Rushdie’s steadfast defense of freedom of speech even when it meant actively defending speech calling for his own death.
Rushie’s comments regarding religion were, as could be anticipated, unapologetic. He described himself as a person with “less religion than you could inscribe on a chewed off fingernail.” When asked by an audience member how one can maintain an unbiased and respectful attitude toward Islam despite the turbulence and violence surrounding it, he replied “I wouldn’t recommend it.”
During the question and answer period, I was excited to hear Siegel read out my question: “Why did you write Joseph Anton in third person, when his story could only have been yours.” Rushdie answered that he had started in first person but didn’t like the way it sounded. He wanted to write it like a novel instead so he could write about all of the characters on the same level rather than having one character – the “I” – be different from the others.
Joseph Anton is a thorough memoir, almost to a fault. Rushdie describes his early days at boarding school in as much detail as the development of his novels; his multiple, troubled marriages; the logistics of living in hiding and the philosophical battle lines along which his supporters and detractors assembled themselves during his years under British protection. Reading about such momentous events as worldwide protests, bookstore bombings and debates between giants of the literary world alongside tell-all accounts of marital arguments and who slept with whom was at times a bit disorienting and disappointing.
In a memoir that revolves around a fundamental struggle for intellectual freedom and the clash between Islam and the West, Rushdie spends more time than one might expect describing his adventures in Hollywood and his tortured relationship with actress Padma Lakshmi, whom he describes as possessing “majestic narcissism.” Even in passages about his literary career, there are times when he crosses the line between describing interactions with colleagues and dropping names.
But, one might argue, that is exactly the point. In Joseph Anton, Rushdie describes a period of time in which his private life as the imperfect-but-human “Salman” diverges increasingly from the public figure “Rushdie.” “Salman” loses a decade of his personal life as “Rushdie” becomes more concept than author, alternately vilified and defended by other voices on the world stage. Regaining his ability to speak out for himself and make decisions about his own life is a central theme of the book, and in a touching moment in his remarks, he expressed gratitude toward the United States for giving him the time and space to start exercising more control over his life at a time when he was still under strict protection in Britain.
I’d had the pleasure of hearing Rushdie speak once before when he gave the keynote address at an international education conference I attended in 2010. Several Muslim nations boycotted the conference in protest of Rushdie’s selection as keynote speaker. Ironically, his speech was an eloquent but uncontroversial address about the importance of tolerance and education in the pursuit of international understanding.
This, it would seem, is Rushdie’s strength and his fate: arguing for reason and speaking truth to power in his own quiet, direct, thoughtful and unstoppable voice.
Tara Campbell is a university admissions professional by day and a writer by night. With a BA in English and an MA in German Language and Literature, she has a demonstrated aversion to money and power. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Tara has also lived in Oregon, Ohio, New York, Germany and Austria. She currently lives and works in Washington, D.C., and is a member of the Washington Writers Group and the D.C. Interdisciplinary Writers Group.