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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the April 9, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Salman Rushdie Visits CNJ
When novelist Salman Rushdie addresses his audience
of readers, writers, and writers-in-training at the annual College
of New Jersey Writers Conference on Thursday, April 10, there may
be some in the audience who have no memory of the Iranian fatwa
or death sentence issued against him on February 14, 1989. But if
this is so, the likely reason will be that they were only four or
five years old at the time. For the rest of us, that moment of unprecedented
Islamist intervention in European literary affairs remains a memorable
harbinger of things to come.
Rushdie calls his nine-and-a-half-year nightmare in hiding from a
call to execution under the Iranian fatwa his "Plague Years."
His latest non-fiction anthology, "Step Across This Line,"
published last year, brings together essays, speeches, and opinion
pieces on an enormous range of subjects. It includes a slender, 45-page
section that chronicles his personal experience fighting the Ayatollah
Khomeini’s global execution order provoked by his 1988 novel, "The
A novelist first, Rushdie would prefer to put the ordeal behind him.
And in as much as he has published four more novels in the intervening
years — his most recent "Fury" in 2001 — he has succeeded.
Yet from this dramatic collision between the ancient religious
blood-feud and modern high-tech communication, Rushdie has taken on
some of the mythic, larger-than-life qualities of his own fictional
"He is a challenging figure and one of the great writers of our
era," says CNJ Writers’ Conference director and poet Jean Hollander.
She prides herself on having presented, over the years, most of the
leading (living) authors featured on the Modern Library’s millennium
list of the top authors of the 20th century. Past Writers’ Conference
speakers have included Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury, E.L. Doctorow,
William Kennedy, Ken Kesey, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, William
Styron, and Kurt Vonnegut. "Only Philip Roth," says Hollander,
"has steadfastly refused my invitation."
The irrepressible Rushdie, who grew up speaking Urdu and English,
is a multi-cultural author who draws on the fantasy, mythology, religious
texts, and oral tradition from all parts of the world. His books,
from "Midnight’s Children" to "The Satanic Verses"
to "Fury" have been widely translated and read around the
world. Arguably, they helped pave the way for the successes of such
authors as Arundhati Roy and Zadie Smith. Yet even as he earned his
reputation as one of the most important writers of his times, his
personal experience has mirrored a global conflict now threatening
us in the 21st century.
"The Satanic Verses" opens with a spectacular big bang (referencing
a real-life terrorist hijacking), when an Air India jumbo jet
explodes over the English Channel.
"Just before dawn one winter’s morning, New Year’s Day or thereabouts,
two real, full-grown, living men fell from a great height, twenty-nine
thousand and two feet, towards the English Channel, without benefit
of parachutes or wings, out of a clear sky," he writes. In a dazzling
act of re-birth, the two brown men, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha,
miraculously wash up safely on a snowy English beach to become
symbolic protagonists in a sprawling tale of the eternal fight between
Good and Evil.
"The Satanic Verses" prompted violent protests by Islamic
fundamentalists in India, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe over
the author’s projection of Islamic myths and Koranic motifs in contemporary
and futuristic settings. What the Western reader may have come to
accept as "poetic license," was perceived as blasphemy.
The book was banned in India and South Africa and burned on the streets
of Bradford, England. On February 14, 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini,
the leader of the Iranian revolution, declared a fatwa, or a judicial
decree, that sentenced Rushdie and all those involved in the publication
of "The Satanic Verses" to death. He called on all Muslims
to execute them, and placed a bounty of $1.5 million on Rushdie’s
A mob attack on the American cultural center in Islamabad,
Pakistan, left five people dead and 100 wounded. The book’s Japanese
translator was murdered in 1991. And two years later Rushdie’s Norwegian
publisher was attacked and wounded outside his home.
"It is not true this book is a blasphemy against Islam," Rushdie
told the press. "I doubt very much Khomeini or anyone else in
Iran has read the book or anything more than selected extracts taken
out of context."
For almost a decade, Rushdie lived like a prisoner, guarded round
the clock by agents from the Special Branch of the London police.
Finally, in September, 1998, the Iranian government officially dissociated
itself from the fatwa and the foundation which was, by then, offering
a $2.5 million bounty for the author’s death. Britain responded by
restoring diplomatic relations.
Rushdie, now 55, was born in Bombay in 1947 to an affluent Muslim
family from Kashmir. His father was a Cambridge-educated businessman
who inherited substantial wealth; his mother was a teacher; and both
held strong religious beliefs. Rushdie has three younger sisters,
and the four children grew up speaking Urdu and English at home.
"I remember that `The Wizard of Oz’ (the film, not the book, which
I didn’t read as a child) was my very first literary influence,"
writes Rushdie. Not coincidentally, his first short story, written
at age 10, was titled "Over the Rainbow." And in 1992 he published
his own volume of ruminations titled "The Wizard of Oz," fact
and fiction that revolves around the fabled MGM movie.
At 13 Rushdie was sent to study at Rugby, an elite British boarding
school. Like his father, he then attended King’s College, Cambridge,
where he studied history. In 1964, his family moved from Bombay
to Karachi, Pakistan, and after completing his degree in 1968, Rushdie
worked for a time in television in Pakistan. During the 1970s, he
worked on his fiction and as a freelance advertising copywriter.
As a novelist Rushdie made his debut with "Grimus" in 1975,
an exercise in fantastical science fiction that draws its inspiration
from a 12th-century Sufi poem. Four years later, he published the
novel "Midnight’s Children," which won the prestigious Booker
Prize in 1981. Overnight, Rushdie gained international fame. Rushdie
dedicated "Midnight’s Children" to Zafar, the son he had with
Clarissa Luard in 1980.
"Midnight’s Children" takes its title from Nehru’s speech
delivered at the stroke of midnight, August 14, 1947, when India gained
its independence from England. The novel’s narrator, Saleem Sinai,
born at the precise instant of his country’s independence, is greeted by fireworks displays, cheering crowds, and a speech by Prime
Minister Nehru. Sinai and his many siblings — 1,000 other "midnight’s
children," all born at the identical hour — come to embody
the vicissitudes of the new nation. Their total, significantly, is
1,001. Also significant its the fact that Rushdie himself was born
just two months before this fictional hero.
Rushdie’s ebullient "Midnight’s Children" remains his most
highly regarded work. The 450-page epic, rife with comic and political
import, established him as a major writer. A complex allegory of modern
India, it teases the question of the muddle between the individual
and the history of his time.
Already a Booker Prize winner, "Midnight’s Children" won again
in 1993 when it was awarded the "Booker of Bookers" for the
best among 25 years of winners of Britain’s most prestigious literary
award. The author, then in his fourth year of hiding, emerged to accept
the honor at a London bookstore ceremony.
More recently, Rushdie’s 1999 post-fatwa novel, "The Ground Beneath
Her Feet," transposes the Orpheus myth — a musician’s attempt
to rescue his beloved from the kingdom of the dead — into the
story of a pair of rock band lovers. Lead singer Vina vanishes in
an earthquake that destroys half the Pacific coast of Mexico on February
14, 1989 — a date that coincides with the declaration of the fatwa
against the author. Vina’s rock songwriter lover sets off to bring
her back from the dead.
The book, Rushdie notes, "is sort of littered with lyrics."
And it was still in galleys when Bono of U-2 contacted the author.
Meeting in his recording studio, they took the lyrics for "The
Ground Beneath her Feet" and wrote a song of the same name which
they call the novel’s "title track."
Three times married, Rushdie left London and his third wife in early
2000 and moved to New York City. His most recent novel, "Fury,"
published in 2001, features a protagonist just like himself —
an Indian-born, Cambridge graduate — who leaves his wife and son
in England to try to find a new life in Manhattan.
In his new life as an immigrant New Yorker, Rushdie wrote a post-9/11
op-ed essay for the New York Times, published November 2, 2001, and
titled "Yes, This is About Islam." In it, he rejected the
prevailing "mantra" that the international fight against terrorism
is not about Islam.
"The trouble with this necessary disclaimer is that it isn’t true,"
he wrote. Islam, for many Muslim men, stands not only for the fear
of God, "but also for a cluster, of customs, opinions, and prejudices"
that include "a loathing of modern society in general." Citing
Muslim demonstrations in support of Osama bin Laden, he called for
the depoliticization of religion and its restoration to the personal
sphere if Muslim societies are ever to become modern. "If terrorism
is to be defeated, the world of Islam must take on board the secularist-humanist
principles on which the modern is based, and without which Muslim
countries’ freedom will remain a distant dream."
After September 11, Rushdie told Salon online magazine: "I
felt that something which had been seen to be a small and almost personal
issue was now being re-understood as kind of everybody’s problem."
Long interested in the theater, Rushdie has helped adapt
some of his fiction for the stage. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s
stage version of "Midnight’s Children" was presented at Harlem’s
Apollo Theater in March. Previously produced in London, the $3
million production featured a cast of 20; University of Michigan and
Columbia University both helped finance the RSC production.
And Berkeley Rep recently produced a stage adaptation of "Haroun
and the Sea of Stories" directed by Dominique Serrand. First dramatized
at the National Theater in London, this was the first professional
U.S. production. Both stage works have been developed from Rushdie’s
coming-of-age fables that put the adventures of young people at their
Last month Rushdie told Davia Nelson, of American Theatre magazine,
about his approach to the writing process: "I just do it
like a job. I wake up in the morning, do a day’s work, and then stop."
"A novel is a marathon," Rushdie continues. "You have
a little morsel of creative juice, which is your day’s allotment.
Use it on the writing first. Don’t answer letters, don’t read the
newspaper, don’t make a phone call, don’t clean your teeth. Very
often I just put on the dressing gown, go straight to the desk and
I am there for some hours."
The mismatch between Rushdie’s wellspring of humor, irrepressible
personality, love of Dickensian detail, and a death sentence is glaring.
Knowing what he does, how seriously does Rushdie think fiction should
"Very," he told Salon magazine back in 1999. "I think
there is nothing wrong with the idea that fiction is a matter of life
and death. Look at the history of literature. Look at what happened
in the Soviet Union. Look at what’s happening in China, in Africa,
and across the Muslim World. It’s not just me. Fiction has always
been treated this way. It does matter and it’s often very bad for
writers that it does. But that just comes with the territory."
In 1994, during his own travails, Rushdie helped organize an international
protest on behalf of another condemned writer, Taslima Nasrin, a Bangladeshi
physician and newspaper columnist. Nasrin was also under death threats
from Muslim clerics and faces criminal charges from the Government
for allegedly criticizing the Koran.
"How sad it must be to believe in a God of blood!" he wrote
in an open letter to Nasrin. "What an Islam they have made, these
apostles of death, and how important it is to have the courage to
dissent from it!"
Despite his protean talent, Rushdie will always be closely associated
with the Islamist fatwa that even now haunts our march through history.
"It is perfectly possible," he told a Cambridge University
audience during his period of hiding, "and for many of us even
necessary, to construct our ideas of the good without taking refuge
in faith. That is where our freedom lies, and it is that freedom,
among many others, which the fatwa threatens, and which it cannot
be allowed to destroy."
A worldwide death sentence, domestic airliners converted into fuel-drenched
bombs, and now America’s full-scale invasion of a Muslim nation. For
better or for worse, Salman Rushdie is a man of our times.
— Nicole Plett
Writers’ Conference , Kendall Hall, Ewing, 609-771-3254. $10. 8
Center, Ewing, 609-771-3254. Readings and panel presentations by writers,
poets, journalists, screenwriters, editors, publishers, and agents.
Preregister, $10 to $50. Thursday, April 10, 9 a.m.
who just won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. At 2:30 p.m. Muldoon
gives a workshop, and at 4:30 p.m. he gives a reading that will include
poems from his latest collection and the one that earned the Pulitzer,
"Moy Sand and Gravel." All workshops, readings, and panels
take place on the second floor of the Brower Student Center.
Heffron on fiction; and Keith Flynn and Catie Rosemurgy on poetry.
Also books for young readers by John W. Rudolph; writing humor by
Jo Kadlecek; fiction writing with Kate Gallison and Charles McGrath;
and poetry with Keith Flynn, Timothy Liu, and Barry Wallenstein.
features Carole DeSanti, Penguin Putnam; Charles McGrath, New York
Times Book Review; and Kelly Nichell, Writer’s Digest Books. At 3
p.m., "Doing Jail Time for Writing: Attacks on Journalists’ Civil
Rights" includes Chris Dumond, a reporter with the Bristol Herald,
and Paul Trummel, a freelance reporte
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