November 4, 2003

Rushdie Makes Rare Appearance at I.C.

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“The novel is about life,” acclaimed author Salman Rushdie told a small group of reporters yesterday in a rare press conference, “and if you’re going to try and depict how real people really live then you have to talk about what’s really in their minds.”

On Sunday and Monday, though, it was Rushdie who shared what was on his mind with the Ithaca community. As this year’s Distinguished Speaker in the Humanities at Ithaca College, Rushdie gave a speech Sunday evening at the Ben Light Gymnasium on the IC campus and met with faculty and students yesterday. Sponsored by the School of Humanities and Sciences at IC, the Distinguished Speaker in the Humanities program has featured Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky and Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Art Speigelman, among others.

Sunday night’s presentation “Step Across This Line: An Evening with Salman Rushdie” took its title from Rushdie’s latest collection of nonfiction, Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002. His speech touched on several topics that ranged from current American policy and politics to humorous anecdotes from his own life.

In addition to his presentation, Rushdie spent much of yesterday meeting with IC faculty and students, offering members of the IC community a rare chance to meet the illusive Rushdie in person.

Addressing approximately a dozen journalists yesterday morning, Rushdie answered questions about his writing, his political viewpoints and spoke briefly about his novel The Satanic Verses, a text that prompted the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran to declare a fatwa against him in February of 1989. The fatwa, a ruling that called for the excecution of Rushdie and of those involved in the publication of The Satanic Verses, earned the author a great deal of international notoriety.

“What can you do if you find yourself stuck in the middle of an historical event like that?” Rushdie rhetorically asked reporters at yesterday’s press conference.

“I think that [the fatwa] is noisier than most literary careers so of course it got the part of ‘what people know about me as a writer.’ My interest as a writer now is to get past it so that people stop thinking of me in that box. I think, in a way, that it was the greatest damage done to me as a writer; that people categorized me in some box called Islamic fanaticism, which really, is not what my work is like or about. Very few people mention, for instance, that The Satanic Verses is quite a funny book. It’s not discussed in those terms.”

Though the fatwa was eventually lifted in 1998, the international support for Rushdie and the tight security required during those nine years left quite an impression him, Rushdie said.

Though the fatwa garnered much media attention, Rushdie’s literary roots, his reputation and his international acclaim date farther back than the 1989 edict. In 1981, his novel Midnight’s Children was awarded the Booker Prize, the premier British award for fiction. Subsequently, that text has been published alongside titles like Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Auggie March and Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way as part of Penguin Putnam’s series, “Penguin Great Books of the 20th Century.”

“Rushdie is at his best in early novels like Midnight’s Children, which enriched the English language by enabling it to hear the sounds and resonances of ‘Indian English,'” wrote Cornell Professor Satya Mohanty, English, in an email to The Sun.

“But that novel was also important because of the way it debunked the pious nationalist myths of the Indian (and Pakistani) elites. Rushdie is an imaginative storyteller and a bold debunker,” he added.

Mohanty, who teaches a course titled “The Modern Indian Novel” at Cornell, went on to address the politics of Rushdie’s work.

“In a post-9/11 world, I think one of the most valuable things in Salman Rushdie’s work would be his critique of self-serving nationalist ideologies of all kinds — those imposed, for example, by Sadaam Hussein’s regime as well as those espoused by the current U.S. administration,” he said.

Such critique was evident at yesterday’s press conference when Rushdie addressed the social and political climate of a post-Sept. 11 America and characterized the American media’s response to the Patriot Act legislation as “tepid.”

“I think the American press is much less vigorously critical of the American administration than the British press is of the British administration,” Rushdie said.

“And that actually surprises me, because remembering the last time around — during Vietnam — the involvement of the press in that subject was very, very vigorous and was one of the main reasons why the subject of Vietnam went the way it did. This time around there’s a kind of quietism which is just kind of surprising,” he added.

Recently, Rushdie has dealt with social and political topics in his nonfiction, but when asked if he would attempt to write about a post Sept. 11 America in his fiction, Rushdie did not have a definite answer.

“So far, it’s been nonfiction, but I think that’s the only way of making a quick response,” Rushdie said.

“Novels are slow, not just because they take a long time to write, but because sometimes things just need to sit in your head for a long time. Before you find out what, if anything, you can do, I suspect you won’t get the great novel about that moment in American life for quite a long time. If you think about it, War and Peace was written more than half a century after the events it describes and yet, if you want to read a novel about the Napoleonic wars or about Napoleon’s campaign in Russia, you’d probably read War and Peace before anything else,” he said.

Ithaca College director of media relations, Dave Maley described Rushdie’s visit as a success. “I think the campus and the local community got a real treat to be able to have an opportunity to hear from him [Rushdie] in his speech Sunday evening,” he said.

“Students having interaction with him today in a master’s class was wonderful,” Maley added.

Though many of the topics addressed by Rushdie over the course of the past two days dealt with issues of free speech and expression, authorial methodologies and international politics, his visit was not without it’s humorous moments. During Sunday night’s presentation and again at yesterday’s press conference, Rushdie appeared to be in good humor, even as he recounted the tense years of the fatwa.

Yesterday, when asked if he thought the word “fatwa” would one day appear in his obituary, Rushdie replied, “The great thing about your obituary is you’re not around to read it.”

Archived article by Nate Brown