Writers On Writing: Salman Rushdie
Postcolonial lit hero Salman Rusdie was in town Tuesday night to speak to a capacity-filled audience about literature's role in documenting current events.
"Literature used to be a way of delivering the news about what is going on," he said. "News has become so unnewslike."
Sadden by the current state of TV News being saturated with Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, he said that people need reevaluate how they get their information on issues that are really more important. Historically people turned to literature to learn about the hot button issues. He cited Uncle Tom's Cabin and War and Peace as examples.
He also said that books can honest about issues that really make people think differently. The Kite Runner was successful because it connected with people about what's going on in Afghanistan.
"We live in an age where politicians control the news agenda," he said. "Writers have the opportunity to tell the real news."
And sometimes telling the real news can get you into trouble. Rushdie knows this first hand when his controversial novel, The Satanic Verses, was published and had a fatwa placed on him by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The publication of the book and the fatwa sparked violence around the world, with bookstores being firebombed. Muslim communities in several nations in the West held public rallies in which copies of the book were burned. Several people associated with translating or publishing the book were attacked, seriously injured, and even killed. Many more people died in riots in Third World countries.
From Wikipedia: The publication of The Satanic Verses in September 1988 caused immediate controversy in the Islamic world because of what was perceived as an irreverent depiction of the prophet Muhammad. The title refers to a Muslim tradition that is related in the book. According to it, Muhammad (Mahound in the book) added verses (sura) to the Qur'an accepting three goddesses that used to be worshipped in Mecca as divine beings. According to the legend, Muhammad later revoked the verses, saying the devil tempted him to utter these lines to appease the Meccans (hence the "Satanic" verses). However, the narrator reveals to the reader that these disputed verses were actually from the mouth of the Archangel Gibreel.
He has also written less controversial but equally compelling novels such as Midnight's Children, which was about India's newly found nationhood. Rushdie wrote Shame, in which he depicts the political turmoil in Pakistan, basing his characters on Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. Shame won France's Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger and was a close runner-up for the Booker Prize.
In his later works, Rushdie turned towards the Western world. In the 1980s, he visited Nicaragua, the scene of Sandinista political experiments, and this experience was the basis for his next book, The Jaguar Smile. He followed this with The Moor's Last Sigh, exploring commercial and cultural links between India and the Iberian peninsula.
"When a government decided to take over a society , they first take over writers, academics and thinkers," he said. "They do this because literature has no ownership and that is what people see as dangerous."