Last week, world-famous author Salman Rushdie appeared at Rutgers University as part of the English Department’s new Writers at Rutgers Reading Series. Hundreds of eager students, faculty, staff, and community members were waiting in the lobby an hour before the infamous author’s scheduled appearance time. The Series was introduced by renowned New York poet and Rutgers Professor/Writer in Residence, Mark Doty. The chair of the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, Abena Busia, introduced Mr. Rushdie with a short speech detailing his many accolades and literary achievements. Rushdie himself then mounted the stage to present readings from three of his books and answer a few questions from the audience before wrapping up with a book signing.
Rushdie is recognized the world over for his literary genius, but is perhaps most notable for writing the book which infuriated Muslim communities around the world and even resulted in provoking a threat on his life. Rushdie’s 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, depicts the prophet Muhammad in a way that was considered blasphemously irreverent by many devout Muslims, and the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran infamously issued a fatwa requiring Rushdie’s death. Rushdie lived under police protection for several years after, and his newest book, Joseph Anton, is a memoir of his life during this time.
In Rushdie’s appearance at Rutgers last Wednesday, he read an excerpt from this darkly humorous memoir in which, at his first public appearance in America after the issuance of the fatwa, Rushdie was greeted and escorted with an ironically conspicuous motorcade. In the book, named for the pseudonym Rushdie used during this time (and a nod to Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov), Rushdie maintains his characteristic authorial voice by describing the events in the third-person. Rushdie evokes a sense of detachment from his experience during those years by describing the character of the “the writer” as if he is someone other than Rushdie himself. As Rushdie describes himself in the midst of cinematically larger-than-life events, often pervaded with black comedy, he explores the fundamental question of identity.
After presenting this excerpt from Joseph Anton, Rushdie went backwards chronologically and shared a reading from his 1995 book, The Moor’s Last Sigh. In this excerpt, a young pair of star-crossed lovers from two, tiny, marginal religious communities in India consummate their passion in a storeroom on sacks of spices. In true Rushdie style, the sex scene – purportedly the first he’d ever written – is neither gratuitous nor predictable. It is joyful, embarrassing, sensual (olfactorily as well as erotically), and evocatively vibrant. Rushdie’s aptitude as a performer was most evident during this reading, as he expertly evinced the awkward silences communicated through ellipses on the page. Yet again, Rushdie’s belief in the fundamental role of the risible was evident in this scene.
Rushdie concluded with a viscerally uncomfortable episode from Midnight’s Children (1980), the book which rocketed him to fame, and which was recently adapted into a 2012 movie directed by Deepa Mehta and narrated by Rushdie himself. Although the excerpt pertained to trauma – both physical and emotional – as inflicted upon a young boy, it, too, was saturated with dark humor. In this scene, the protagonist recounts how, as a boy, his teacher physically abused him in front of the class when his large nose accidentally ran and dripped into the teacher’s hand, and how he later lost a finger during a schoolboy scuffle he began in an attempt to impress a girl. Rushdie’s stories ring most true with the ways in which comedy sits so uncomfortably close beside drama.
Rushdie’s choice to present the readings in this order was fascinating and presented a broad scope of his work and the ways in which his voice has developed over the years. Midnight’s Children, a story about a group of children who are born at the precise stroke of midnight upon which India gained its independence from Britain in 1947 and are thus endowed with supernatural powers, is the book that established his unique deftness at marrying magical realism with historical fiction. I felt the genre and the narrative voice recalled Joyce, García Márquez, and Vonnegut, all names among the “hundreds” of authors which Rushdie later cited when an audience member asked about his influences. In contrast to his earlier novels, Joseph Anton is markedly different in tone. The dialogue sounded less choppy and colloquial, and the humor was of a noticeably British flavor, a point he highlighted when he made an off-hand comment about a particular scene having seemed to him like something out of “Monty Python”.
These three examples of Rushdie’s work, curated from an oeuvre now spanning more than three decades, exemplified the ways in which different cultures clash and synthesize (as Doty emphasized in his introduction) as well as what it means to be “simply” a human (as Busia celebrated in her introduction). Above all, it seems, Rushdie is concerned with what it means to navigate identity. The hallmarks of his characters are how they negotiate their alliances with specific groups (religious, cultural, national, political, and ideological) and how their individualism problematizes those alliances.
Rushdie’s appearance wrapped up with a brief statement on his opinion of free speech, a right which is he is vehemently in support of. One audience member asked whether Rushdie believes that the right to free speech comes with responsibilities, and whether Rushdie himself has always exercised such responsibility. He responded that he believes passionately that the right to free speech absolutely does not come with such imperatives, but that everyone must have the right to voice their thoughts, even if they are stupid, insulting, or boring. In a fittingly irreverent manner he concluded, “Everyone has a right to free speech. Even Dan Brown.”
Emma Waldron (Staff Writer, Rutgers University) Emma Waldron is a Rutgers alumna and currently works with first-year students as an academic advisor. She spent her formative years in Boulder CO before relocating to the Garden State, and recently spent a year living in Bristol, England where she completed her MA in Performance Research. Her research focuses on the concept of authentic identity, and her dissertation addressed issues of gender and musical performativity in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Emma has recently become vegan, and documents the transformation on her blog “I Am What I Eat”. Emma spends a lot of time thinking about Judith Butler, iambic pentameter, vegan cookies, Ralph Waldo Emerson, sunshine, drag queens, Nordic larp, and tea.