June 24, 2021
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Salman Rushdie At New York's 92nd Street Y

... wowed the audience with his dramatic reading, signing books and answering questions freely, personally, and iconoclastically.

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Salman Rushdie At New York's 92nd Street Y
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Salman Rushdie At New York's 92nd Street Y

Will Salman Rushdie's life ever cease being intertwined with world events? In 1989, just when he was to read from his novel Satanic Verses at the 92nd St. Y, the mecca of literary readings for New York intellectuals, the fatwa forced him into exile. The event was cancelled. Last year, when the invitation was renewed, Sept. 11 caused a postponement. Eerily, that was also the publication date of Fury, his latest novel, set in New York. At long last, on April 23, Rushdie was interviewed at the Y by writer Francisco Goldman. Afterwards, he wowed the audience with his dramatic reading and signed books for fans who had passed through specially set up metal detectors.

Goldman's questions focused on Rushdie's literary life and eight novels. Rushdie enjoyed answering freely, personally, and iconoclastically. He admitted that he's messy, that writing requires the best energy of the day: he gets to work before even brushing his teeth, he won't take phone calls or read the newspaper in the morning. He sits at his desk till he's exhausted and then -- writes some more. The idea for a novel takes years to gestate and the "sign of a book coming to life is that it begins to offer up possibilities that I hadn't thought of."

Laughingly he confessed that life had not been "world fame, beautiful women, pots of money." Quite the contrary. Before the Booker prize winning Midnight's Children, he'd abandoned several books, published one that nobody liked, and wrote much "rubbish." Halfway into the five years of writing Midnight's Children, he grew depressed. He could not "get the story out because [the protagonist] Salim takes so long getting born." Luckily, Salim became the narrator. "His voice had such energy, I was never able to shut him up. I just hung on his coattails and went along for the ride." The first draft, longer than the finished book, was completely rewritten. That big gamble paid off: the New Yorker's iconic critic V.S. Pritchett gave it "the rave review you'd write in your dreams."

Humorously, Rushdie recalled Indians' responses to the book. A Bombayite told him, "I could have written this book, I know all that stuff." Another, smacking him playfully, said, "Naughty boy, putting me in your book!" Rushdie insists, "I didn't know her -- she had imagined herself in the book and wasn't getting out of it!" The audience was charmed.

He acknowledged his debts to William Faulkner, Gunter Grass, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. "Austen's brilliant women, confined by what was expected of them when they were up to much more than husband hunting, seemed reminiscent of Indian society." From Dickens, he got larger-than-life characters and learned to "never abandon the roots of reality-flights of fancy only work when they begin in the real world." The rich material came from India: "You don't have to make anything up." As for his young, lonely, picked-upon protagonists, they were not self-portraits but pure "metaphor."

But if Rushdie is the child of Independence, he's also a child of the religious bloodshed of Partition: "You grow up with the knowledge that that possibility is always there in human beings." Rushdie dubbed Shame, his novel about Pakistan, "evil" ("nobody's nice in it, everybody's awful") but technically successful. "It has characteristics of high tragedy but the people do not have tragic stature-- it's cast with clowns."

And Satanic Verses, which brought him so much grief, is not political. "It's about the act of migration that I myself had made, about transformation, about coming from over there and ending up here. It was written from deep inside myself about things that were personal....and it's a funny book, I'm a comic writer."

In The Moor's Last Sigh, written in exile during the first outbreak of Hindu nationalism, Rushdie created a hero, half Kerala Jew, half Christian, to show that a minority need not be marginal or inauthentic. "You can create India from anywhere, not just from inside Brahmin culture. The Moor satirizes Hindu fundamentalism because Bombay, my hometown, had been free of the cancer of communalism; now it isn't because of Bal Thackeray and Shiv Sena and Hindu fanaticism. The city I remember as a wonderful place is different and darker now. I was angry about that."

Of exile, Rushdie said, "I used to go to India all the time, my relationship with India was broken when I couldn't go for 10 years. It was like going mad." Then, he realized, "I don't have to go to Bombay, I can close my eyes and I know every street, I know how people think, talk and respond. I was proud that the book hadn't been scarred by exile -- many Indians thought I'd tricked them and slipped into the country! Writing is a process of discovery, when you do it you find out what you know."

What he clearly knows is, "There are two movements in my writing -- home and away, going back to India and away from it. The Ground Beneath Her Feet is about that." It's about Rushdie's three worlds -- India, England, America -- and about roots and rootlessness. "Music allowed me to portray the rootless spirit in counterpoint to rooted life."

Goldman asked about sex and love, both notoriously hard to write about. Rushdie confessed, "I was incredibly shy. It's a culture problem. I come from the time when Indian movies weren't allowed to show physical contact. My books have gotten braver about sex as I've got older...it's scary but you have to do it."

Turning finally to Fury, Rushdie told a spooky tale: "It's about New York at its peak of success and decadence. I had some profound creative instincts that were not conscious or rational, like a force saying, 'Stop writing what you're writing, start writing this.' This book insisted on being written, it was written very fast (10 months). I never thought that the age it was describing would end on its publication date, that a book written to be a contemporary satirical novel would become a historical novel. It describes something that was, and is not the same any more. This is Sept. 10. Fury contains the sense of an ending."

Personally, Fury is about his new love (portrayed in the heroine Neela) and his adopted home. "I like it here, I'm not planning to go anywhere soon. It's been a long journey getting here. I feel closer to this great city since Sept. 11. I feel comfortable here, I'd visited here in the '70s when the Twin Towers were being built. Here, layer after layer of people arrive with their stories from elsewhere -- Serbia, Afghanistan, Fiji-that's the city culture. There's no dominant culture, so I'm normal -- I'm not used to being like everyone else. Here, everyone has a story that involves a journey in someway. I feel at home. Or, as abnormal as anyone else."

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