This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Rushdie offers glimpse into the writer’s life

Novelist is final speaker in Distinguished Speakers Series for 2004-05

Published: May 5, 2005

Contributing Editor

Salman Rushdie spent most of his lecture at UB giving his audience an intimate glimpse of the writer's life, while also reading short excerpts from his vast literary output with obvious enjoyment. The lecture included humor and observations about the political/religious admixture in modern society.

"It's a really weird decision that you've made to come listen to a writer speak," Rushdie told those assembled in Alumni Arena on April 28 for the final event in this year's Distinguished Speakers Series. "There is actually no reason on earth why writers should be able to do this." Indeed, it wasn't a customary practice until Charles Dickens popularized the form in the 19th century, Rushdie explained. Dickens's final American lecture tour may have been his undoing, as he returned to England exhausted and died not long afterward. The moral, Rushdie joked, is that "some writers are good at this stuff, but it kills them."

Rushdie has long since emerged from the exile imposed on him, as he was forced to hide from zealous Muslims intent on carrying out the fatwa issued in 1989 by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini. Even so, on each occasion visiting a new place, like Buffalo and UB, "I almost feel the need to reintroduce myself. I never really thought of myself as a religious writer, or a writer about religion, until that particular religion came after me."

Rushdie talked about the "autobiographical disease" that limits discussion and understanding of literary works like his own. Often, one's personal life does enter a book, but not in the wholesale manner some journalists would believe. For example, his novel "Midnight's Children" was born out of a joke his parents told—a joke he hated because it was told so often. The joke played on the coincidence of his birth in Bombay and Indian independence. "I was born in June 1947; exactly eight weeks later the British ran away." Rushdie later recalled the joke and employed it for literary purposes, deciding "there didn't have to be an eight-week gap." This autobiographical beginning led to the simultaneous birth of the main character, Sinai, and the birth of an independent India in a novel that won England's Booker McConnell Prize for fiction.

"Childhood, one's personal life, is an incredibly rich, fertile soil to grow plants," Rushdie said. "But beginnings are not endings. Characteristically, in writing a work of art, you make a journey from something you know to something you create."

Turning to wider political concerns, Rushdie noted that "the problem of religion as a hostile force is important to face these days, and not just in the East, but here." Rushdie read from his piece, "Darwin in Kansas," observing that it expresses "genuine concerns I have about American education." He described the Kansas Board of Education's decision to remove the teaching of evolution from the curriculum and other inroads made by creationists. And it's not just Darwin, Rushdie said, as the "Big Bang apparently didn't happen in Kansas, either."

Invoking the individual's right to tell a story however he or she sees it, Rushdie connected this theme with the will of a democracy. "We're constantly arguing among ourselves—as families, as countries—about the stories we tell. As a nation moves forward through time, people change the stories according to the times they're in. Democracy is not a tea party; it's an argument." To continually re-examine these stories within us, he said, is the very definition of freedom.

"If you lose that ability to tell the story of yourself, if you have to take the story from someone on the pulpit, or someone in the politburo, or someone wearing a uniform, then the stories become...jokes. Living within that atrophied story becomes tyranny."