In an event organized by The Susan and Donald Newhouse Center for the Humanities, Sir Salman Rushdie visited Wellesley on Thursday, Nov. 12. He spoke about his newest book, controversies over his novels, freedom of expression and his writing process.
Salman Rushdie, born in Mumbai, India, has authored 12 novels that are world-renowned for his skill in combining magical realism with historical fiction.
He is also a very controversial writer. His fourth novel, “The Satanic Verses”, caused a strong reaction among the Muslim community for its supposedly irreverent depiction of Muhammad. Rushdie received multiple death threats and was forced to live under police protection for years. The Supreme Leader of Iran even offered a bounty for his assassination. Rushdie was reportedly on Al-Qaeda’s hit list as recently as 2010. Even at the event held at Wellesley College, guards rigorously checked bags before letting audience members enter.
Despite this, the Diana Walsh Alumnae Auditorium was packed, filled with Wellesley students and Wellesley town residents who all came to hear the famous author speak. The energy in the room made me very excited to be there. Although I was only partway through my first Rushdie novel, I couldn’t wait to hear what he had to say.
“I wanted to hear how Rushdie approached writing, especially after how much controversy his book caused. I’ve always been interested in writing, too, and I love hearing writers talk about their work,” Anna Gaskill ‘19 said.
Rushdie began by reading two passages from his newest book “Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights.” He explained that this novel subtly explores the concepts of relationships, love and loss.
“One of the things I found myself writing about was this idea that, you know, all of us from childhood have probably lost somebody that we loved. And that needs answers. And maybe what we do is we go through life trying to fill that hole, trying to find something that actually fits that particular missing piece of the jigsaw. And the more closely it does, the more we’re able to love, and love is a marvelous way of replacing what was lost,” he said about the novel.
Much of the event was structured as an interview between Rushdie and Anjali Prabhu, the Director of the Newhouse Center. When asked about the controversy surrounding his writing, Rushdie replied that people who don’t like his books were free to read other books, since he believes that everyone has the right to use sacred texts however they wish.
“My idea is, you know, you have the sacred stories, but they all belong to all of us. We can use them as we choose, we can use them reverentially or satirically or whatever the hell we want to do with them… If you’re going to have novels, you have to accept that they will play with the history of story, whether it’s sacred or profane. That’s what I was doing, and some people thought I shouldn’t. But guess what? It’s still around,” he said.
Despite the flak that his books have gotten, Rushdie said that he doesn’t really think about his readers or the possible responses to his novels when he writes. He believes that the purpose of writing is not to offer solutions to the world’s problems, but to encourage readers to look at the world in a different way.
“The business of writing is to try to tell the truth, just to try to tell as much truth as possible. But I don’t have solutions. Any two-bit politician has solutions. It’s not really the business of art to offer solutions. But it may be much more to find interesting ways of stating the problem, to try and say ‘How about we look at it this way?’… And I think that’s what art can do,” he said.
But Rushdie was clear that he doesn’t take his freedom of expression for granted. He urged the audience to appreciate this freedom since it is such a rare liberty to have.
“To be a writer, you have to believe that you are free to act. If you believe that it is dangerous or whatever, then you don’t feel free to act. So freedom of expression is preceded by the sense of that feeling… Most of the world doesn’t have it… But we live in the lucky corner of the world… If we happen to be the people with the good fortune to have this thing, then let’s not denigrate it… We have something very precious in our hands that we have to preserve,” he said.
Despite discussing some serious topics, Rushdie inspired his listeners with beautiful prose, while still managing to keep the tone light with occasional jokes.
“I went to the lecture not knowing what to expect, but I left absolutely inspired! He had this wonderful way of making everything sound so simple and eloquent. He was funny and charismatic, and he had these great oneliners that really made you think. I think everyone in that audience left wanting to be writers!” says Shivani Dayal ’18 said. “The lecture reminded me about the power of the written word. This man had a country order an assassination attack against him because of words he had written.”
If attending students had no inclination to read Rushdie’s works before this event, that has certainly changed after hearing him speak.
“I haven’t read any of Rushdie’s works yet, but after hearing some of the passages from his latest book, I definitely know what I’ll be reading over winter break!” Molly Hoyer ‘18 said.
Bringing such an uplifting speaker to campus was a great decision for Wellesley to make. It shows that we believe in freedom of speech and that we support the power of art and literature to create change in the world.