Teller of Tales
By Kimber Williams
When Salman Rushdie was a child, his father shared with him the great “wonder tales” of the East—“told them and retold them and remade them and reinvented them in his own way,” the acclaimed author recalled.
Taken from the magical stories of the Panchatantra, the Hamzanama, and the Arabian Nights, the experience presented Rushdie with two unforgettable lessons: That stories were not true, “but by being untrue they could make him feel and know truths that the truth could not tell him,” and that the stories all belonged to him, “just as they belonged to my father and to everyone else.”
“This is the beauty of the wonder tale and its descendant, which is fiction,” explained Rushdie, during a lecture in February that launched his two-week visit to Emory as University Distinguished Professor, admitting that he’s most comfortable when engaged in the “art of the not true.”
“Only by the fictionality of fiction, the imaginativeness of the imagination, the dream songs of our dreams can we hope to approach the new and to create fiction, once again, that may be more interesting than the facts,” he explained.
This marked Rushdie’s eighth year teaching at Emory College of Arts and Sciences—a role that leads him on a rigorous academic adventure, meeting with students and faculty in the college and across campus to discuss literature and film, cross-cultural communication and psychology, philosophy and South Asian studies.
Though best known for his literary contributions, his teaching “deserves special commendation, not just for its seriousness and depth . . . but for its breadth and underlying spirit of generosity,” says Dean Robin Forman.
The sheer variety of his classroom appearances showcases both Rushdie’s intellectual flexibility and his ease with student engagement; a sense-maker who lends insight, context, and anecdotes wherever he lands. One moment Rushdie is discussing short stories in an English seminar, the next he’s critiquing global French cinema with a film studies class, or squeezing in a meeting at the Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library, which houses his archive.
On a break between classes, Rushdie said that he enjoys the intensity of it all. “I’m always a little scared beforehand, but we usually end up having fun,” he quipped. “Being amongst very smart people and all of their ideas? How bad is that?”