The Storyteller
Indian novelist Salman Rushdie finds his own truth through fiction

As the line of fans snakes its way up the aisle of Glenn Memorial Church toward author Salman Rushdie, he borrows a pen to sign copies of The Satanic Verses, The Moor’s Last Sigh, and Midnight’s Children.

One woman holds out her book and says, “You don’t have to sign it. Just touch it.”

Rushdie, arched eyebrows rising even higher than usual, looks bemused as he places his right hand atop the book’s cover. But he doesn’t question her reverence. The multicultural writer, who lived under a decade-long fatwa–or death sentence–because of perceived “blasphemy against Islam” in his writings, understands better than most the powerful impact of fiction.

“The fictionality of fiction promises truth in its untruth,” said Rushdie, in the first of three lectures and a reading he gave at Emory in early October as the Richard Ellman Lecturer in Modern Literature. “Fiction . . . captures the strangeness of the world’s beauty.”

The biennial event honors the late Robert W. Woodruff Professor Richard Ellman, biographer of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde.

In Rushdie’s trilogy of lectures, “The Other Great Tradition,” he outlined an alternative pantheon of storytellers outside the scope of those canonized by literary critic F. R. Leavis in the mid-twentieth century: Proteus, the Greek sea god who could change shape at will; Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher of “flux and fire” who became famous for his pronouncement, “All things are flowing”; and Scheherazade, narrator of The Arabian Nights, who told “the first cliffhangers” to prolong her life.

“Life is not one thing, but many things,” said Rushdie, a British subject who was born and raised in a middle-class Muslim family in Bombay and educated at King’s College, Cambridge. “It is a ghost story, a comedy, a tragedy, a political drama, a psychodrama, a love story. . . . People who don’t care for my writing say my families are overblown and operatic. People who like it say, ‘They are just like my family.’ ”

Rushdie gained international attention with the publication of his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses (1989), which tells the story of two Indian actors who fall to earth and undergo a series of transformations and revelations after the jumbo jet in which they are riding explodes above the English Channel. Muslim critics claimed The Satanic Verses “distorted Islam” and “viciously insulted” their beliefs.

The novel was banned in India even before publication, and former Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini called for all zealous Muslims to execute the writer and publishers of the book. Rushdie, who now lives in New York City, was in seclusion from 1989 to 1998, when the fatwa was formally lifted by the current leadership of Iran. His talks at Emory are among his first public appearances in the southeast.

In the lectures, which concluded with a reading of his newer works, Rushdie served up plenty of lighthearted anecdotes, literary allusions, and autobiographical detail, from describing his earliest days at King’s College in 1968 (“I lived in an attic room in London in a flat I shared with my sister and three friends. It was triangular . . . like living inside a box of Toblerone chocolate.”) to finding his writing voice (“I would never write a good book until I admitted to myself who I was. Who I was was not English. I was an Indian man.”).

This self-acceptance, Rushdie said, resulted in his most critically acclaimed novel, Midnight’s Children, which won the Booker Prize in 1981. The novel is an allegory of Indian history revolving around the lives of one thousand and one children with magical properties born within one hour of midnight on the day the country achieved independence from Great Britain in 1947 (also the year Rushdie was born).

“We are storytelling animals–who we are, what we are up to, and why,” said Rushdie, in concluding his final lecture. “When we die, we become part of other stories. This residue is our immortality.”–M.J.L.



© 2005 Emory University