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October 18 , 2004
Rushdie shines in first Emory appearance
BY Michael Terrazas
In the world of literature, there is a handful of writers who have attained such fame and notoriety that they are treated with a kind of attention normally reserved for elite professional athletes and rock stars.
From Oct. 3–5, Emory received a visit from just such a literary rock star: Indian novelist Salman Rushdie, who made his first public appearance in Atlanta to deliver the 2004 Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature.
Rushdie, winner of the literary Booker and Whitbread awards for such acclaimed novels as Midnight’s Children (1981), The Satanic Verses (1988), The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995) and Fury (2001), delivered three Ellmann Lectures, then on the final night of his visit read from his own work and signed books for hundreds of fans queuing up around the periphery of Glenn Auditorium.
Grouped under the heading “The Other Great Tradition,” Rushdie’s lectures addressed the world of often fantastical fiction in which he works, a world that, by blurring the lines between reality and unreality, approaches truths that are more “real” than either.
“The other tradition, that of what I might call ‘Protean literature,’ is more realistic than realism because it corresponds to the unrealism of the world,” Rushdie said in his Oct. 3 opening lecture, “Proteus.”
A reference to the shape-shifting sea god of Greek mythology, Protean literature recognizes the “unreality of the real,” Rushdie said, and holds out reality as “an article of faith, like money or fairies.” In any given reality, there are “nailed-down facts and fictions,” but those differ from person to person, perhaps even from consciousness to consciousness.
“I’m hearing disagreement everywhere I go,” Rushdie said. “If people can’t even agree about the Yankees’ starting rotation, how can they agree about the world?”
In “Proteus,” and also in “Heraclitus” on Oct. 4 and “Scheherazade” on Oct. 5, Rushdie wove together his thoughts on fiction—he also is an acclaimed literary and cultural critic, having published two books of critical essays, Imaginary Homeland (1991) and Step Across This Line (2002)—with details from his own life.
He was born in 1947 in Bombay, India, to a prominent Muslim family and was educated at Cambridge University in England.
As a student at Cambridge—and, indeed, throughout his early life—Rushdie said he was pressured to believe that good literature was inherently British, and his early struggles as a writer arose largely from trying to escape his own upbringing on the subcontinent. It was not until he made the decision to write about an Indian born at the exact moment of Indian independence—and, even further, to tear up his first draft of the novel to begin a second written in first person—that he became a real writer, and Midnight’s Children was born. In addition to winning the Booker Prize, it was named one of the top 100 English-language novels of the 20th century by the Modern Library.
“[I realized] I would never write a good book until I admitted who I was,” Rushdie said in his “Scheherazade” lecture. “And who I was, was Not English. I was an Indian man. The day I became a writer was the day I let [Midnight’s Children protagonist] Saleem Sinai tell his own story.”
In his reading, Rushdie shared a fanciful short story, “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers,” about a man who attempts to regain what he has lost in life by bidding for a pair of ruby slippers in an auction attended by representatives of nearly every aspect of modern society. Following that, he read an excerpt from his upcoming novel, now titled Shalimar the Clown, to be published late next year.
Introducing Rushdie before “Proteus,” Ellmann Lectures director Ron Schuchard, Goodrich C. White Professor of English, said the novelist came from “a tradition of artists whose freedom of expression has been threatened by cultural prejudices” and called Rushdie “the ideal Ellmann lecturer.”
The series is named for Richard Ellmann, Emory’s first Robert W. Woodruff Professor and a world-renowned literary scholar who died in 1987. Roughly every two years, a similarly heralded author or critic is recruited to deliver the addresses. Like the Ellmann lecturers who came before him, Rushdie will have his lectures published by Harvard University Press. Schuchard said the next Ellmann lecturer has been chosen by the selection committee, and he will announce the selection as soon as the individual accepts.
It will be hard to top the 2004 lecturer. Due both to his literary stature and the international notoriety he received following the publication of The Satanic Verses, Rushdie brought with him an aura achieved by very few individuals in any walk of life—and he delivered with a series of lectures that were as serious and contemplative as they were humorous and engaging.
“I have a soft spot for polytheistic pantheons,” he said in discussing Proteus, “possibly because the stories are so much better in polytheistic pantheons than in monotheistic ones.
“The tradition I like,” Rushdie added with a wry smile, “is of gods behaving badly.”