Emory Report
September 13, 2004
Volume 57, Number 04


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September 13, 2004
Rushdie to make first Atlanta visit

by michael terrazas

Acclaimed novelist Salman Rushdie will deliver the 2004 Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature, Oct. 3–5, the seventh in a biennial series that celebrates the late Ellmann, who became Emory’s first Robert W. Woodruff Professor in 1982 and taught for five years at the University until his death in 1987.

Grouped under the heading “The Other Great Tradition,” Rushdie’s three lectures will be titled “Proteus” (Oct. 3, 4 p.m.), “Heraclitus” (Oct. 4, 8:15 p.m.) and “Scheherazade (Oct. 5, 4 p.m.), all in Glenn Auditorium. A public reception will be held on the lawn in front of Glenn following the Oct. 3 lecture, and Rushdie will complete his Emory visit with a reading and book signing Oct. 5 at 8:15 p.m., also in Glenn.

According to Ron Schuchard, Goodrich C. White Professor of English and organizer of the Ellmann series, the group title of Rushdie’s lectures is a play on scholar F.R. Leabis’ The Great Tradition, which traces the history of storytelling through such authors as Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad and D.H. Lawrence.

“Proteus was the Greek sea god who could change shape at will, Heraclitus the Greek philosopher of flux, and of course Scheherazade was the narrator of The Arabian Nights who told all the tales to prolong her life,” Schuchard said. “So [Rushdie] is obviously thinking about a different kind of storytelling, both Western and non-Western.”

An English citizen born and raised in India, Rushdie received international notoriety following the 1988 publication of his novel The Satanic Verses. The book touches on themes of Islam, reimagining some of the religion’s historical foundations, and was branded as heretical by many orthodox Sunni Muslims around the world. Iran’s Ayatollah Khomenei issued a fatwa, or death sentence, not only against Rushdie but also anyone associated with the book’s publication.

In the resulting furor among Muslims, at least a dozen people were killed and scores more injured in violent protests against U.S. and British embassies in Iran and India. Both those countries, as well as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt and South Africa, banned the book. In 1991, a Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses was found stabbed to death at a university near Tokyo.

At the time, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. President George H. W. Bush both condemned the fatwa, as did many of Rushdie’s literary peers, but the controversy prompted American booksellers Barnes & Noble, B. Dalton and Waldenbooks to pull the title from their shelves for a time.

Rushdie himself spent a decade in hiding under the protection of a British security detail. In 1999, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi formally renounced the fatwa, saying his country would no longer take any action against Rushdie, nor would it aid or encourage anyone to do so.

Besides remove Rushdie for a decade from public life (though he continued to write and publish), the firestorm over The Satanic Verses distracted attention from the fact that its author is widely regarded as one of the premier fiction writers of his time. Rushdie’s second novel, Midnight’s Children, won the 1981 Booker Prize, and his 1995 book, The Moor’s Last Sigh, won the Whitbread Novel of the Year award and was shortlisted for another Booker Prize.

Most accurately described as “magical realism,” Rushdie’s prose sparkles in its originality, imagination and lyricism. He has been compared to the likes of Gabriel García Márquez and Günter Grass, though Rushdie dances around the language with feats of literary athleticism made more impressive by the cross-cultural themes that reflect his own background; Rushdie has said he considers himself a citizen of three countries: India, Great Britain and Pakistan.

“Unquestionably he is one of the great writers working in our time,” Schuchard said. “He has a tremendous reading public from around the world; he’s both comical and grave, and he writes both with a great popular imagination and a great literary seriousness. He has an enormous appeal to a wide range of cultural interests.”

Schuchard acknowledged that initally there were security concerns in bringing Rushdie to campus, but the author now lives in New York and moves around freely, lecturing at universities and making public appearances throughout the year. Indeed, his agent cautioned Schuchard, the problem would be one of crowd control, as both Rushdie’s literary stature and the media attention he received from Satanic Verses promise to draw significant interest in his Emory appearance—Rushdie’s first in Atlanta.

All of the events are free, but because of the large crowds anticipated, the first Ellmann Lecture (Oct. 3) and the Oct. 5 evening reading will be ticketed events. Tickets can be picked up at the Dobbs Center. Overflow crowds may watch both these events via live video feeds in White Hall, rooms 208 and 206. For more information, call 404-727-2223.

For the booksigning, there will be a two-book limit per person. Those who cannot attend the signing may purchase books beforehand from Druid Hills Books and pick them up after the event. For more information, call 404-727-2665.