Window on a Writer’s Mind: Salman Rushdie to teach, place papers at Emory

“When, if, I ever finish The Satanic Verses, in spite of emotional upheavals, divorce, house move, Nicaragua book, India film, death of parent (there’s selfishness for you), et al, I will, I feel, have completed my “first business,” that of naming the parts of myself. Then there will be nothing left to write about; except, of course, the whole of human life."

This journal entry, dated November 3, 1987, offers a window into the thoughts of author Salman Rushdie as he strove to complete his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, a rich and complex work inspired in part by the life of the prophet Muhammad. As Rushdie penned these lines while “sitting in a parked car beneath the falling autumn leaves,” he could not have known that his “first business” would upon publication stir such violent reaction among Muslim extremists that the leader of Iran would put a price on his head.

Rushdie spent ten years hiding in virtual isolation under the fatwa because of the novel’s perceived blasphemy against Islam; but he recently told the New York Times he no longer fears for his life. Free to move through the world as he likes, Emory is one of the places he has chosen to alight. This year Rushdie joins the faculty as Distinguished Writer in Residence and will spend a month on campus each spring for the next five years, teaching and delivering public lectures. He also has placed his archive at Woodruff Library, granting scholars access to scores of illuminating passages such as the one above.

“The teaching appointment of Salman Rushdie, and the significance of his archive, underscore the importance of the humanities in addressing the global issues of our day,” says Provost Earl Lewis.

Rushdie’s relationship with Emory began in 2004 when he delivered the Richard Ellmann Lectures, a distinguished series named for the eminent literary scholar. When Rushdie arrived on campus, says Stephen Enniss, director of the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Books Library (MARBL), he was aware of the high literary standards of that series, which has brought Seamus Heaney, A. S. Byatt, and Mario Vargos Llosa to the University.

The visit strengthened Rushdie’s interest and spawned a connection that continued over the next year and a half, while negotiations to buy Rushdie’s archive took place. Lewis, Enniss, Emory College Dean Robert Paul and Goodrich C. White Professor of English Ron Schuchard were among those who played key roles in the process.

“While he was here he learned more of the history of Emory’s engagement with modern literary studies,” Enniss says. “He learned that two previous lecturers have already placed their papers here, as well as many others, including Ted Hughes. Each of those acquisitions has a literary DNA that runs through it and links one writer to a larger circle of writers.”

Only a handful of research libraries could compete for such a collection as Rushdie’s, which includes two unpublished novels, original manuscripts of all his books, and thirty-six years’ worth of journals, Enniss says. Those kept during the fatwa period and since will be closed for a time. It’s likely Rushdie himself will be among the first scholars to use the archive, as he has indicated his intention to write a memoir.

Irish poet and Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney, whose papers also reside at MARBL, hailed the arrival of Rushdie’s archive.

“When John Keats compared a stack of books to a garnering of ‘the full ripened grain’, he could have been thinking of the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory,” Heaney said. “This is one of the world’s most important word-hoards, and the acquisition of Salman Rushdie’s papers—the gleanings of yet another ‘teeming brain’—is further cause for rejoicing in the work being done at Emory.”

Rushdie’s decision to sell his papers to Emory surprised some British institutions that are concerned about preserving Britain’s literary heritage. But Rushdie said the move was a matter of opportunity and timing.

“[Emory] asked if I’d ever thought about putting my archive anywhere, and to tell you the truth, until that moment I really hadn’t,” Rushdie told London’s Sunday Times. “My archive is so voluminous that I don’t have room in my house for it, and it’s in an outside storage facility. I was worried about that and wanted to feel it was in a safe place.” The British Library, he told the Times, “Never asked me about the archive.”

Born in Bombay, India, and raised in a middle-class Muslim family, Rushdie was educated at King’s College, Cambridge. During the Ellmann lectures, he spoke of his conflicted identity and how his eventual embrace of his Indian birth helped him find his voice as a writer. Much of his work is set in India and weaves together themes of political unrest, religious identity, and magical realism. His journals seem to be the vessel of a mind both ordered and richly creative; on one page, he might meticulously map out the structure of a book, while another will contain quirky, detailed drawings of a character in the book or perhaps in Rushdie’s life.

His novel Midnight’s Children won the Booker Prize in 1981 and in 1993 was named the best Booker Prize winner in a span of twenty-five years. Set at the time of India’s independence from Great Britain in 1947—also the year of Rushdie’s birth—the novel tells the story of 1,001 children with magical properties born within an hour of midnight on that historic day.

As a teacher and lecturer, Rushdie will bring a deep multicultural perspective and a fierce commitment to human rights. The role of artistic freedom in confronting oppression is among the themes the University will explore in coming months.

“Mr. Rushdie brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to help us understand the fault lines between cultures that threaten to rupture societies,” says Dean Paul.

But in addition to his academic role, Rushdie also will live here, at least for a time, and join the swift current of “the whole of human life.”

“Rushdie has agreed to teach a course and give an annual lecture, but he will also be a part of the Emory community,” Enniss says. “I think there’s a public image of Rushdie as a rather formidable intellectual and literary artist, and while that’s true, the person of Rushdie is very approachable and engaging. I fully expect that after years of isolation, he wishes to have a more natural relationship with the University community.”—P.P.P.



 © 2007 Emory University