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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Salman Rushdie on book tour in D.C.

Salman Rushdie, left, with Robert Siegel at Lisner Auditorium, George Washington University/Patricia Leslie

Despite last month’s warning from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that a fatwa or decree issued in 1989 calling for the assassination of Salman Rushdie may still be in effect, Rushdie addressed a sold-out Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University Monday night where there were no security checks.
No magnetometers, no wands, no bag inspections.

The British-Indian writer who spent ten years in hiding because of a book (Satanic Verses which angered and still does, some Islamic leaders in Iran) came to talk and answer questions posed by NPR’s Robert Siegel about Rushdie’s latest book, Joseph Anton: A Memoir, which describes his undercover life. (The book is named after two writers Rushdie admires, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov, and was a pseudonym Rushdie used.)

While he was in hiding, Rushdie said writing “saved my life….Writers are used to sitting in rooms, staring out the window, wondering what the hell to do.” It’s a good thing he wasn’t a movie producer, he said, for he would not have been able to work. 

“One of the great things about the history of literature,” is that writers are “always taking on tyrants.” Writers speak the truth and tell it "to their faces….If you give in to a bully, you ensure there will be more bullies, not less. We know this as kids. We should remember it as adults….

“The nature of democracy is disagreement….You don’t have to resolve the argument. You just have the freedom to discuss it.”

Many of the evening's questions came from members of the audience which Siegel read to Rushdie.

One person wanted to know if Rushdie had any regrets about Satanic Verses.

No, none. “I’m very proud of it," Rushdie said. "It’s one of the better books I have written. Now that the fuss has died down,” he hopes people will read it like it was intended, as a novel. That’s “beginning to happen.”

He talked about books which pass the test of time because readers like them. “Now, finally, this book [Satanic Verses] has a chance to pass this test.”

Answering another question, he said he tried writing Anton in the first person but didn’t like it and switched to third.

He named James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Franz Kafka as great contemporary writers.

Kafka wrote “dark and scary” things which, at the same time, were “quite funny.”  Rushdie, 65, born in India who speaks with a British accent, was quite funny, too, and at ease, comfortable in the surroundings, and made the audience of about 1,500 laugh several times.  He has been married four times.

He was friends with the late Christopher Hitchens (there’s a “big hole in the world” without him), and they frequently played games including substituting “hysterical sex” for “love” as in Hysterical Sex in the Time of Cholera, and Hysterical Sex is a Many Splendored Thing.

Rushdie said he thought his death sentence would end in a year, but it lasted for ten. It was a situation for him that “endlessly went on.” It wasn't isolation which bothered him as much as claustrophia. He was surrounded by four “enormous men” who were not his closest friends, yet while he was in hiding, everyone kept quiet: housekeepers, the police, neighbors. It was “a battle between love and hate. The reason I am here," he said to applause, "is the power of love which proved itself to be stronger.”

Rushdie has lived in New York City for the past 13 years. The U.S. "is where I began to get my freedom back.” 

His decade-long confinement enabled him to write: “I got a f-ing good book out of it,” he said to cheers, and when he exited the stage, a standing ovation.

The event was sponsored by Politics & Prose Bookstore and The Center for Inquiry-DC.

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