By Jacqueline Lademann
In October this year Sir Salman Rushdie will be awarded the Pen Pinter Prize, given each year to a British writer or a writer resident in Britain of outstanding literary merit who, in the words of Harold Pinter’s Nobel speech, casts an ‘unflinching, unswerving’ gaze upon the world, and shows a ‘fierce intellectual determination … to define the real truth of our lives and our societies’.
Sir Salman Rushdie has demonstrated across his body of work that he more than meets the criteria of that prize.
Attendees of the Melbourne Writers Festival heard Rushdie speaking to Radio National's, Michael Cathcart at the Sofitel on Friday. He was charming, funny and candid about his experiences growing up in Bombay, attending the famous Rugby School in Warwickshire and then going on to read history at Cambridge. He described that time at Cambridge, from 1965 to 1968, as being in "the epicentre of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll". Needless to say those memories are fond ones.
The discussion then moved on to the success that he enjoyed with his Booker Prize winning novel, Midnight's Children. In that work Rushdie brought his love of history to the fore, combining it with fond memories of his childhood and later travels in Bombay. Coupling the life of the narrator, Saleem Sinai with the much bigger story of the history of India, from independence and partition through to the turbulent 1970's and 'the Emergency' imposed by the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. With the publication of Midnight's Children he became a firm fixture in the literary canon.
Then along came Valentine's Day, 1989, theAyatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa against Rushdie in reaction to a passage in his 1988 book, The Satanic Verses. The problematic passage concerned an Islamic tradition that talks about the Prophet Mohammed speaking a number of verses to be included in the Qur'an, only to withdraw them, declaring that he had been tricked by the devil. Despite the fact that as Rushdie said, "(He) didn't invent it, it was part of Islamic tradition" and was "an idea that had its genesis all the way back during his days at Cambridge", the Ayatollah, and others in the Islamic world took offence. As a result Rushdie was obliged to go into hiding for more than a decade.
Cathcart asked whether it was worth it as he said, "It was just a novel, just a book. Why not withdraw the book and be done with it?" Rushdie answered that that wasn't an option for him, "there were too many writers who came before him who had had to defend their work." There were two fundamental principles that he was defending. One was the principle of freedom of speech. As he said you "either have the right or you don't... you lose the freedoms that you don't defend." The second was that of standing up to terrorism. He argues that if you "give in to terrorism, you guarantee that it will just keep happening."
Also, he felt that i was worth defending, because it is a good book. He talked about 'the quality defence' that has been used to defend books that had been banned, Lady Chatterley's Lover and Ulysses for example. But, he felt dismayed that through it all few people seemed to think that 'the quality defence' could be used here. However, as time has moved on, and the furore has died down, people are reading it again, and judging it as a novel. He said that "people will love it, hate it, they might not understand it, and that's okay, that's the normal life of a novel, and (he) is glad that The Satanic Verses has been allowed to have that chance."
At a time when the issue of writers at risk is in the news lately, thanks to the beheading of American journalist James Foley; the imprisonment of the Al Jazeera three and the almost daily reminder that writer's all around the world are risk, it is timely that we hear from Rushdie, a man who has become synonymous with standing up to tyrants who want to silence writers.
Truth is in the eye of the beholder. One man's truth is another man's lie. But, what we want most from a writer is honesty. Only by being honest with themselves, and their audience can a writer get at the deeper truth of life. It is when writers open up and expose themselves in order to deliver truth that we get a body of work like the world has received from the master storyteller and master truth teller, Sir Salman Rushdie.