Updated on November 6, 2015
Salman Rushdie at the Bristol Festival of Ideas
The Bristol Festival of Ideas is fantastic and I look at the listings every year, but they seem to constantly change, so it was a friend who alerted me to the fact that Salman Rushdie was coming to my city!
I’ve seen Rushdie once before, at a theatre in Venice in conversation with Shaul Bassi, back when I was living there (casual mention, don’t worry about it). I don’t remember a whole lot about that talk, so it was really nice to have a chance to see the great writer again and remind myself why I call him ‘great’.
Rushdie was touring to promote his newest novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (a reference to the famous One Thousand and One Nights stories). If you’re thinking that title is pretty long and laborious, so did his publishers, and Rushdie said that he tried to think of a new one but in the end had to tell them, “This is just what it’s called”. The book is about what happens when the division between our world and the magical world of the ‘jinn’ breaks down, and the adventures had by various descendants of the jinn who are just discovering their fantastical powers. It all sounds quite X-Men meets Middle Eastern fairytale and, I must say, that definitely grabs me.
The interviewer asked a little about the origins of this novel, and Rushdie described his writing process and his sudden horrifying realisation, halfway through, that he might just be rewriting I Dream of Jeannie, that American fantasy sitcom from the 60s. It would appear that he managed to write himself out of that particular quandary – of course he did, he’s Rushdie and is thus capable of writing complex, important topics into truly fantastical situations. He described himself as an urban writer, saying that he deliberately makes his novels crowded with side stories so that the main thread of his story has to push through the others, like someone shoving their way down a busy street. He also talked about the tradition of surrealism around the world, and his belief that the term ‘magical realism’ should really only be applied to South American literature, and he described fairytales as an “old way of telling a story that remains very fresh.”
Of course, Rushdie also discussed religion and there was brief mention of the fatwa. He said, “I would really like to never have to write about religion again”, but it is very much part of the conversation and “you can’t not write about it”. Everybody knows that he is an atheist, and it is the ways in which religion operates publicly and affects everyone that is of interest to him now. He said, “If you are religious and get comfort from that, I don’t need to know about it. But as soon as you start coming out and telling other people how to live, then it’s my business”.
But it wasn’t all quite so serious – Rushdie can be funny in writing and he was funny in person too. When asked by an audience-member how he maintains the ability to be creative when there are people trying to silence him, he said, “What else would I do? I have no other skills!” He went on to say that “there are always going to be people who don’t like what you do, and that is sad. In my view, everybody should like what I do. I don’t think there need to be any other writers!”
Ultimately Rushdie’s attitude is to power on, no matter what the academic critics or vocal religious groups say. He wants his books to reach the people who will enjoy them, and he’s not going to shy away from tough subjects for fear of offending people. “Writers have some hardships and don’t stop doing their job, so if it’s my turn then I don’t want to let the side down,” he said. Ultimately, he will not let himself be silenced because criticism does not faze him. “Don’t shut up,” he said. “It’s a great feeling, not caring. It sets you free.”
Have you read any Salman Rushdie? Which book is your favourite?