Over the course of the 2013-14 school year, the Center for the Arts and Humanities has hosted a series of conversations, exhibitions, film screenings, performances, and lectures to explore the themes of censorship and free speech. To conclude this campus-wide initiative, Sir Salman Rushdie, the most renowned of the series’ speakers came to Colby College’s Lorimer Chapel Thursday night for what would prove to be a humorous, thought-provoking, and forward-looking lecture on the role of art in our contemporary global world.
Before delving into the details of Thursday night, I think it’s necessary to elaborate on Sir Salman Rushdie’s accomplishments and his reputation. Sir Salman Rushdie is both one of the most celebrated and also controversial authors of our time. From his first novel, Grimus (1975), to his Booker prize winning Midnight’s Children (1981), to his collection of children’s stories, Haroun and the Sea Stories (1990), Rushdie has explored the ever-changing sociopolitical world landscape through his own style of magical realism, a style that combines realistic settings with fable, fantasy, and satire. Yet despite his artistic ingenuity so relevant to our contemporary moment, Rushdie is perhaps most well known for the ire received from Islamic fundamentalists following the publication of his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses (1988). Following its publication, the book was banned in several countries and caused riots and demonstrations in the UK, India, Pakistan, and South Africa. Many Islamic fundamentalists took offense a passage, where a character named Salman alters the prophet Mahound’s dictation. Additionally, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran, declared a “fatwa” or death-sentence and multi-million dollar bounties on Rushdie.
Although Sir Salman Rushdie’s speech in Lorimer Chapel broadly revolved around the issue of censorship, he turned attention away from the spectacular nature of his conflict with Islamic fundamentalists and towards a deeper and more thought-provoking topic: the role of the artist and art in our global world.
Sir Salman Rushdie’s arrival was highly anticipated, and tickets to the event sold out quickly. To accommodate the community’s desire to hear Rushdie, Colby also offered live streams of the event in Ostrove auditorium and Lovejoy. Even in light of this anticipation and the huge round of applause he received, Sir Salman Rushdie kept the mood of his talk light yet insightful, joking that although writers are not naturally prone to giving grand speeches, he follows the legacy left by Charles Dickens, whose rough schedule of performing “greatest hits” has apparently caught on.
Rushdie was quick to pay homage to the writers who came before him. He especially commemorated the life and work of the extraordinary Columbian author, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, who died that day, and whose magical realist stories illustrated provincial Columbia.
By honoring the legacies of authors such as Dickens and Márquez, Salman Rushdie emphasized a vital role of literature: to bring news to people about a specific moment in time and place. To Rushdie, this role is getting more and more complicated as our world becomes increasingly global.
In our contemporary moment, television and the Internet have become much more popular mediums to circulate news. However, as Rushdie pointed out, the quality of this news has greatly degraded as our popular contemporary culture has become more interested “by Kim Kardashian’s behind,” the spectacular, and ultimately ignorance.
And whereas great national novels like Pride and Prejudice used to be able to accurately and deeply portray their moments in time, Rushdie argued that literature can no longer be so parochial and achieve the same goal. Whereas the great British novel could concern itself solely with local matters, Rushdie implored the audience that we must today “read outside [our] own little world … [and] use literature as a way of learning about the world.” Rushdie implored us to seek the news from literature like Phil Klay’s Redeployment, which intimately takes readers to the front lines of Iraq and Afghanistan. He implored us to read more translated works and works from around the world: for instance, the stories of the Vietnamese-born Australian writer Nam Le, and the South-Korean translator and writer Lee Yun-gi.
To Rushdie, contemporary literature deals with a unique problem. It must intimately focus on specific human characters while simultaneously recognizing the impact of external factors that increasingly shape our lives: religion, politics, bombs, and catastrophes. Rushdie posed a series of question to the audience. What happens in a world when character is no longer destiny? When the Arab world collides with the lives of New Yorkers? When the fate of New Yorkers didn’t rely on their greed or kindness or any of their individual character? Now we live in a world where, like Rushdie’s Midnight Children states, “Most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence.” Although we live in a world still populated by people and characters, we feel less in control of our destiny than perhaps ever before.
To meet these challenges in an increasingly complex and interconnected world, Salman Rushdie tells us the artist must define his human characters more broadly than ever. But in this task, the artist inevitably encounters resistance from powerful political forces. Identity politics asks us to define ourselves in narrow terms- a single thing – Western, Muslim, Eastern. It is fashionable to define ourselves by opposition – we define ourselves within boundaries opposed to the things we don’t like. But Rushdie emphasizes that the novel knows this to be a lie. Literature knows humans are richly complex and contradictory.
Art tries to push out the boundaries and increase by some small measure the sum total of what we are able to think and feel, and therefore what we are able to be.
Sir Salman Rushdie reminds us of art’s resiliency and its power to expand the meanings of our identity in spite of powerful forces that “would prefer the universe to be shut down quite a lot.” He reminds us that the word Impressionist was once used as an insult; that the poetry of Ovid outlived the restrictions of the Roman Empire. Sir Salman Rushdie shows us art’s power to uncover censorship.
“Gabriel García Márquez.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2014. Britannica Online Academic Edition. Web. 19 Apr. 2014.
“Sir Salman Rushdie.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2014. Britannica Online Academic Edition. Web. 19 Apr. 2014.
“Salman Rushdie.” Gale Database: Contemporary Authors Online. 2012. Gale Literary Databases. Web. 19 Apr. 2014.