© 2014 Valerie Dionne

Man the Story Telling Animal: A Night With Mr. Salman Rushdie by Uzoma Orchingwa

Being marked for death is a state of existence few human beings will ever know; it is a plight reserved for the worst criminals, terrorists, traitors, despots, and sometimes—even writers. On Thursday night April 17th I was sitting in the back of Lorimer Chapel waiting for novelist Salman Rushdie to arrive for his lecture. In just a few minutes the entire chapel was filled, smiles and handshakes were exchanged, routine introductions were made, and obsequious praises were sung to the college President Bro Adams without whom this wondrous night would not have been possible. Mr. Rushdie stepped to the podium and like all talented orators immediately captured his audience, not with poetry but with simply humor; he had them all gripped and would never let go.

As he spoke I found myself frantically writing, trying to transcribe every word. To produce an excellent blog post I mustn’t miss a word I thought, a profound idea, quote, a deep insight could come at anytime I ought to write down everything. Then it occurred to me that to play the role of a mere transcriber would be to miss the essence of the lecture, so I decided to put down the pen and be fully present. As I looked up, and scanned the room, every body was perched up right, blonde hair, black hair, red hair, bald head, small head, gray head, all affixed upon the man behind the podium. Gabriel Garcia Marquez passed away today he said, one of the greatest of us all. You could sense the room’s grief as subtle as it may have been. I do not know if many in the audience knew the name Mr. Rushdie had just uttered, but they felt because they could see that he felt. Mr. Rushdie went on to tell a story about his once trilingual phone conversation with the now deceased Spanish literary giant; “I don’t read too much that is not written in Spanish,” he says to Mr. Rushdie, “but when I do…I read two writers,” and Mr. Rushdie was one of them. Beyond the affinity for magic that both men shared, and the surreal imagery that enchants their very real stories, both knew something of censorship, and knew it quite well. Mr. Marquez fought it and wrote about its many forms throughout his life, and Mr. Rushdie was marked by it.

Attempting to prohibit the telling of story “is more profound than censorship, it is an existential offense,” pronounced Mr. Rushdie from the podium. The audience was moved but I don’t think many understood that this was a double-entendre, for it was coming from a man who was marked for death, a man whose very existence was attacked simply for engaging with his innate right to tell a story. Mr. Rushdie in this profound and very personal insight was embracing an age-old belief about human ontology, which situates story within man’s very nature. Just as Hobbes places selfishness and violence at our core, as Rousseau imputes reason at our center, and as Marx announces that we are “homo-faber,” man the maker; Salman accepts that we are man the story-teller, beings that need to tell stories in order to make meaning for ourselves.

In his Luka and the Fire of Life, he spells it out very clearly, “Man is the Storytelling Animal, and that in stories are his identity, his meaning, and his lifeblood…Man alone burns with books.” But just as man alone burns with books, he too alone burns books. Censorship is an affront to our own ontology; it is an attack on the type of beings that we are. Stories allow us to make meaning of our lives; they allow us to understand our world, to examine ourselves, to critique our surroundings and progress as a people. Any attempt to limit this capacity threatens our very humanity. Mr. Rushdie feels this reality even more acutely because his ontology was not merely attacked in principle but also in the physical. In telling a story it was not just the books that were burned, the man himself was condemned to be burned with them.

We need storytellers because they expose the universe. Storytellers reveal the world; they lay bare the truth that is. But perhaps there are some that would rather not have the truth revealed. Mr. Rushdie told us that much of his work deals with migration, a person’s journey from one land to another, and one’s attempt to make meaning of one’s new world. This he said is rooted in his own biography, his own life story. But a migration from where? Mr. Rushdie was born in India and lived much of his life in England, many of his works have been set in the Indian subcontinent, one particular work Shame deals with Pakistan. “In Pakistan, the very act of remembering has become a political act;” there are events he tells us, that the government has forbidden journalists and writers from telling the truth about.

There is an official story, and then there is a true story, however, there are consequences for recollecting and engaging with the latter. So what is a storyteller to do when he is barred from using the truth? Quoting Milan Kundera, Mr. Rushdie said, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Storytellers are a threat to power, they are a threat to the ruling order because they can pierce through the façade and artfully depict to the public the world as it is. And since, power depends on conformity and misinformation, storytellers must always be monitored and sometimes silenced. This is why we must protect and defend our writers, said the man behind the podium. However, this wasn’t merely uttered as a conclusion to his argument, but this was a personal plea for himself: ‘defend me and people like me.’ You see it occurred me, that lecture was much more than some gifted novelist sharing some insight with a group of students and faculty whose college was wealthy enough to foot the bill, this was a storyteller formerly and still marked for death sharing his life, his philosophy, and offering a plea which many even the Prince of his adopted country England rejected years ago; “defend writers,” defend me. Writers are our windows into truth, our ambassadors into the offices of power; without them we are shutout.

On September 11th, 2001, a Boeing 767 flew into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, minutes later another Boeing 767 flew into the South Tower. New York City would never be the same, America would never be the same, the world would never be the same, and according to Mr. Rushdie the novel would never be the same. 911 shattered the assumption at the crux of the novel, a maxim that dates back to Heraclitus, one that Mr. Rushdie firmly believes in: “character is destiny,” he bold asserted. But in 911, innocent men and women were robbed of the destinies that their characters ought to have promised. So what is a writer to do now, in a world where character no longer guarantees destiny? How can you write a novel, he asked, when the character of your character does not define his end? These were beautiful questions extrapolated from a powerful insight, drawn from a horrific catastrophe. I as I’m sure the entire audience of blonde heads, red heads, gray heads, and small heads, that remained affixed upon the podium were moved.

But then it occurred to me that although these were beautiful questions extrapolated from a powerful insight, drawn from a horrific catastrophe, the original premise was wrong; in reality character is not destiny. Just because Ahab’s character determined his fall, or because Macbeth’s character determined his demise, or even because Okonkwo’s character lead to his suicide, does not mean that in reality character compels destiny. The world is ambiguous; justice rarely visits those who deserve it, and injustice often visits those who do not. Our economy crashed in 2008 because of the greed of a group of Wall Street bankers, yet not one has see an indictment let alone the inside of a prison cell. There are despots, crooks, and thieves, who kill, pillage, and rape, yet go on to live long and prosperous lives. American history is filled with stories of innocent lives who have met nothing but brutality. Slaves, Native Americans, abolitionists, and the like, whose goodness brought nothing but a life and death in misery. So I am left wondering, do novels and the storytellers who give them to us, paint a world that is, or do they paint the world as is and also as they want it to be?

911 most definitely changed something and it did so in a very profound way. Mr. Rushdie beautifully articulated this at the end of his lecture. On that day the Arab world collided with the West, and public life and private life became one. No longer could one write or think about New York or a New Yorker without thinking of that event, no longer could one think of America or an American without thinking of that event, it was no longer pliable for one to think of themselves as a being in the 21st century without trying to understand that event and what it meant about the present, the past and the future. Who better to help us make meaning of this all than the storyteller?

Mr. Rushdie ended by telling us that the collapse of the barrier between public and private, the transparent nature of things, and the multitude of new technologies and media that work to provide us with information and meaning, although, on the surface might appear to be liberating actually stifles truth, it makes it harder to find what is indeed meaningful. We live in an age where a lot is said but nothing is said, or at least very little that is worthwhile. This is why the storyteller remains crucial to our livelihood; we need the novelist, the Marquez, the Achebe, the Morrison, and the Rushdie. We need not only men that will give us a window into power, but also one’s that can give us truth in the midst of all this new noise and loud misinformation.

Like all great orators do, Mr. Rushdie left us with a question to ponder. As the blonde heads, red heads, gray heads, and small heads, began to slouch in fatigue, he asked us, where do we go from here? We are living in a new age, and it not just the professional storytellers who have the capacity to shape it, we all do, we call can express ideas, and help to define meaning. But this is only possible if you and I preserve and defend our freedom of expression. In an age of mass surveillance and eroding civil liberties, speech becomes the most dangerous and most important weapon. Mr. Rushdie is a symbol of the might of speech, the threat it poses to power, and what power will do to stifle it.

It was a good thing I stopped transcribing, I might have missed a wonderful lecture.


Salman and Zo and I2

Valérie Dionne, the author Uzoma Orchingwa and Salman Rushdie