The Iconoclast

Salman Rushdie discusses free speech, fundamentalism, America's place in the world, and his new essay collection

Salman Rushdie is a political novelist whose political and novelistic instincts have long been in tension with each other. From age 15 he was drawn to the Marxist left, an attraction that eventually led him to the jungles of Nicaragua as a guest of the Sandinista regime. The result was 1987's The Jaguar Smile, which issued an overly optimistic account of Nicaragua's future under its socialist rulers. The book made Rushdie a darling of the left and a pariah among conservatives.

Rushdie's novelistic sensibility, in contrast to his political sensibility, is individualistic, even entrepreneurial: Even at age 58 he is a literary risk-taker, a stance underscored by the title of his new essay collection, Step Across This Line.

At a time when Western writings about India were dominated by E. M. Forster�style nostalgia about the Raj, Rushdie wrote Midnight's Children (1980), an Indian perspective on the end of colonial rule. The book's most remarkable feature was that instead of adapting India to fit the prevailing English idiom and style, as most writers, Western and Indian, had done until then, Rushdie adapted English to fit India. He invented a whole new prose and narrative style to capture the colorful, chaotic, and cacophonous reality of his homeland. Breaking from cool Forsterian tones, Rushdie's prose has a frenetic energy that is enhanced by a generous peppering of Hindi and Urdu words used without italics, much less explanation, as if India's bustling polyglot cities leave no time for such linguistic courtesies.

Rushdie's literary iconoclasm derives not merely from the demands of his subject matter but from a deep personal instinct: his hatred of all orthodoxies, especially religious ones. Although he grew up in a Muslim household, he rejected his faith at a young age and still remains a resolute unbeliever. While Rushdie's literary iconoclasm has earned him a place in the pantheon of the world's great contemporary writers, his religious iconoclasm has not produced such happy results. His 1988 book The Satanic Verses included a parody of Islam that incensed Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, who charged Rushdie with apostasy and issued a fatwa calling for his death.

For years the fatwa forced Rushdie into hiding in London. It cost him his marriage and isolated him from his young son. The book was banned in India and he was barred from his homeland. Desperate to resume normal life, Rushdie apologized to Muslims and even formally converted to Islam, a move that he later repudiated.

An iconoclast's soul cannot come to terms with tyranny. In Rushdie's case, the ordeal of being hunted and censored heightened the tension between his political and literary sensibilities, sparking--to use the Marxist term--an inner dialectic. That experience has brought him around to a fundamental libertarian concern: freedom.

It is a theme repeatedly examined in the essays that make up Step Across This Line, which were written in the post-fatwa years. Now based in New York, Rushdie visited Michigan State University this spring to lecture on the book.

Shikha Dalmia, a freelance writer who emigrated from India to Michigan, interviewed Rushdie during his stay.

Reason: Step Across This Line is about crossing frontiers--physical, metaphorical, moral. The biggest frontier you've crossed is from being a free, ordinary man to being a hunted man. How did that affect your writing?

Salman Rushdie: The most direct effect was that I lost the equivalent of one novel. There was so much time and effort and stress dedicated to fighting the threats and getting them reversed, there were long stretches when I had no time to work because these other things took precedence.

���� In terms of the actual content of the writings, I'm not sure. It is very hard for me to separate what's just a side effect of growing older and getting more experience and what is specifically attributable to that threat. I suppose I became more intellectually engaged in the subject of freedom. If you live in free countries you don't have to spend all your life arguing about freedom because it is all around you. It seems redundant to make a lot of noise about something when, in fact, there it is. But if someone tries to remove it, it becomes important for you to formulate your own defenses of it.

���� The thing I feared most after the fatwa was that there were a number of ways my writing could be derailed by that attack. In a literary sense, I was afraid I would write much more cautious books. Or alternatively, that I would become embittered and write more hostile books. I realized that both of these outcomes would be catastrophes, because that would make me entirely a creature of the event. I would stop being the writer I had set out to be, and I would become the writer who had been recreated because of the attack on Satanic Verses. I told myself very early on that I wasn't going to fall into those elephant traps.

Reason: Had the fatwa come earlier in your career, do you think it would have derailed your efforts to find yourself as a writer?

Rushdie: Very possibly. It almost did derail me. But I think I had enough under my belt and enough sense of where I wanted to go as a writer that I was able to go on.

Reason: Do you think freedom of speech is threatened by cultural relativism--by the idea that principles like free expression are not universal truths but simply local cultural constructs?

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