Thursday, June 19, 2008

HAPPY BIRTHDAY! Salman Rushdie

I had the pleasure of meeting Rushdie in 1998, shortly after he emerged from nearly a decade of hiding under threat of death. He was a special (and secret) guest at the sales conference I attending when I repped for Holtzbrinck (now Macmillan USA). Henry Holt was about to publish The Ground Beneath Her Feet and brought Rushdie to a company dinner to launch the book. At the time, Rushdie traveled with a heavy security
detail. It was widely believed that the bathroom attendants on duty that evening weren't employees of the hotel, if you catch my drift. I never, in a million years, thought I would get to meet Rushdie, whom I'd admired as a writer since the early 1980s. Needless to say, it was quite a treat for me to eat dinner at his table. But Rushdie had a present for us, too—a very rough studio cut of the song "The Ground Beneath Her Feet," performed by Rushdie's friends, U2.

Happy Birthday Salman Rushdie!

It's the birthday of Salman Rushdie, (books by this author) born in Bombay, India (1947), two months before India's first day of independence. He comes from a wealthy Muslim family. His father had a huge library and was a wonderful storyteller. He told Rushdie stories every night, many of them fairy tales inspired by One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.

As a teenager, he started going to an elite high school in England where he didn't get along with his classmates, who made fun of his accent.

Home from a school vacation, he found out that his parents were moving to Pakistan as part of a large Muslim exodus, and Rushdie was crushed. He didn't like England, he didn't like Pakistan, and now he couldn't go home to Bombay. He tried working as a journalist in Pakistan, but there was too much censorship, so he went back to England and tried to become a writer. When he told his father his plans, his father said, "What on earth would you write about?"

He spent a year as an actor at a fringe theater in London and then supported himself in England by writing for advertising. His first assignment was to write a jingle about the merits of car seat belts, to the tune of a Chuck Berry song. While he was working there, he wrote a science fiction novel called Grimus (1975) that didn't do well. Then he decided to write a book about India, the country that he hadn't seen in years.

Rushdie's novel was called Midnight's Children (1981), the story of a man born the same day India gained independence. The book was a huge success, among both Westerners and Indians. It won the Booker Prize, and Rushdie became the leader of so-called "post-colonial literature." Only Rushdie's family hated the book. He had revealed a lot of family secrets in the novel and nobody appreciated it.

When Rushdie published The Satanic Verses in 1988, most Western critics didn't notice that it would be offensive to Muslims. In the book, Rushdie makes a lot of obscure jokes about the Islamic religion, he names the whores in a Mecca brothel after the Prophet Muhammad's wives, and he suggests that the Koran is not the direct word of God. The book was banned in India the month after publication and then subsequently in other countries. It was also publicly burned. There were bomb threats called in to the publishing house. Translators of the work suffered assassination attempts; the Italian translator was wounded, the Japanese translator killed, and the fire set by Islamic extremists to the Turkish translator's hotel left 40 people dead.

There was a riot in Kashmir over the book, and the Ayatollah Khomeini saw scenes from the riot on Iranian television in which police shot demonstrators. After that, the Ayatollah announced that "all zealous Muslims of the world" should try to find Rushdie wherever he was and kill him. The order of death came from Iran's leader on Valentine's Day, 1989. The Ayatollah promised martyrdom for any Muslim who was successful in killing Rushdie, and another religious leader promised a million-dollar reward, doubled if the killer was Muslim.

Rushdie had to go into hiding for nine years. On the first anniversary of the fatwa, he wrote, "I feel as if I have been plunged, like Alice, into the world beyond the looking glass, where nonsense is the only available sense."

The death sentence was finally lifted in 1998. Rushdie later said, "The experience taught me ... a lot about the human capacity for hatred. But it also taught me the opposite: the capacity for solidarity and friendship. ... My Norwegian publisher was shot three times in the back and ... his first reaction, upon recovering from the bullet wounds, was to reprint the book. That's courage." After the fatwa was lifted, Rushdie decided to leave London and move to New York City. He was attracted to New York because he said, "A lot of people had a lot of stories not unlike mine. Everybody comes from somewhere else." His most recent book is The Enchantress of Florence (2008).


Terri B. said...

Hi Jennifer! Just popping around some book blogs and found yours. Thanks for the post about Rushdie. I recently read my first Rushdie book (Enchantress...) and enjoyed it, but don't know much about his history except that he lived with a death threat for many years. So interesting to find out more about him. Here's my review if you're interested.

jennifer said...

Hello Terri,
Thanks for visiting! I haven't had a chance to read Enchantress yet, but I have only heard the usual publishers' hype. So I do appreciate an opportunity to read your review. Cheers!