Salman Rushdie’s recent memoir documents the years he lived in hiding after Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran called for his death.
The death sentence was in response to his novel The Satanic Verses, which was largely about exile and identity, but included a story about the prophet Muhammed. Khomeini deemed the passage blasphemous and issued a fatwa ordering his followers to kill Rushdie. For 10 years, Rushdie hid in various safe houses in the United Kingdom and the U.S.
Rushdie’s memoir is titled Joseph Anton, after the pseudonym he took from the first names of two of his favorite authors, Conrad and Chekhov. Think Out Loud’s Dave Miller spoke with Rushdie about the book, which chronicles Rushdie’s early life in India as well as the fatwa conflict, at Literary Arts in downtown Portland.
On storytelling lessons he learned growing up:
“I became very interested in the fact that India has such a living, vibrant tradition of oral storytelling. There are still parts of India in which thousands of people will gather to hear somebody tell them a story, and if you go to one of these, which I’ve done, the storytelling breaks all the rules of storytelling. That’s to say, the advice given by the Red King to the White Rabbit [in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland] in court when the White Rabbit is flustered and doesn’t know how to give evidence, the king says start at the beginning, go on until you reach the end, and then stop. That’s supposed to be how you tell a story. The oral storytellers don’t do that. They go in great circling loops and digressions, and they introduce bits of song and bits of autobiographical anecdote and dirty jokes and bits of a dance and etc. There’s about five or six different kinds of things going on at the same time. This is what we’re taught would make it complicated to hear and difficult to follow, but instead it’s mesmerizing. After all, the oral story is a form in which you can tell at once if you’ve lost your audience because it gets up and walks away.”
On what was at stake during the fatwa against him:
“There was of course a personal issue, which is I wanted to come out the other end in one piece, and I was worried about my family and my publishers and translators. There were a lot of people in considerable danger, and I wanted them to be out of danger. There was that. But also I thought it was impossible to consider losing this fight because of what one would lose. What would it mean to lose this argument? It would mean that the fanatical leader of tyranny in Iran could dictate what people everywhere else in the world were allowed to read. Because it’s not only the rights of writers that are at stake here; it’s the rights of readers to choose what they want to read.”
On whether the experience made him stronger:
“I do think it was useful for me to find out that I was tougher than I thought I was. If you’d asked me in February ’89, if you’d said, ‘Here’s what’s going to happen to you in the next decade. What sort of shape do you think you’ll be in at the end of it?’ I would probably have assumed that I would be some kind of basket case, but I discovered, somehow, that I was able to resist. Part of that is me, part of that is an incredibly supportive group of friends and family who were there for me at that time, but yeah, it’s useful to know that I didn’t break. Came close to it.”
On whether he censors himself now:
“This whole experience bred in me a deep stubbornness. I thought, ‘I’m not going to be the person they want me to be,’ so it had the opposite effect on me. I think of writing as a privilege. I think of it as a vocation, not as a job. I think of it in a way that a teacher would think about teaching or a nurse would think about nursing. I think that it’s a calling, and if you’re lucky enough to be able to do it, it’s a privilege, and you have to be worthy of it, and I think self-censorship is unworthy — then don’t do it. Nobody’s making you do it. It’s not compulsory to be a writer. If you’re going to be the kind of chicken-sh** writer who’s scared to say what you think, don’t do it. Go and get a different kind of job.”
To hear Think Out Loud’s full conversation with Salman Rushdie, click on the audio player at the top of this article.