On Valentine’s Day, 1989, Salman Rushdie’s identity was hacked in two. In the months beforehand, the much-praised British writer had already become the target of a bitter controversy over his most recent novel, The Satanic Verses, which many Muslims claimed to contain a blasphemous reimagining of Islam’s origins. But on that day, the dying Iranian theocrat Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini handed down his infamous death sentence on the author. Rushdie was instantly transformed into a household name, recognized around the world for being forced into hiding by the threat of zealot-assassins. As he recalls in his startling new memoir Joseph Anton, the private “Salman” he’d always known himself to be was severed from the public “Rushdie”, a figure both championed as free-speech icon and vilified as murder-worthy heretic.
Joseph Anton is a fascinating account of life at the focal point of what came to be called the Rushdie Affair, in all its fear, confusion, bravery, and absurd logistics. The Straight reached the author in Toronto to talk about the book.
Georgia Straight: Writers often describe the creative process as drawing them into a world that becomes more and more vivid as they work. Did something like that happen to you this time, and return you to this terrible period of your life? Did you relive it?
Salman Rushdie: No, I was really able to revisit it from a different place. One of the things that I tried to make happen in the book was to suggest that the person writing the book—me, now—is not really exactly the same as the self being written about, who obviously was in a time of much greater tribulation and stress and so on, and also of course was much younger. I’m talking here about something that happened when I was 41 years old and lasted about a decade. Even from the end of it to now, it’s already been more than a dozen years. So I felt able to look back at it in that way, almost as if I was a fictional character.
GS: Is that partly why you chose to use the third person throughout, referring to yourself as “he”?
SR: Well, that helped it, yeah. It was also just that I tried to write the book in the first person and I frankly, simply didn’t like it. I didn’t like the sound of it. I mean, I’ve written novels in the first person—Midnight’s Children is written in the first person. But it’s somehow different when the first person is made up to when it’s not. And I just felt I didn’t like the quality of it….I really felt that I wanted this to feel like one of my books. I didn’t want it to feel like something apart from and separate from the rest of my body of work. And for a long time I didn’t know what I meant by that and I didn’t know how to achieve it, and then gradually I worked my way round to thinking of this as a kind of nonfiction novel, of the Schindler’s List, In Cold Blood, Right Stuff, Executioner’s Song sort of book. And I thought, “Write it like that—write it like a novel in which everything’s true.” And that was one of the sort of keys that unlocked the book. And again, the third person was helpful in doing that.
GS: In Joseph Anton, you describe transforming parts of your life into the fiction of Midnight’s Children. How different is the process of storytelling in creating this kind of memoir?
SR: It’s the same thing, really. I actually ended up thinking about this book and Midnight’s Children as sort of looking at each other across my body of work, because they’re probably the two books in which I drew most from personal experience—Midnight’s Children coming out of the experience of childhood and so on. And so at the beginning of my writing life I have this fictionalized version of my family, and at this point in my writing life this nonfictionalized version of my adult self and family. I find myself thinking there’s some odd relationship between those two books because of that—although of course there isn’t, really [laughs].
GS: Given what Joseph Anton is about, and the huge personal toll that the experience you’re describing took on you, is it wrong to say that I found it entertaining?
SR: Oh, no, I’m glad! I’ve been very pleased by the fact that a number of people have said they thought it was really funny. I knew I had a good story to tell and I’ve just tried to tell it, you know? Also, I’ve been relieved to hear that, even though it’s 600 pages, people don’t find it to be a long read—people seem to be absorbed by it and find it exciting to read. And I do think that this strange thing happened to me, that my life became exciting. I mean, most writers’ lives are not that interesting, and I acquired the curse of an interesting life [laughs]. And so I just thought, “Tell the story—just tell the story and let it have its effect.” And I think it is a good story….Bad to live through, interesting to write about.
GS: There’s a fascinating description in the book of how you were for a while “imprisoned by the need to be loved” and hoping to win the understanding of your enemies through some clear statement about your position on The Satanic Verses. Did you have to watch out for that impulse even when writing Joseph Anton?
SR: No, not really—it’s the opposite impulse, in a way. One of my going-in positions in writing this book was “Don’t try to be ingratiating.” And I also knew that the book had to be perhaps more critical of me than of anyone else, because I think a book in which the author is saying how well he behaved while he was surrounded by people who didn’t behave that well would not fool anybody, and wouldn’t be the truth either. So I just thought, “Tell the truth—tell the truth and the hell with it.”…As in any human life, I think there are many things that I wish I hadn’t done or done differently or done sooner or later or whatever. And I think it’s important to say that.
GS: Has your argument in defence of The Satanic Verses changed over the years?
SR: Only, perhaps, in that my convictions have grown stronger. I think we live in a time not only in which there are attacks on free expression everywhere in the world, but in which we are constantly being told that self-censorship is a good thing—the kind of “sit down, you’re rocking the boat” argument. And my view is that great literature has always rocked the boat, and it’s very important not to lose sight of that.
GS: You once argued in an essay that literature is a means of creating frames or pictures that we can step into and inhabit, as a way of making sense of the world.
SR: Yes. Certainly one of the things that I’ve said—I can’t remember if it’s in this book or in something else—is that one of the consequences of the attacks on The Satanic Verses was that that frame, that picture of the world in which one lives, got smashed. Another way of describing that phenomenon is insanity, because we all live inside the picture we have of the world and how it works and where we are situated in it. When you lose that picture it’s very, very bewildering and disorienting. And I had to rebuild it, I had to rebuild the picture of the world for myself which I would be content to live in. And yes, writing this book has been a part of that.
GS: You noted in a recent BBC interview that you don’t think The Satanic Verses would have been published in today’s climate.
SR: I think they’ve slightly exaggerated what I said. I think there’s no question it might be harder, because there was a sort of chilling effect, as it was frightening, and people wouldn’t want that to happen again. And it’s not just The Satanic Verses. For instance, it’s now—what?—a year, a year-and-a-half or two years ago that there was some novel about one of the Prophet’s wives that was published in England and somebody dropped a firebomb through the publisher’s letter box. So I think there still is a fear that any kind of, not even criticism of Islam, but any kind of discussion of Islam could lead to some violent reprisal, and I think people are nervous about that. I mean, I would hope that we’d still manage to find some publisher who had the guts to publish a book like the one I wrote, but I think it would be a bit tougher.
GS: And then there’s the newer mood of self-censorship that you mentioned earlier.
SR: Yeah, there is, and that I worry about a lot, because I think what you want from the arts is that they go to the edge and they ask difficult questions and they say unsayable things and they’re part of the great argument about the world. And to ask writers and artists to gag themselves for fear of offending somebody is a dreadful kind of surrender. We live in this age where people think their right not to be offended trumps the right to free speech. And actually there is no right not to be offended. We don’t have that. The world is offensive. If I go into a bookstore, I bet I could point to a couple of dozen books that I would find offensive, but it doesn’t occur to me to burn the bookstore down. In an open society we just have to learn to accept that everything will be said in every possible way, and some of it we’ll love and some of it we’ll be indifferent to and some of it we won’t like at all. And that’s just how it is. If we’re going to live in free societies, that’s how it has to be.