On Friday, Oct. 25, students, faculty and community members flooded through the doors of Carleton College’s Recreation Center to hear the 2013 Lucas Lecture. The large crowd was drawn in to hear firsthand the stories of world-renowned author Salman Rushdie and to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his book “The Satanic Verses.”
“The Satanic Verses” is a story of immigration from India to London. More people are moving across the world today than ever before, and this novel illustrates many of the experiences and emotions people encounter when they begin living in a new place. As transportation becomes more accessible and commerce spreads globally, cultures blend, and Rushdie’s book aims to capture this cultural complexity.
As the author of 11 novels and many short stories and articles, Rushdie is familiar with criticism of his work. However, according to Rushdie, one of the most frustrating problems with arguments against “The Satanic Verses” was that many of the loudest opposing voices had never actually read the text.
Another frustration Rushdie mentioned was that the literature itself got lost in the controversy. The public focused on whether the book was “good” or “bad” and neglected to discuss the elements that made it a novel, such as the characters or the plot.
“People were assessing my fiction as if it were nonfiction in disguise,” Rushdie said.
After the novel’s publication, there were many threats against Rushdie’s life, and he was taken under British national security. This was a time of stress and worry but also a fascinating experience for a writer so intrigued by social and political dynamics.
“This was a case of medieval crimes being pursued with cunning 21st century weaponry,” Rushdie said.
A unique aspect of Rushdie’s situation was that, unlike many other authors who have been persecuted, he was not living in the country leading the attack during the incident. He was simultaneously immersed in and removed from the conflict. This allowed him a more objective view of the attempted censorship.
Rushdie explained that the success of “The Satanic Verses” is complicated. People were hurt by the conflict over the book, both emotionally and physically. Some translators and publishers were attacked or even killed for defending it. Some bookstores that continued to sell the book were damaged.
“These were all grievous blows,” Rushdie said.
However, in the end, his literature survived. It remains in print in many countries, and Rushdie is still writing. In this light, he considers the book a success because people stood up for the right to free speech and fought against censorship.
According to Rushdie, one of the controversy’s longest-lasting consequences is self-censorship among other authors. A new sense of nervousness has come over writers, he said, making them more hesitant to publish controversial material.
“We need to agree we will not let people from outside the free world decide what writers can write, what publishers can publish and, most importantly, what readers can read,” Rushdie said.
The audience chuckled along with Rushdie as he gave several examples of works he considers of poor quality.
“Even bad writers should be able to write,” he said. He reminded the audience that it is important to fight for free speech even if that means defending things you disagree with.
Alluding to the famous saying, “manuscripts don’t burn,” Rushdie argued that it is not literature itself that must be defended. The content of books possesses a certain permanency that should stand up for itself. Rather, it is the people who create the books who need to be defended. Authors, translators, publishers and book sellers need support.
Rushdie urged the audience to advocate for free speech, whether the work in question is a controversial and politically charged piece of nonfiction, a novel containing a disturbing scene or even a violent YouTube video. He sees all of these as expressions of free speech.
“That’s the thing about rights,” Rushdie said. “If you don’t defend them, you lose them.”
Writers push at the edge of what is permissible, Rushdie said, in an attempt to open the world. There are others who desire to do the exact opposite, to shut down this openness and to prevent discussion from developing.
Authors are charged with the difficult and sometimes dangerous duty to push back because, in the words of Rushdie, “in spite of the risks, in spite of the threats, that is the job.”