Salman Rushdie on life as Joseph Anton, the problems of free speech, and the importance of telling the ‘goddamn truth’.
“My going-in position was simply that: ‘Just tell the goddamn truth.’ Nobody’s forcing you to write a memoir,” Salman Rushdie tells radio host Richard Wolinsky, describing the process of translating his experience living under prosecution into text. After Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie in 1989 for his novel The Satanic Verses, the author spent a decade with his life and his family’s safety at constant risk. Rushdie revisits this troubled time and considers what it meant to create in the context of chronic displacement and frequent despair. “It’s a terrible thing that your life turns into a good story,” Rushdie contends, as he reflects on his decision to approach this period from a novelistic perspective, creating a character of his younger self to navigate the “dailiness” of controversy and hounding.
In the exchange that follows, Rushdie explores the art of creating a personal history, resisting censorship, and embodying cultural conflict. Although the fatwa was lifted in 1998, the author’s work still arouses fevered reactions—even continued calls for his murder—underscoring the contentious nature of history and the political aspects of writing fiction. (Last month, an Iranian religious foundation renewed the fatwa and raised the reward. Via email, Rushdie responded to the New York Times’ Charles McGrath by writing: “I’m not inclined to magnify this ugly bit of headline grabbing by paying it much attention.”)
Author of eleven novels, a short story collection, and three nonfiction works, the Booker Prize-winning Rushdie notes that the world is changing, morphing at a bewildering pace. And, even as new developments transform society, so too does fundamentalism increase, and with it the risk of provoking outrage and violence. However, Rushdie declares, “I believe in the art of literature, I believe in freedom of the imagination, I believe in the kind of liberties that we enjoy in these lucky countries of the world, and I’m just going to say that. And, if you don’t like it, to hell with you.”
Richard Wolinsky: Well, we’re now going through a period where suddenly there’s been conflict, and there was that video, [“Innocence of Muslims”]. You stop every so often and discuss some of these issues including the notion of cultural relativism… [Your book] kind of put me in a better space than I was in terms of the video. Because a part of me was going, “Well, yeah, but Salman was writing art and… the purpose of this video is to rile up sentiment and create what happens.” And yet at the same time it’s all free speech.
Salman Rushdie: Unfortunately, the problem of the free speech argument is that you have to defend people you can’t stand. Because free speech is not just free speech for people you admire. It’s also for people who you think of as reprehensible. People can do bad things with free speech as well as good. You have to defend the Ku Klux Klan as well as Martin Luther King. It’s like that. If you’re going to defend the principle, then you have to defend people who use the principle badly. Very often in free speech cases you find yourself defending material that you personally detest, because of course it’s no trick to defend the free speech of people you either agree with or who don’t particularly upset you. It’s when people really upset you that you discover if you believe in free speech or not.
Richard Wolinsky: Part of the arguments by some of the critics of Satanic Verses is it’s not a good book, and I’m thinking, “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter the quality of the book.”
Salman Rushdie: I know. I mean, actually it doesn’t matter, because the principle is the principle. Although I was, I suppose, vain enough to think that there actually is a quality defense here. You actually can defend this in the way that Ulysses or Lady Chatterley were defended. And actually, of course, many of the people who defended Lady Chatterley afterwards admitted that they thought it was a really bad book. But they had sort of perjured themselves for the sake of its liberty, if you like. Anyway, but you see, violence changes the subject. It seems to me it’s perfectly possible to vehemently disagree with a piece of work and to say that it’s offensive and insulting and so on and so on. And you’re absolutely entitled to do that and to speak back, if you like, against that piece of speech with all the vehemence at your disposal. I mean, that’s legitimate. Even other things. When there were demonstrations against The Satanic Verses, for example. People have a right to demonstrate. You can’t assume if you do something contentious that people will be on your side. The moment violence enters the story, the story changes. Then the question is, “How do you face up to violence?” And then you have to have a no-compromise position. And this is quite simply a lesson we learn in the school playground. If you give in to the threat of violence, if you give in to bullying, what you know is that there will be more bullying. There will not be less bullying. If you appease the bully, you make sure that he will bully you some more. Not less. It doesn’t solve the problem. It makes the problem worse. So the only position when violence is threatened in response to a novel or a cartoon or a crappy YouTube video is a no-surrender position. This is how we live. We live in a country in which we have these rights, and we’re not going to give them up. Full stop. The end.