Friday, May 18, 2007

New Humanism Conference III: Me and Salman

The thing-I-will-never-forget about the New Humanism Conference is that I got to ask Salman Rushdie a question.

The first night of the conference (Friday) was devoted to giving Rusdie some kind of lifetime achievement award in "cultural humanism". So there was a long process of introducing introducers who introduce somebody who introduces Rushdie. I'm sure you know how those things go. Steven Pinker was one of the introducers, and Rebecca Goldstein made some interesting points, so it could have been worse.

Then Rushdie did a reading from "Shalimar the Clown". I liked it a lot. At this point I have to make a shameful confession: I've never read a Rushdie novel. I bought "Satanic Verses" back when the Ayatollah was threatening to have Rushdie killed, but I never got around to reading it. Buying it was more of a political statement than a literary ambition. (I know you're wondering: Whatever happened to the fatwa? It was never officially rescinded, but Rushdie wanders around pretty freely these days. I get the impression that certain circles in Teheran will celebrate when Rushdie dies, but bringing that day closer doesn't seem to be high on anybody's to-do list.)

Afterwards there was a question period. I'm always conflicted in situations like this. Part of me wants to interact with the famous person any way I can, and another part of me is ashamed of that juvenile impulse and sits on it. So if I recognized God having the grand slam breakfast in the next booth at Denny's, I'd probably leave him alone. I don't want to waste his time with something stupid like: "The Universe was just such a cool idea. I really, really like it." I'd try to watch him without being obvious, and then later I'd think: "I can't believe it was like, God, right there. And I didn't say anything."

So I'm not saying anything, and all these people are trying to ask refined literary questions, some more successfully than others. Rushdie is answering them very graciously. One woman is an English teacher whose class read "Midnight's Children". They argued over what the ending meant, and she wants to know what Rushdie thinks it means. And he says exactly the right thing: "It's not my job to say what it means. That's your job."

I'm watching the line of questioners dwindle, when I realize that I actually do want to know something that nobody else is asking. So after some internal debate I stop sitting on my juvenile self and get in line. I continue to be the end of the line, and when the MC offers Rushdie the chance to declare victory and go home, Salman notices that there are only four questioners left and decides to let us ask our questions. I'm last.

I ask: "Looking back at 'The Satanic Verses' and the fatwa and the way it dominated your life for so many years, my question is: Would you do it again?"

And Rushdie very wryly says, "Well, I'd rather not." And then he makes a very interesting comment, which I won't put in quotes because I don't remember it word-for-word. He said that it makes him happy now that finally people can read "Satanic Verses" as a novel. For years, he said, no one commented on it as a novel. You could talk about it in a political context or a religious context, but not in a literary context. He said it was very frustrating as a writer to put so much of your time into writing a piece of fiction and have it talked about every way but as a piece of fiction.

Then the evening was over and I went home. For a while I thought that although Rushdie's answer had been interesting, he had sort of dodged the question. I had meant to ask: Knowing what he knows now, knowing what the effect on his life would be, would he have written and published "Satanic Verses" at all? And he didn't answer that.

At least not directly. As I thought about his answer and about the general tone of his other answers, I realized something: This crowd had gathered to honor him as a Humanist hero, and he wasn't going to come out and tell them in so many words "Being a hero wasn't worth it." That wouldn't have been gracious at all. Instead he told me that he was glad that the book had stopped being a symbol and gone back to being a novel. Which, I think, sort of means the same thing. But he made it my job to come to that interpretation, not his job.

And I guess that means that the book on my shelf has stopped being a political statement and started being a novel that I haven't read. Maybe I will.


kim said...

From the two things you reported he said, sounds like he was walking his talk.

smellincoffee said...

Have yourself on Humanist Network News yet?

They played back some of Rushdie's talk and then some of the questions. I just realized that yours is one of the ones I heard when I listened to the podcast Friday.

LaReinaCobre said...

I really liked your article/column in the UU world. I saw it advertised on Philocrites' page, and went straight away to read it. I'm a humanist who is not a part of any humanist "circles" so to speak, so it was good to know what is going on these days. It was almost like being there!

Liked your Rushdie anecdote; I've only read his novel, Fury, and didn't like it that much. I think it was about a dirty old man, which for some reason I think of Rushdie as being (maybe not so old). It's probably just the eyebrows and the accent.

Doug Muder said...

lareinacobre is too quick for me. I now have a a post up where you can comment on my UU World column.