Salman Rushdie, a British-Indian novelist, spoke to a packed Hodson Hall on Tuesday as part of the President’s Reading Series.
Rushdie discussed his experience writing his new novel, The Golden House, and the role that writers have in the current political climate.
Rushdie is widely known for writing The Satanic Verses, which sparked outrage among many Muslims for its portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad and the Quran.
In 1989, former Iranian Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or an Islamic decree, ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie. For almost 10 years, the British government provided security and protection for him.
Rushdie began by reading from The Golden House, which tells the story of a wealthy immigrant family living in New York City. He also talked about the challenge of writing a piece of literature that reflects current events.
“If you do it wrong, then your book is almost immediately worthless in the way of yesterday’s news,” he said. “If you do it right, then hopefully you can capture that moment for now and for posterity.”
During the question and answer section, one audience member asked Rushdie to share his thoughts on the 2016 presidential election. While Rushdie conceded that it is difficult to remain optimistic, he also emphasized that people should not abandon hope.
“One of the things we learn from history is that it can turn on a dime and that enormous changes can take place at a very high speed,” he said. “The idea that the current state of affairs is inevitable and must continue is a fallacy.”
Rushdie also expressed frustration at the low voter turnout in the election. According to data from the U.S. Elections Project, approximately 60 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots last November.
Rushdie went to Trump Tower to join protests following the election and was dismayed to learn that many of the demonstrators hadn’t voted or had cast a vote for a third party candidate.
“If you chose to give up your right to affect this decision, how can you be here to protest it?” he said. “I said, ‘You may not have known this but the actual demonstration was on November the eighth, and you didn’t show up for that one.’”
Another audience member asked Rushdie if the controversy over The Satanic Verses still affects him today. Rushdie said that it doesn’t and that he has been able to leave the events in the past.
“The real threat was never from religious people or from random individuals. It was from professional killers employed and sent by the Iranian regime,” Rushdie said.
He added that the British government, which had been offering its protection, negotiated his safety.
“What happened at the end was a deal between the British government and the Iranian government, which happened at the United Nations about 21 years ago,” he said.
Regarding his writing process, Rushdie explained that it is crucial for writers to leave their comfort zones and experience the world around them.
According to Rushdie, he conducted extensive research to ensure that his characters were true to life while writing The Golden House. For example, one of his characters has high-functioning autism, while another character is transgender.
“Obviously since I’m a kind of an old fashioned heterosexual straight male that’s something I haven’t done: transition,” he said.
Rushdie spoke with transgender friends but also interacted with members of the transgender Hijra community in India. He was writing non-fiction about the community and was able to incorporate what he had learned in his novel.
“The experience of being with them was so powerful for me that I remember thinking, at the time, that there’s more here for me than just this article that I’m writing, so it stayed with me,” Rushdie said.
Because his latest book attempts to depict reality, Rushdie felt it was especially important to accurately and authentically learn about individuals different from himself.
“If you’re going to be any kind of novelist worth your salt, you need to get out of your own comfort zone.”
Rushdie said that his newest novel contains characters with life experiences that are very different from his own.
“It really is about life as it’s really lived, and the more you know about that the more you can write about it,” he said.
He added that The Golden House differs from his other works because of its narrator. Rushdie’s narrators in previous books were all Indian, and this was his first attempt to write from the perspective of a young white male.
“I just wanted to construct this figure who was genuinely not like me and see through him, as a kind of imaginative challenge,” he said.
Rushdie ended the question and answer section by sharing his experiences from the Women’s March in January, which was the largest single-day protest in history.
“I wasn’t trying to go on the Women’s March, because I thought maybe my marching days are over... I’m very glad I actually went,” he said. “I was pleased to see so many men on the Women’s March.”
Many students attended the event because they had read some of Rushdie’s novels. Graduate student Pooja Deshpande was familiar with Rushdie’s earlier works such as Midnight’s Children.
“I was hoping to see him when I had gone for the Jaipur Literature Festival back in 2012,” she said. “That is when The Satanic Verses got condemned in India and the government banned him... It was really interesting, because as students, we wondered if half the population in India or even more had not even read the books.”
Daniel McClurkin, a PhD candidate in English, also read The Satanic Verses and was interested in hearing Rushdie speak. He felt that he learned a lot from the discussion.
“I was very satisfied with the Q&A, even more than the reading, which seldom happens,” he said.
Junior Giovanna Molina attended the event because she was interested in hearing Rushdie read parts of his new book, though she was not very familiar with his previous work.
“I really enjoyed his writing, and I thought his use of political satire was really interesting,” she said.
Senior Kelsey Waddill also found Rushdie’s writing advice helpful.
“I think his advice to sort of get out of your comfort zone is really important and something that I have a hard time doing,” she said. “It’s something that I’m definitely going to strive to do better.”