Languages of Truth: by Salman Rushdie, Hamish Hamilton, 416 pages, ₹799.
Since 2015, Rushdie has taught writing at New York University. Many writers early in their careers have to write what they know. One of the consequences of this advice, Pakistani-British novelist Hanif Kureishi once told me, was that many of his writing students ended up writing versions of their autobiographies. While some may be exemplary, there are limits to individual experience. As Rushdie notes in the opening essay, Wonderful tales: “Unless what you know is really interesting, don’t write about it. Write down what you don’t know. That’s not to say the writing doesn’t have to be real. American writers Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald have left home to find their voices in Europe, he says.
How important is it for the writer to experiment with what he writes about and what role does the imagination play?
“Many writers start out with a nugget of personal experience that prompts them to write,” says Rushdie. “But in some cases, this nugget is not particularly original; or it does, but it quickly runs out. So what? What I was suggesting is that writers should leave this “safe zone” of the “given” and try to find stories in the inexhaustible supply of stories the world has to offer. And yes, certainly add your own imaginative flights to what you discover; but a writing life should be one in which you are constantly expanding your horizons. Daniel Defoe wasn’t stranded on a desert island before writing Robinson Crusoe. He learned what it could be from someone who had been.
Tongues of truth begins with an encyclopedic account of the power of myths – Greek, Roman, Norse, Persian, and indeed Indian, drawing parallels between cultures and connecting threads between them. Are we telling the same stories in different forms? “The stories we tell over and over are those that spring from the roots of human nature – stories of love and hate, of war and peace, of knowledge and ignorance, of men and women, our differences and our similarities, ”says Rushdie. “Ancient stories live because they crystallize universal truths, which is why I have always found them useful.”
In 2012, Rushdie wrote his memoir, Joseph anton. When we spoke at that time, he told me he was no longer interested in non-fiction. However, through his lectures, his essays and his interventions, he has remained engaged with reality, with what is not fiction. Even his novels, witnesses to the power of the imagination, are firmly anchored in the present moment: Fury (2001), which summarizes the New York zeitgeist before September 11, was actually published a few days before the attack on the Twin Towers; The golden house (2017) captured the anxiety of New York City during the Trumpian era, just as Quixote (2019) revealed an America torn apart by the opioid epidemic in the age of reality TV. Does he think that the border between fiction and non-fiction is no longer relevant?
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Fiction is and always will be my first love, Rushdie says, adding that “the line (between fiction and non-fiction) certainly exists, but like all borders, it can change this way and that. And as we know, many borders were arbitrarily drawn by the colonizers and many global unrest were the result. Borders are therefore worth questioning and perhaps even transgressed. Borders are there to be broken. “
Writers who ignore borders, crossing them as if they don’t exist, often become targets. They are harassed, intimidated, imprisoned, tortured and sometimes killed. Rushdie has been an unequivocal champion of PEN, which is celebrating its centenary this year, and has been instrumental in defending the freedom to write and the freedom to read (I chair PEN’s Prison Writers Committee International). I asked him about the continued relevance of PEN a hundred years later. With the culture of offense so prevalent, is the free speech argument a losing battle?
“As long as writers are persecuted, they will need to defend themselves and, unfortunately, this persecution will not be reduced,” he notes. “As long as writing is banned, we will have to fight for its release, and unfortunately those who want to ban things are more and more numerous. And frankly, we all need to stop being so skinny. Freedom of speech is not just for those who agree with us, or whose opinions we are indifferent to. Its essence is fearless disagreement.
But those in power feel the disagreement. Governments set the rules for what can be said. While the internet offered the hope of unlimited space, big tech even assumed the role of an executor, raising even more troubling questions. Should a business decide what to say or should it rely on safeguarding freedom of expression? No, Rushdie said. “Personally, I don’t think big tech is my arbiter. I am proceeding as I think best and it is probably the best way for all of us. I point out the misogyny, which has driven women away from social media. He is worried about such incivility: “All we can do is stand up against the kind of harassment and violence you are talking about. It is a battle we cannot afford to lose. The answers are not easy.
I finally ask questions about art – a subject he writes about with deep love. An important character in his 1995 novel, The Moor’s last breath, was an artist, Aurora Zogoiby, and the controversies created by her art foreshadowed the harassment of the late Maqbool Fida Husain in India. The artists reciprocated Rushdie’s deep interest: The National Portrait Gallery in London has Rushdie’s portrait of Bhupen Khakhar, called The land (1995). Did he ever wish to be a painter?
“I wish I had been,” he says. “And an actor, and a dancer, and an astronaut. But, alas, I am not. Some pictures are worth a thousand words; Rushdie’s thousands of words paint a rich landscape that shows us what makes us who we are.
Salil Tripathi is a New York-based writer.
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