Salman Rushdie On Fiction, Religion And Freedom Of Expression

Jan 15, 2015

The author of numerous works of fiction and essays, Salman Rushdie won the Booker Prize in 1981 for his novel Midnight's Children, and later that decade, became something of a story himself when his novel The Satanic Verses drew outrage from some Muslims around the world, and a call for his assassination issued in a Fatwa by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini.

So it is also accurate to say that Rushdie knows a thing or two about the power of stories.

And one of them takes the reader on a journey to find out where stories come from. It chronicles an adventure to save tales both new and ancient from being poisoned into nothingness.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories was published in 1990 and has been chosen by the Vermont Humanities Council as this year's Vermont Reads book, to be read statewide by students throughout Vermont. 

Wertlieb: This book can be enjoyed by readers of any age, but the hero of the book is Haroun, a 12-year-old boy, and there are fantastical creatures populated throughout the book that make it especially appealing for younger readers. What prompted you to write a novel that could be enjoyed by a younger audience?

Rushdie: Well, quite simply, my son. My son who at the time, he's now 35, but at the time the book was written, he was 10, 11 years old and kept badgering me to write a book that he could read. And some of this began as stories that I would tell him, like bedtime stories, and of course those were much, much simpler, and briefer, but they contained the germ of this idea that there might be somewhere a magical sea where all of the stories come from and that was elaborated into the book.

Wertlieb: I understand that getting this to the Vermont Reads project happened because you met someone that will be familiar to many Vermont readers, a literary person here in Vermont. Tell us about that.

Rushdie: It was Major Jackson. He and I had both been invited to a nice little literary festival in Treasure Beach, Jamaica called the Calabash Festival, it happens every two years, and last year we were both there and he mentioned to me that people here, the folks at Vermont Reads, were considering this as a possible book and if it were chosen, he said, would I be willing to come? I said, yeah, it sounded like a great idea to me, so I said sure if there's a way of getting a whole new generation of particularly young people to have a look at the book, I'd be very happy to come and take part in it. And the next thing I knew, they chose the book, so here I am.

"[Major Jackson] mentioned to me that people here, the folks at Vermont Reads, were considering this as a possible book and if it were chosen, he said, would I be willing to come? I said, yeah, it sounded like a great idea to me."

Wertlieb: Here you are in the middle of winter, too, you picked the best time to come. In the book, Haroun, his father, and a great supporting cast of magical creatures must travel to the Sea of Stories, which is being slowly poisoned by a literally dark figure called Khattam-Shud. The Sea of Stories is where all tales originate, and I wonder if you would read this passage to us that describes the Sea of Stories.

Rushdie:

He looked into the water and saw that it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different colour, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and Iff explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each coloured strand represented and contained a single tale. Different parts of the Ocean contained a different sorts of stories, and as all the stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories; so that unlike a library of books, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns. It was not dead but alive.

Wertlieb: That idea that stories continually flow, feed off one another, that throughout time, these stories keep changing slightly, but they're familiar in a way, it's a lovely image.

Rushdie: Well, I think any of us in this game knows that all books in some way come from other books. I mean obviously, they come from other things too, they come from life and experience, but I remember there was a wonderful moment when William Faulkner was accused of plagiarism for As I Lay Dying. There was some other book which used multiple durations and he gave this brilliant — only Faulkner could have said this — he said, "When I am in the throes of my genius, I take whatever I need from wherever I can find it." I think all of us would agree. I don't know about the throes of our genius, but we do it too.

Many of the bedtime stories that Rushdie told his young son in the late 1980s "contained the germ of this idea that there might be somewhere a magical sea where all of the stories come from." Those stories became the basis for "Haroun and the Sea of Stories."
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR

Wertlieb: This novel mixes realism with fantasy but is rooted in a kind of real-world sadness. Haroun's father Rashid is celebrated for his great oral storytelling ability, he has the gift of gab, as you call it, but that gift dissolves when his wife, Haroun's mother, leaves him for another man. This sets Haroun on the journey to restore the sea to health and have his father regain access to the stories that he needs to make a living. How powerful a force was storytelling in your own childhood, and did your own father, or perhaps your mother, have that gift of gab that Haroun so admires?

Rushdie: In different ways, they both did. In fact the way in which I first heard many of the famous stories of the east, the Arabian Nights stories and so on, I heard in my father's tellings of them as bedtime stories when I was when I was a kid so he was very good at that, at telling stories to little children as they were going to sleep. My was a different kind of storyteller, she was a world-class gossip. And she knew where all the bodies were buried. She knew all the dirty secrets of everybody, and like a true gossip couldn't keep them to herself. I remember there was a point in which she said, "I've got to stop telling you this stuff because you put it in your books and I get in trouble."

Wertlieb: What a combination then, classic storytelling, a little bit of gossip thrown in.

Rushdie: That's right so I think got a lot from both of them in many ways.

"Faulkner said, 'When I am in the throes of my genius, I take whatever I need from wherever I can find it.' I think all of us would agree. I don't know about the throes of our genius, but we do it too."

Wertlieb: Some of the imagery in the book would look really cool in a feature film. I'm thinking especially of when the heroes enter the land of Chup, where shadow creatures are dwelling in a world of perpetual darkness and cannot abide the light. To see in the light they use the opposite of flashlights, devices that emit beams of darkness instead. Was there ever talk about turning this book into a movie?

Rushdie: Well, we've been trying to, for a long time. I hope it will happen. There's a British film company that has been sitting on the rights, rather frustratingly, for a while. I have to say, talking about the darkbulbs, which you mention, switching on the darkness, I was rather flattered to note that it happens in one of the Harry Potter books.

Wertlieb: Is that right?

Rushdie: She has an object, J.K. Rowling, which I can't remember who has, maybe it's even Harry, called a deluminator, which when you switch it on, it switches on the darkness. So I thought, oh, maybe she read my book.

Wertlieb: So maybe again, getting back to Faulkner, talking about not stealing, but ideas again, all up for grabs.

Rushdie: I think if an idea of yours ends up in Harry Potter, you just have to be flattered.

Wertlieb: One of the characters in the book asks the question, "Why do stories matter if they aren’t even true?" How does fiction specifically find a foothold in a world that seems increasingly obsessed with the "reality" of things ... from so-called reality television to memoirs to real world events that often outdo fiction in shocking and captivating audiences ... where does fiction fit in these days?

Rushdie: Well, in many ways the book is an attempt to answer that question. It's really trying to say that we are all, human beings, we are story telling creatures, you know. We're the only species on the planet that does this very weird thing of telling itself stories in order to understand what kind of a creature it is. Some of those stories are of course true stories, and some of them are like family stories, and some of them are national stories, and some of them are make-believe. I think it's that mixture, the need to understand ourselves through story is very central to human beings. When a child is born, once the child feels safe and well-fed and warm, etc., very early on what it wants is a story. Tell me a story, children say. And so it's something very deep rooted in human beings the need for story.

Wertlieb: Is there a character you identify with in this book?

Rushdie: I suppose the storyteller, Haroun's father Rashid — certainly, my children would recognize that as a lampoon of myself. But I fortunately never had the difficulty that Rashid has, which is running of out stories to tell, that hasn't happened to me yet. But what I thought was an interesting reversal in the story is in the story it's the child's job to save the adult rather than the other way around. It's very much Haroun to the rescue. And I thought that's just much more enjoyable to do it that way around.

After millions of people marched in France in solidarity with the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, Rushdie says, "I thought, 'Bravo, France.' ... It was a real show of national unity, I think that was a good sign. I mean, let's see what happens now, I mean that was a moment, let's see how things work out."
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR

Wertlieb: It seemed like you were not afraid to lampoon yourself a bit. When he loses that "gift of gab" he can't say anything but "ark."

Rushdie: "Ark." Yes, nothing comes out of his mouth. This is also because he comes from a tradition, the character comes from a tradition that is still very much alive in India, not so here, of oral storytelling. That would be that there are still very, very successful oral storytellers who wander around gathering really quite sizeable audiences literally to tell stories to the audience. And of course the great thing about the oral tale is that the storyteller knows exactly whether he's holding his audience or not because if he doesn't hold them, they get up an walk away. If they don't like it, they throw things. So the great oral storytellers are actually wonderful to listen to because they show you how to do that, how to hold an audience, how to keep attention, how to keep interest. I have in my time sat and listened to quite a few of these guys in India and so the character of Rashid in a way comes more out of that than out of me. He comes out of the oral storytelling tradition.

Wertlieb: This book has everything. It has puns, like the "plentimaw fish in the Sea." I love that, flying mechanical birds that can communicate telepathically, the sea of stories, we talked about that, shadows that can live independently from the people they're attached to. I have to believe though, unless I'm reading too much into it that you are making a serious point about the threat to freedom of expression. There's a moment when Haroun meets Khattam-Shud, who's trying to destroy the Sea of Stories and wants the world to exist in silence. I'd like you to read the exchange between Haroun and Khattam-Shud.

"The great oral storytellers are actually wonderful to listen to because they show you how to ... hold an audience ... I have in my time sat and listened to quite a few of these guys in India and so the character of Rashid in a way comes more out of that than out of me. He comes out of the oral storytelling tradition."

Rushdie: Khattam-Shud is known as the cultmaster, he's the leader of this kind cult of silence and is the person involved in trying to destroy the seas of stories and he's talking to Haroun here.    

'Soon now, soon, the Ocean will be dead--cold and dead. When black ice freezes over its surface, my victory will be complete.'

'But why do you hate stories so much?' Haroun blurted, feeling stunned. 'Stories are fun...'
'The world, however, is not for Fun,' Khattam-Shud replied. 'The world is for Controlling.'
'Which world?' Haroun made himself ask.
'Your world, my world, all worlds,' came the reply. 'They are all there to be Ruled. And inside every single story, inside every Stream in the Ocean, there lies a world, a story-world, that I cannot Rule at all. And that is the reason why.'

Wertlieb: That's a little chilling, now you wrote this book decades before the terrible events in France and the murders of the 12 journalists and cartoonists from Charlie Hebdo...but does that exchange you just read illustrate your concerns over events like that and the people that perpetrate them?

Rushdie: Haroun and the Sea of Stories was the first book I wrote after the attack on my work, after the attack on The Satanic Verses, which was the year before this, so obviously, that was something very much in my mind at the time and I wanted to approach that subject in a way that, sure, I was primarily writing for my young son, but not only, and I was, as you said earlier, I had hoped that adults would find, if you like, another book, another way of reading the book. Children would get children's pleasure and adults hopefully would get a kind of adult pleasure and certainly to those adult readers, I was trying to talk about the battle between speech and those who would strangle it, those who would gag it, silence it, and that very much came out of the experience that I had just gone through, and which now as you say, sadly, many people are going through, have gone through.

Wertlieb: You know all too well the lengths some people will go to in an effort to suppress or seek revenge for creative expressions that offend their beliefs. The Fatwa issued in 1989, you escaped the violence, but people close to you did not. The Japanese translator for some of your books was murdered.

Rushdie: There were several attacks on publishers and translators, and bookstores. There were bookstores that were fire-bombed. Yes, the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses, Professor [Hitoshi] Igarashi was murdered in his college in Japan when he'd been working late one night. The Norwegian publisher of the book was shot three times in the back and miraculously not only survived but made a full recovery. The Italian translator of the book was also attacked, knifed, kicked, he also fortunately lived, but really it was a very dangerous time.

Wertlieb: I saw a statement that you issued not long after the attacks in France, and you called religion itself a "medieval form of unreason." I'm wondering if its possible to defend Islam from those who blame it specifically for these kind of deadly attacks, while at the same time criticizing religion as a whole?

Rushdie: Well I think ... look, religions are not monolithic, they're not just one thing. And of course there's an enormous number of people in the Muslim world of whom these criticisms could not be made and should not be made. But something very dark has happened inside Islam which has given rise to a body of fanaticism which actually, of course it's only ever a few psychopaths who go out and kill people, but a broader group of people within the Muslim world who in a way accept the ideas of Jihad and I think a lot of that has to do with the rise of religious schools around the Muslim world financed, essentially financed by Saudi money, to propagate a very extreme version of Islam and that I think has had a very harmful effect.

"The victory of the French Enlightenment was a victory over the Church and not the state. And out of that came the modern idea of free expression. So now you could argue that we're having a similar battle but different religion, different church, but same argument."

Wertlieb: Does religion, no matter which religion, do something to suppress humor? It may seem glib to suggest, but it seems that one thing all perpetrators of terrorism lack is a sense of humor.

Rushdie: Yes, and I've often said that about the attack on my own work, that it felt like a battle between people who had a sense of humor and people who did not. And I think it's important to remember that in the 18th century at the time of French Enlightenment, which is a time when really, the modern idea of free expression was developed and eventually became what we all think — and in many ways the American Constitution came out of those ideas as well — the battle of the French Enlightenment was not against the state; it was a battle against the Church, the Church with it's inquisitions and anathemas and excommunications and all these tools that the Catholic Church had to control ideas. The French intellectuals like Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu and Diderot, they saw that what needed to happen was to break the power of the Church to tell people what they could think and what they could say. And so the victory of the French Enlightenment was a victory over the church and not the state. And out of that came the modern idea of free expression. So now you could argue that we're having a similar battle but different religion, different church, but same argument.

Wertlieb: Within that battle you're talking about now is this a watershed kind of moment? Or is this just something else caught up in the news cycle? Do you see a turning point? Those millions of people that marched in France.

Rushdie: I think it was very encouraging what happened in France. For a start, speaking as a person who uses pens and pencils for a living, I thought, 'What other country would have four million people on the streets holding up pencils to defend what people who use pencils do for a living?' I thought, 'Bravo, France.' And also it was, it really was the whole country. It was people on the left, on the right, it was Christians, Muslims, atheists, it was the literally the whole of France. It was a real show of national unity, I think that was a good sign. I mean, let's see what happens now, I mean that was a moment,  let's see how things work out.

Wertlieb: I imagine when this first happened a lot of people came to you because of what happened to you, and wanted your reaction to that.

Rushdie: Well, I'm a sort of lifetime non-believer so religion, that's not my team. Christopher Hitchens and I were, I don't know which one of us was more extreme in our beliefs. I think actually, Christopher was always more extreme than anyone else in his beliefs, I was probably him. But so I've always thought that freedom from religion is something to be desired. I mean, I'm a child of the sixties. I was 21 in 1968 and I think in that generation if you had suggested that religion would become such an incredibly powerful political force in the world again, it would have seemed laughable. At that time, that kind of language seemed over, it seemed from the past, it didn't seem to have anything to do with the present or the future, and yet how wrong we were, here it is again.

Wertlieb: What happened in those intervening decades then?

Rushdie: I don't know, I think that what happened is that while we were busy, so to speak, inhaling, the uncool people took over the world.

Wertlieb: Those without a sense of humor perhaps. Vermont has some proud literary connections, Wallace Stegner lived here for many summers, Annie Proulx lived here, and Rudyard Kipling wrote much of The Jungle Book while he lived in Vermont. Have you been here before today? What do you know of Vermonters other than they live in a very cold place come winter?

Rushdie: I haven't been here in Burlington before but I have been in Vermont a number of times, and actually I was taken to see the Kipling house, I have visited that once. The writer John Irving, a good friend of mine, lived in Vermont for a long time, and I used to go visit with him. I'm not unfamiliar with the state, and I gather, I haven't yet tried the local beer, but I gather it's legendary, so I have to probably experiment with that.

"I think that what happened is that while we were busy, so to speak, inhaling, the uncool people took over the world."

Wertlieb: We can give you some recommendations off air for some places to go. How do you feel about Vermont students all reading Haroun and the Sea of Stories? What do you hope they get out of the experience?

Rushdie: It's not a new book, it came out in 1990, it's a quarter of a century ago. The boy for whom it was written is now 35. So first of all I'm just happy another generation has a chance to engage with it. It's actually been for me one of the most pleasure giving of my books because I can see why children's book writers so often have great smiles on their faces because the kind of response you get from younger readers is so delightful. I remember getting, I just realized it was from Vermont, when the book first came out I got a letter from a teenage girl, she must have been 13 or something, I can't remember where in Vermont, in which she asked me a couple of questions and then rather insistently said kindly reply to this letter at once because when I grow up I intend to be either a writer myself or a world leader. I thought, answer that girl.

Wertlieb: Did you?

Rushdie: I did answer this girl quickly. She's going to be president you know. So I do think there's something very pleasurable, direct, about the way younger readers engage with the text and the way in which they talk to writers. I would get these letters saying, we like this bit, we didn't like this bit, here's an idea for a sequel, maybe next time this character could have a bigger part.  So they engage with the book really very passionately and that's delightful to the author. And I'm just looking forward to having another round of it.

Wertlieb: And may I ask what you're working on next?

Rushdie: I just finished a novel, in fact. It's coming out I hope in the fall and in a funny way it's not unrelated to this book, it's not for younger readers, in a way I ask myself if you were to use those techniques, those techniques of fable and fantasy out of which this book came but do it not for children, do if for grown ups, what would that look like? And this new novel is the answer to that. It's called Two Years, Eight Months, And 28 Nights. If you do the math that a thousand and one nights. But it's not set in olden days, it's set like here now, but it uses a lot of techniques in Haroun.

You can find out more about Vermont Reads here. You can listen to Salman Rushdie's speech at UVM on VPR Presents. VPR will air Vermont Reads: Haroun and the Sea of Stories later this spring.