Each year, VPR collaborates with the Vermont Humanities Council for "Vermont Reads," a statewide reading program. This year, people around Vermont are reading and discussing Haroun and the Sea of Stories by acclaimed author Salman Rushdie.
The fable centers around a young boy, Haroun, and his father, the famed story-teller Rashid. The two embark on a fantastical journey when Rashid loses his gift for gab.
One of the magical places they visit is the Sea of Stories. Haroun, his father and a supporting cast of creatures with supernatural powers 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 the tales of the world originate.
"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 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, the 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."
This book is meant to be enjoyed by readers of any age, but the hero is the 12-year-old boy, Haroun, and because he encounters fantastical beings like a mechanical bird that communicates telepathically, it's especially appealing for young adults.
Sea Of Stories
When Rushdie visited Vermont this winter, he told VPR he wrote the book for his son.
Salman Rushdie: 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.
Mitch Wertlieb: That idea that stories continually flow, feed off one another, and 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.
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 mother 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: 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 storytelling 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.
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.
The Threat Remains The Same
Haroun and the Sea of Stories isn't all escapist fantasy. Haroun and his friends must confront shadows that can live independently from the people they're attached to, and there's a serious point Rushdie makes about the threat to freedom of expression.
Haroun battles Khattam-Shud, the cultmaster, he's the leader of this kind cult of silence and is the mastermind behind the effort to destroy the sea of stories. Rushdie wrote this book decades before the murders of the 12 journalists and cartoonists from Charlie Hebdo, but he said the threat remains the same, and it's one Rushdie knows about from personal experience.
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: 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.
Listen Wednesday when Vermont Reads: Haroun and the Sea of Stories continues. We'll hear from author Jonathan Gottschall on why stories make us human.