This is the foreword I have written for a new collection of essays on Salman Rushdie’s writing. Edited by Robert Eaglestone and Martin McQuillan, Salman Rushdie is part of Bloomsbury’s Contemporary Critical Perspectives series.
When he was a child, Salman Rushdie recalls in his memoir Joseph Anton, his father read to him ‘the great wonder tales of the East’ – the stories of Scheherazade from the Thousand and One Nights, the animal fables of the ancient Indian Panchatantra, ‘the marvels that poured like a waterfall from the Kathasaritsagara’, the famous 11th-century Sanskrit collection of myths, the ‘tales of the mighty heroes collected in the Hamzanama’, that tell of the legendary exploits of Amir Hamza, uncle to the Prophet Mohammed, and the ancient Persian classic, The Adventures of Hatim Tai. Rushdie’s father ‘told them and retold them and remade them and reinvented them in his own way’. To grow up ‘steeped in these tellings’, Rushdie writes, ‘was to learn two unforgettable lessons’. That ‘stories were not true… but by being untrue they could make him feel and know truths that the truth could not tell him’. And that all stories ‘belonged to him, just as they belonged to his father, Anis, and to everyone else’.
These were not just lessons that Rushdie learnt from his father. They are lessons that many of us learnt from Rushdie himself. Or, rather, they are ways of thinking about stories and truths and about what it is to be human that were embedded in Rushdie’s own stories and that allowed those stories speak to us in a new voice. Politicians, Rushdie once remarked, ‘have got very good at inventing fictions which they tell us as the truth. It then becomes the job of the makers of fiction to start telling the real truth.’ Few makers of fiction have more wrestled with the question of how their work can engage with the truth than Rushdie himself. Not the truth of facts, of course, or of science, but the truth of human experience, and in particular the experience of change and transformation, of dislocation and belongingness.
Rushdie always saw himself as a man inhabiting a world ‘in-between’ three cultures – those of India, Pakistan and England. What he wanted to discover through his fiction was how to ‘connect the different worlds from which he had come’, by exploring ‘how the world joined up, not only how the East flowed into the West and the West into the East, but how the past shaped the present while the present changed the understanding of the past, and how the imagined world, the location of dreams, art, invention and, yes, belief, leaked across the frontier that separated it from the everyday, “real” place in which human beings mistakenly believed they lived.’ His writing was to ‘explore the joining-ups and also disjointednesses of here and there, then and now, reality and dreams’.
The truth that emerges from Rushdie’s writing is the truth of the experience of that in-between world, the world of migration and melange, a world in which the self became ‘heterogenous rather homogenous, belonging to more than one place, multiple rather than singular, responding to more than one way of being, more than averagely mixed up’. ‘How does newness enter the world?’, Rushdie asks in The Satanic Verses. The significance of Rushdie’s great trilogy of the 1980s – Midnight’s Children, Shame and The Satanic Verses – is that not only did he pose that question, but he also found a language through which to answer it. His novels interlaced reality, myth, dream and fantasy, turned history into fable, and yet directly addressed highly charged contemporary political issues.
Like Rushdie, I was born in India but grew up in the Britain. Like Rushdie, I was of a generation that did not think of itself as ‘Muslim’ or ‘Hindu’ or ‘Sikh’, or even as ‘Asian’ but rather as ‘black’, which for us was not an ethnic label but a political badge. Unlike our parents’ generation, who had largely put up with discrimination, we were fierce in our opposition to racism. But we were equally fierce in our opposition to religion and to the traditions that often marked immigrant communities. We wanted to fashion a world in which we were neither defined by our differences nor denied the right to express them. And in the page of Midnight’s Children, Shame and, especially, The Satanic Verses, I discovered, we discovered, such a world, a world in which we could think of ‘difference’ in a way that broke from the shackles both of racism and tradition, and yet did not deny the importance of belonging.
Much has been written in recent years by sociologists about the ‘conflict of cultures’ that immigrants supposedly face, especially when moving from Third World to Western nations. Rushdie’s writing helped transform the very notion of the conflict of cultures. Cultures, he insisted, are always conflictual because they are never authentic or fixed but ever churning and changing, forcing ideas, and memories, and thoughts and histories to clash with each other. Conflict was an inevitable part of facing up to the world. Rushdie was not, of course, alone in arguing this. But in forcing ideas and memories and thoughts and histories to clash with each other in the imagined worlds of his novels, he allowed the imagination to illuminate the real world too.
In reframing cultural conflict in this fashion, Rushdie spoke not just to the migrant experience but also to the experience of a world now becoming unstitched. The 1980s was a decade that saw the beginnings of the breakdown of traditional boundaries, physical, national, social and moral, and the creation of new social terrains for which there was as yet no map or compass. Rushdie’s novels began to chart those terrains. The experience of a world unravelling, he suggested, was akin to the experience of migration and of the disruption and dislocation it created.
The breakdown of the old boundaries that Rushdie addressed in his novels created in many a sense of disorientation and a yearning for fixed points of reference. One expression of this was the growing significance of ‘identity politics’: the understanding of political attachments and collective interests in terms not of belief systems, programmatic manifestos, or party affiliation, but of distinct constituencies and communities defined in terms of much narrower, fixed identities, and, increasingly, the rooting of such identities in faith. As people began to cling ever more fiercely to particular cultural identities, so the symbols of such identities became ever more important and there developed inevitably resentment of, and hostility to, any attacks on such symbols. It is against this background that the ‘Rushdie affair’ emerged. If The Satanic Verses was a product of the breakdown of old boundaries so, too, was the campaign against the novel.
The roots of the campaign against The Satanic Verses are complex and as embedded in political strife as in religious belief. One way to understand it, however, is as the first great expression of fear of a mapless world, the first great contemporary confrontation over identity and the resources necessary for sustaining identity.
There had always been, of course, from the very beginnings of postwar immigration to Britain, social conflicts involving migrant communities. From the clashes at the Notting Hill Carnival to the Grunwick dispute, from the strike at Imperial Typewriters to the Broadwater Farm riot, such confrontations were in the main rooted in political conflicts, or emerged out of issues of discrimination or policing. They were conflicts of a kind familiar even prior to mass immigration. The Rushdie affair was different. It was the first major cultural confrontation, an encounter quite unlike anything that Britain had previously experienced. Muslim fury seemed to be driven not by questions of harassment or discrimination or poverty, but by a sense of hurt that Salman Rushdie’s words had offended their deepest beliefs. Today, such conflicts are part of the cultural landscape. Not so in 1989.
Rushdie had long understood that stories embodied truths, and that they belonged to everyone. And because everyone had the right to refashion and retell every story, so the truths embodied in those stories could also be renewed. That understanding was woven into the fabric of his own stories. Yet those were the very ideas that the fatwa came to challenge. And those are the very ideas that, in the decades since the fatwa, have become increasingly contested.
There has been over the past three decades a growing insistence that stories do not belong to all; that many belong to particular cultures or communities or traditions. And those that do must be carefully curated to preserve their particular meaning and truth, and to ensure that such meaning and truth are safe from being questioned or challenged or ridiculed or defied. There has, at the same time, been growing scepticism about the idea that stories can express truths. Some insist that truths are embodied only in empirical facts, others that they are revealed only through a relationship with the divine.
Rushdie provides a direct challenge to all this. At the heart of his view of storytelling, indeed at the heart of his stories, lies the importance of the human, both as a storyteller and as a truthmaker. ‘Man’, as Rushdie puts it in Joseph Anton, is ‘a storytelling animal, the only creature on earth that told itself stories to understand what kind of creature it was’. It is our ability to imagine that allows us to understand ourselves and the world as it is, and as it could be. Or, as Baal puts it in The Satanic Verses, ‘A poet’s work, to name tame the unnameable, to point at frauds, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep’.
In an age in which the human is so often decried and the imagination so often denied, it is here that the real significance of Rushdie lies. It is for the insistence on the importance of the imagination to the human, and of the human to the imagination, that we should truly cherish Salman Rushdie.