Some people’s eloquence has the effect of making you feel both a little smarter having listened to them…and a little despairing at your own comparative lack of eloquence. Which is how I felt listening to Sir Salman Rushdie speak at the Melbourne Writers Festival last week!
The session was billed as one where he’d speak ‘about major themes in his writing, his life and the contemporary world: freedom of expression, religion, pop culture, current events, East-West relations and the role of the artist in shaping our understanding of the world.’
So just a few topics to touch on then!
I was interested in hearing him speak on these issues because of how I suspected he’d been personally affected. I also need to admit that Salman Rushdie is one of those authors that’s been on my ‘must read’ list forever, but I hadn’t ever read one of his books. After listening to him present, I immediately went home and bought “The Ground Beneath Her Feet”. His language is stunning – and the story is much more engaging that you sometimes expect ‘literature’ to be. So in addition to being inspired by the session, I’m excited to have stories to look forward to reading.
But back to the session. It was truly an honour to listen to him speak: to know you are listening to a person who has given real and deep thought to so many issues, who keeps education and investigation alive, who champions the role of the writer, and who maintains a fantastic sense of humour and humility.
As Salman covered so much in his presentation, I thought I’d distill a few of the key thoughts that shone through. And make the recommendation that should you have the opportunity to see him speak, you should definitely take up the opportunity!
Writers as society’s collective memory
Writers delve, writers tell unpleasant truths – and Salman believes that writers have become the collective memories of a society. He points out that the passing of time is often what determines what ‘truth’, what stories, are told. What becomes “history”.
When writers document what actually happened at the time, how people actually thought, we’re able to preserve this history.
Literature and Power structures
Creators of literature and ‘power structures’ are often at odds.
Human beings are the only creatures that tell stories – and these stories are told to help us better understand each other
As such, he asserted that ‘censorship’ – which is essentially limiting stories that are told – is an “existential crime”.
He also pointed out that we live in an age where there are ‘incompatible narratives’ can become quite violent-people die: he noted Israel and Palestine as a current example.
Salman asserted that writers are one of the few groups who have come out with dignity are the writers from Israel. He said “The very few voices saying something worth listening to.”
Opening the Universe
Great artists try to ‘open the universe’ a bit more. For writers to perform this act, Salman asserts they can’t do it sitting in the middle/safe ground. Great writers go to the boundary – the visible or invisible fences – and push.
Many would prefer writers didn’t do that work of opening the universe – and that’s why artists often find powerful forces pushing back.
But he gave a number of examples where great art outlives the dictator … and says that art often outlast its oppressors.
Sadly, it was noted that it may also outlive the artist and not be recognised till they’ve years after they’ve died.
So he made the very good point that “Art doesn’t need defending, but writers do.”
On keeping a story current
Salman said “If you are my kind of writer, you want the story to last”. This is why he tries to write more about past events, rather than current events, to avoid a story ‘dating’ too quickly.
He said he “tried to find where my characters private lives intersect with major moments in history”.
Can writers change the world?
How can writers change people? Salman says a single book can rarely change anything.
However, we are often swayed by what we read that we enjoy.
So when you love a book, it can change the way you think. So it can change you.
We don’t love that many books – but those what we do can deeply impact us.
Finally – why pain in life is not always something to be avoided
“Pain is an extraordinary window that shows you things you wouldn’t have otherwise seen.”
Image source: The Times