Saturday, December 4, 2010

319) salman rushdie: why we need literature

the literary life 12/4/10

This week was good overall (though there were a few hectic moments), and one of the highlights was that I got to see Salman Rushdie read and speak downtown! I went with my dad on Tuesday night, and we got there early enough to eat samosas (and more) before the talk. Rushdie was an immensely inspiring speaker. I thought he would come across as arrogant and sarcastic, but he seemed more humble than I'd predicted. He's funny, articulate, clear-minded, and on the nose with his responses. He says things in such a way that make an impact. He also peppers his speech with well-selected quotes from other writers. I was engaged during his entire conversation with Reza Aslan, an Islamic Studies scholar, who asked questions related to writing and his new novel, Luka and Fire of Life (which I got signed after the reading). In the Q&A portion, Rushdie got the expected questions about freedom of speech and the whole Satanic Verses controversy, but one high school English teacher got up and asked him how he would suggest inspiring unmotivated students to engage with literature--with reading. As a high school teacher myself, I was curious about what Rushdie would say. His response was helpful. He spoke about the ubiquity of stories across cultures and communities. Every group has its stories (real or imagined). We tell stories to preserve history and memory. We imagine stories to explore the mystery of being or to inspire ourselves to be more like the "heroes" in our tales. Through our stories we weave utopias and dystopias, ponder questions, and explore different possibilities. He said that unlike other animals, human beings have stories. It is what defines and distinguishes us. To be human, in a sense, is to engage with story.

Anyhow, I came home feeling buzzed and woke up feeling buzzed the next day too. Rushdie's one of those rare gems who seems a cut above the rest. Seeing someone so confident and effortless and cogent in their speech is awe-inspiring. I found him charming. I think one of the reasons for this is because he has complete faith in his point of view (in literature) and has spent time developing this point of view. And he helped me connect to the romantic inside of me, the writer within--the undergraduate mindset. Back in college, I put literature on a pedestal. Over the years, my faith in literature has at times wavered (partly because some students seem to see less value in reading it and partly because technology has, in some cases, put reading at risk). But I remembered how wonderful a thing it is to idealize something, to believe in something. I remembered how idealizing the book in college motivated me to write and love the world. And I want to live again more consistently in that magical place.

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