An Afternoon with Salman Rushdie
We have different performances of self that come out depending on the context we are in.
– Salman Rushdie
In July, Dr. Pradyumna Chauhan, professor of English, sat with author and literary legend Salman Rushdie (Midnight’s Children, The Satanic Verses) for a one-on-one interview at John Wiley & Sons publishing company in Manhattan. In the following excerpts from the two-hour conversation, the pair discuss Rushdie’s new novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, how it connects to his previous works, the unpredictabilities of writing, and more. The interview arose as Dr. Chauhan, who edits South Asian Review, prepared a Rushdie-themed issue of the literary journal.
Chauhan: I just finished that novel and, honestly, I wasn’t prepared for the way Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights ends with profuse and very generous benediction. That has not been so in other novels. Has there been some evolution in your thinking about America?
Rushdie: Well, who could tell exactly why a story finds a particular direction? One can rationalize it afterwards, it just felt right at the time. I thought it would be very easy, given the state of the world, to write a conventional kind of dystopic fantasy, in which things are awful and then they get worse, and then they end badly. I thought that wasn’t interesting? Supposing I don’t do that?
C: So, you don’t think that the tone in this novel has changed?
R: Well, I think they change in all the novels. I try not to write the same book twice.
C: Now stepping back to the latest novel, the narrator’s persona also has altered; it is “We.”
R: And it’s a thousand years in the future.
C: What does “We” stand for? Is it community?
R: It’s some sort of scholarly voice in the future looking back a thousand years, into a time of semi-legend. If we, now, look back a thousand years, we’d come to a moment where history becomes much more cloudy. A thousand years from now is like King Arthur, and while we know certain things, other things are half fairy tale, half folk tale. The truth is clouded by the absence of real fact. For me, that was kind of an “open sesame” moment of learning how to write this book. And I thought, if I do that, if I have a voice of looking at now in the way that we would look at the Middle Ages, it would allow me to introduce elements of legend and half-truths into a narrative that’s supposed to be quasi-historical.
C: I suspect that in The Enchantress of Florence and Two Years Eight Months And Twenty-Eight Nights, you explore the etiological consequences of the use of pronouns, of the inability to separate the notion of “I” from the feeling of “We.”
R: Yes, yes, yes. That’s because I think that the kind of selves that we all now are, those selves are quite plural. There used to be a sense of the self as a unitary thing, homogeneous, self-contained. To start with, there’s Freud, who starts destroying that idea. And I think, gradually, we have come to understand that the self is a very complicated thing. That instead of being unitary, we are really a kind of bag of selves. And the way in which those selves operate is different depending on the context we are in. So the kind of self that presents itself with our children, let’s say, is not the same self that presents himself with our employer, or with our mother, or with our friends, or with our enemies. We all have these different performances of self that come out depending on the context we are in. And the old idea of the self was related to the idea of the place, the society, as also being homogeneous and self-contained. And we self-evidently don’t live in that kind of society.
C: Do you think that this fracturing of the self is the result of mobility?
R: It is the result of everything. One of the factors is this age of migration, this hundred years in which more people have moved across the world than in the entire history of the human race before the last hundred years. So, the mass migration, which has sometimes been of refugees, sometimes economically motivated, all these different reasons, has created a new world. Everybody comes from everywhere now. And it’s not only foreigners; I sometimes think the journey from Flagstaff, Ariz., to Manhattan is probably a longer journey than the journey from Bombay to Manhattan. If you come from a small town and you find yourself in a gigantic city, that’s in many ways a larger act of transformation and requires a larger metamorphosis than coming from one city to another. I find everyday echoes between Bombay and New York. There are so many of us now who end up in places that are not the places we began with. The idea of roots becomes a very complicated one. People used to be born and grow up and die in one place or in close proximity to one place, and that’s not the world anymore.
C: Many major American authors beginning with, let’s say, Washington Irving, Longfellow, Hawthorne, James, all of them regretted the absence of a national tradition in this country, and certainly the total absence of a native mythology. Some of them started constructing them in their fiction. You seem to be doing the same thing for America in your latest book.
R: Well, I think I’m not the only one. You’re quite right about Hiawatha and Rip Van Winkle and all of these books that construct a magic mythos. I think that there’s a whole generation now, younger than myself, of American novelists who are from everywhere and who are bringing their narratives into American literature.
C: It is interesting that you should say that this book wrote itself. Sounds like automatic writing.
R: It’s not, but there is a thing about writing when it’s working.
C: Would you explain that a little bit more?
R: Things happen in the act of writing. Your mind, in the act of writing, works in a way in which it doesn’t work in any other time. It doesn’t matter how much I’ve thought about a book. When I am physically writing the sentences, things will happen on the page which I can’t predict. And, sometimes, they are nonsense and I think you have to be good at recognizing the nonsense and getting rid of it, but sometimes you think, “Where did that come from?” And maybe that’s interesting, so let’s see where that goes. Sometimes that’s a blind alley, and sometimes it’s not. And, I think, particularly in terms of characters, you discover them more deeply in the act of making them than you can just abstractly. In a notebook you can’t discover them that well. You can discover a lot about them, but when the character is truly alive on the page, and when the story is truly alive, it begins to bubble with possibilities, and then you have to try to stay in charge.
C: Does the plot ever veer off in that manner?
R: Happens all the time. In this new book, many things about its final form were not part of my original conception of it. Even the idea that Geronimo (the gardener) would be so central to the narrative, I hadn’t thought that. I began with, which is not unusual for me, a fragmentary patchwork which was incomplete. I had the caricature of Mr. Geronimo, an idea of this man whose work was the earth, was the soil, that his deep love was the ground, and that he should, in some way, be separated from the earth. Besides his story, initially I thought maybe this novel is his story. And then, at a certain point, growing on from that, if he’s a gardener, where does he do his gardening? Out of that came the character of the lady philosopher and her estate, and that made me think of Ibn Rushd. That was a surprise, I wasn’t planning to do it. And then I thought: how does he get in here? So, as I say, the book reveals itself to me. Even when I have this passage about Ibn Rushd and this girl he is having endless babies with, I didn’t initially know that she was a supernatural being.