And that is why you leave to get in line for an autograph when Mike Kelleher says “final question” with a guy like Salman Rushdie doing the signing. The guy is a rockstar that not only brought the biggest crowd yet for a Just Buffalo Literary Center Babel event, but also attracted the most ever taking advantage of the signature session. It all began with Rushdie relaying how we can all thank Charles Dickens for making authors feel like they were allowed to do ‘the strange thing’ and speak in front of people. The Brit’s arduous second tour of America might have been a direct cause of his death, but he did it anyway—a fun fact that segued the first of many jokes, saying how some are better at the speaking tour than others, but it kills them. With everyone in the audience fully aware of the fatwa Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued for his controversial views on Islam, making light of authors getting killed had a much deeper meaning. But if I took anything from Rushdie this evening, it’s that if you aren’t confident enough to speak freely with passion, you shouldn’t speak at all.
He writes to spark argument, believing that anyone can cause real change in the world. For some reason, though, if you are a totalitarian government head of state, you don’t last long after publicly denouncing his work. Three died shortly after, including Khomeini—it’s dictator annihilation and as Rushdie says, “it’s a service I perform”. Quips such as this sparkled throughout the entire talk, enrapturing the crowd and really epitomizing what this series can provide. Rather than go into the motivations or meanings of his novel Midnight’s Children alone, he instead spoke about the changing job of the novel. Trained as a historian, the usage of books as a means of facilitating news is not lost on him. We have always read in order to learn about other people’s cultures and past; with the world in a place now where the media is more concerned with entertainment than fact—at the behest and enjoyment of the public—this fact is even more prevalent. Art is at its best when it opens the world up to those previously in the dark. Storytelling is central to our nature and we pass on our history through it, whether private familial tales or more broad accounts of a nation.
A large portion of his talk was focused on how the public sphere of existence is no longer separate from the private world. While things that happened in the past like wars and politics didn’t necessarily have any bearing on your own life, (he speaks of how Jane Austen wrote throughout the Napoleonic Wars but never included them in her novels and yet still captured the essence of the people in that era), today one can’t avoid it. We were once thought to live our lives based on our character—who we are as the basis of what we do—yet eventually the activities of people we may never meet or even know exist start to impact our lives. When incidents like 9/11 occur and change thousands of people, as different from one another as can be, into victims of the same crime without having done anything to deserve it, the unknown becomes more relevant than ever. But Rushdie refuses to believe outside forces can completely shape our identities; it’s too narrow a viewpoint. By explaining how such an incident can have the same impact on two people, yet force one to pick up a gun and the other to not, he shows that a person’s character still brings meaning to the situation.
Rushdie is as interesting a human being as you can encounter. Toiling for twelve years before finding his first of much success in his field, this British-educated Indian has done all he can to speak his mind and create conversation. While he wrote The Satanic Verses to spark intellectual discourse, he never thought someone would take a civilized debate and change it into the question of whether one should be able to kill an author for his words. The only thing worse, he says, than the Ayatollah hating his work is if he liked it. From this attitude, I’d gather that Rushdie wouldn’t change a thing if he had the opportunity to do so. He is proud of his role in that conversation as well as seeing how ordinary people won the battle—bookstore owners, translators, publishers, and readers—by refusing to be told what they can or can’t do. His answer to whether a writer should be killed was “No”, followed by a soft chuckle and the mention of Dan Brown’s name. But he shakes his head and says that he doesn’t think Brown should be killed … just that he should no longer be allowed to write.
To conclude with a few Babel tidbits: Season Four is set and ready to go come October. With a new $25,000 grant from HSBC Premier, it appears that the monetary goal will be reached and perhaps Just Buffalo will be putting the show on for many years to come. It is all getting bigger and user-friendlier with the continued use of sign language for the hearing impaired and the addition of instant closed captioning. The system is flawed, although a fun side performance to see what strange word combinations appear on screen, and Mike Kelleher really tested the typist in his opening speech’s breathless description of Midnight Children’s lead character, but it’s a valuable new tool to show the event’s progression towards accommodating all who want to attend.
Babel 2010/2011 Season:
V.S. Naipaul (Trinidad and Tobago) – October 19
Maxine Hong Kingston (United States) – December 1
Edwidge Danticat (Haiti) – March 25
Chris Abani (Nigeria) – April 15
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Courtesy of Bruce Jackson.