At a breakfast honoring Amos Oz in September 2008
|Born||Ahmed Salman Rushdie
19 June 1947 (age 72)
Bombay, Bombay Presidency, British India
|Genres||Magic Realism, Satire, Post-Colonialism|
|Influences||Günter Grass, Gabriel García Márquez, Italo Calvino, Vladimir Nabokov, James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, Thomas Pynchon, Mikhail Bulgakov, Franz Kafka|
Sir Ahmed Salman Rushdie Kt. (June 19, 1947 - ) is a British Indian novelist and essayist. He first achieved wide recognition with his second novel, Midnight's Children (1981), which won the Booker Prize. Much of his early fiction is set on the Indian subcontinent, while his later fiction often explores the perspectives of expatriates from the developing world living abroad. His style is often classified as magical realism mixed with historical allusions, and a dominant theme of his work is the story of the many connections, disruptions, and migrations between the East and West.
His fourth novel, The Satanic Verses (1988), ignited fierce controversy and protests in many Muslim countries. The title refers to several verses of the Qur'an that were later revoked. The reference to these verses and Rushdie's highly irreverent references to Islamic practices and history were considered by some as a blasphemy to Islam. Some of the protests were violent and Rushdie faced death threats and a fatwā (religious edict) issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then Supreme Leader of Iran. In response to the call for his death, Rushdie spent nearly a decade largely underground, appearing in public only sporadically, but was outspoken on the fatwā's censoring effect on him as an author and the threat to freedom of expression it embodied. After Ayatollah Khomeini's death, the fatwā was later revoked.
Rushdie's call for a reformation of Islamic fundamentalism and more thoughtful engagement with the modern world among Muslims, couched in secularist language and expressed in volatile works of fiction, underscores the continuing challenge of reconciling religious fundamentalism and secular modernity. Honoring the universal spiritual aspirations and inherent human dignity upheld by all religious faiths, while respecting beliefs or rites particular to specific faith traditions, is a key ecumenical project that many religious leaders recognize as necessary to achieving a world of peace.
The only son of Anis Ahmed Rushdie, a Cambridge University-educated lawyer turned businessman, and Negin Butt, a teacher, Rushdie was born in Bombay, India (now known as Mumbai, India). Rushdie enjoyed a happy childhood, always surrounded by books, and he remembered wanting to be a writer at age five. Rushdie attended Cathedral and John Connon School in Mumbai and was sent to England at age fourteen to attend Rugby, a private school. His life as an expatiate Indian was colored by this experience, as fellow students harassed him both because he was Indian and because he had no athletic ability. The experience of expatriation, which he shared with many writers of his generation who were born in the developing world, is an important theme in his work.
Rushdie later attended King's College, Cambridge, as his father had done, and he received his master's degree in history in 1968. After a brief career as an actor he worked as a free-lance advertising copywriter in England for two agencies (Ogilvy & Mather and Ayer Barker)from 1970 to 1980.
Rushdie has been married four times. He was married to his first wife Clarissa Luard from 1976 to 1987 and fathered a son, Zafar. His second wife was the American novelist Marianne Wiggins; they were married in 1988 and divorced in 1993. His third wife, from 1997 to 2004, was Elizabeth West; they have a son, Milan. In 2004, he married the Indian actress and model Padma Lakshmi, the host of the American reality-television show Top Chef, and that marriage ended on July 2, 2007 with Rushdie indicating that it was her desire to end the marriage.
His first novel, Grimus (1975), a part-science fiction tale, is the story of a Native American who is given the gift of immortality and goes on a quest to find the meaning of life. Although the book received some positive reviews, it was generally ignored by the public and literary critics. Rushdie continued working as a part-time ad writer over the five years, eventually quitting his job after finishing the novel Midnight's Children, without even knowing if it would be published.
Midnight's Children (1981), however, catapulted him to literary fame. It also significantly shaped the course that Indian writing in English would follow over the next decade, and is regarded by many as one of the great books of the last 100 years. This work won the 1981 Booker Prize and, in 1993 and 2008, was awarded the Best of the Bookers as the best novel to have received the prize during its first 25 and 40 years respectively.
The story follows the life of a child, Saleem Sinai, conceived in an extramarital affair, then switched at birth with a second child from a similar situation. Born at the stroke of midnight as India gained its independence, the child is caught between the two great Indian religions, Islam and Hinduism, and is endowed with special powers and a connection to other children born at the dawn of a new and tumultuous age.
The character of Saleem Sinai has been compared to Rushdie himself and presciently describing the contours of the novelist's spiritual or psychological maturation. In the opening pages, Saleem's grandfather, Dr Aadam Aziz, while bending down on his prayer mat, bumps his nose on the hard earth and he decides at once that never again will he bow before God or man. "'This decision, however, made a hole in him, a vacancy in a vital inner chamber, leaving him vulnerable to women and history.' Battered by a fatwa and one femme fatale too many, Sir Salman would have some understanding of this," observed critic Nina Martyris in the Times of India.
After Midnight's Children, Rushdie published Shame (1983), depicting the political turmoil in Pakistan, basing his characters on Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. Shame won France's Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger (Best Foreign Book) and was a close runner-up for the Booker Prize. Both these works of postcolonial literature are characterized by a style of magical realism and the immigrant outlook of which Rushdie is very conscious, as a member of the Indian diaspora.
Rushdie wrote a non-fiction book about Nicaragua in the 1980s, The Jaguar Smile (1987). The book has a political focus and is based on his first hand-experiences and research during the Sandinista revolution. In an interview at San Francisco University promoting The Jaguar Smile, Rushdie advocated that students not write what they wanted to write, but what they couldn't help but writing. He referenced a work in progress, that came out the following year, a project that would impact his life in ways he could never have expected.
His most controversial work, The Satanic Verses, was published in 1988 (see below). He followed this with The Moor's Last Sigh (1995), a family epic ranging over some 100 years of India's history. The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999) presents an alternative history of modern rock music. The song of the same name by U2 is one of many song lyrics included in the book, hence Rushdie is credited as the lyricist.
Rushdie has had a string of commercially successful and critically acclaimed novels. His 2005 novel, Shalimar the Clown, received the prestigious Crossword Fiction Award in India, and was a finalist for the Whitbread Book Awards in Britain. It was also shortlisted for the 2007 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
In his 2002 nonfiction collection, Step Across This Line, he professes his admiration for the Italian writer Italo Calvino and the American writer Thomas Pynchon, among others. His early influences included James Joyce, Günter Grass, Jorge Luis Borges, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Lewis Carroll. Rushdie was also a personal friend of Angela Carter and praised her highly in the foreword for her collection "Burning your Boats."
Rushdie opposes the British government's introduction of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act, something he writes about in his contribution to Free Expression Is No Offence, a collection of essays by several writers, published by Penguin in November 2005. Rushdie is a self-described atheist, and a distinguished supporter of the British Humanist Association.
In 2006, Rushdie joined the Emory University faculty as Distinguished Writer in Residence for one month a year for the next five years. Rushdie says that he would have become an actor if his writing career had not been successful and from early childhood, he dreamed of appearing in Hollywood movies. A fan of pop culture Rushdie includes fictional television and movie characters in some of his writings. He had a cameo appearance in the film Bridget Jones's Diary based on the book of the same name, which is itself full of literary in-jokes. On May 12, 2006, Rushdie was a guest host on The Charlie Rose Show, where he interviewed Indo-Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta, whose work has also faced violent protests, about her 2005 film, Water. He also appears in the role of Helen Hunt's obstetrician-gynecologist in the film adaptation (Hunt's directorial debut) of Elinor Lipman's novel Then She Found Me.
The publication of The Satanic Verses in September 1988 caused immediate controversy in the Islamic world because of what was perceived as an irreverent depiction of the prophet Muhammad. The title refers to a disputed Muslim tradition that Muhammad (Mahound in the book) added verses (sura) to the Qur'an accepting three goddesses that used to be worshiped in Mecca as divine beings. According to the legend, Muhammad later revoked the verses, saying the devil tempted him to utter these lines to appease the Meccans (hence the "Satanic" verses). However, the narrator in the novel reveals that these disputed verses were actually from the mouth of the Archangel Gibreel. The book was banned in many countries with large Muslim communities.
On February 14, 1989, a fatwā requiring Rushdie's execution was proclaimed on Radio Tehran by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of Iran at the time, calling the book "blasphemous against Islam" (chapter IV of the book depicts the character of an Imam in exile who returns to incite revolt from the people of his country with no regard for their safety). A bounty was offered for Rushdie's death, and he was thus forced to live under police protection for years afterward. On March 7, 1989, the United Kingdom and Iran broke diplomatic relations over the Rushdie controversy.
The publication of the book and the fatwā sparked violence around the world, including the firebombing of bookstores. Muslim communities in several nations in the West held public rallies in which copies of the book were burned. Several people associated with translating or publishing the book were attacked, seriously injured, and even killed. Many more people died in riots in Third World countries.
On September 24, 1998, as a precondition to the restoration of diplomatic relations with Britain, the Iranian government, then headed by Mohammad Khatami, gave a public commitment that it would "neither support nor hinder assassination operations on Rushdie."
Hardliners in Iran have, however, continued to reaffirm the death sentence. In early 2005, Khomeini's fatwā was reaffirmed by Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a message to Muslim pilgrims making the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Additionally, the Revolutionary Guards have declared that the death sentence on him is still valid. Iran has rejected requests to withdraw the fatwā on the basis that only the person who issued it may withdraw it, and the person who issued it is dead.
Rushdie has reported that he still receives a "sort of Valentine's card" from Iran each year on February 14, letting him know the country has not forgotten the vow to kill him. He was also quoted as saying, "It's reached the point where it's a piece of rhetoric rather than a real threat." Despite the threats on Rushdie, he has publicly said that his family has never been threatened and that his mother (who lived in Pakistan during the later years of her life) even received outpourings of support.
A former bodyguard to Rushdie, Ron Evans, published a book recounting the behavior of the author during the time he was in hiding, claiming that Rushdie tried to profit financially from the fatwa and was suicidal, but Rushdie dismissed the book as a "bunch of lies" and took legal action against Ron Evans, his co-author and their publisher. On August 26, 2008, Rushdie received an apology at the High Court in London from all three parties.
In 1990, a Pakistani film was released in which Rushdie was depicted as plotting, soon after publication of The Satanic Verses, to cause the downfall of Pakistan by opening a chain of casinos and discos in the country. The film was popular with Pakistani audiences, and it "presents Rushdie as a Rambo-like figure pursued by four Pakistani guerrillas." The British Board of Film Classification refused to allow it a certificate, as "it was felt that the portrayal of Rushdie might qualify as criminal libel, causing a breach of the peace as opposed to merely tarnishing his reputation." This move effectively banned the film in Britain outright. However, two months later, Rushdie himself wrote to the board, saying that while he thought the film "a distorted, incompetent piece of trash," he would not sue if it was released. While the film was a massive hit in Pakistan, it went virtually unnoticed in the West, although an English-subtitled version is available. He has said that there was one legitimately funny part of the movie: his character torturing a Pakistani fighter by reading from his book The Satanic Verses.
Rushdie came from a Sunni Muslim family but says that he was never really religious. In 1990, in the "hope that it would reduce the threat of Muslims acting on the fatwa to kill him," he issued a statement in which he claimed "he had renewed his Muslim faith, had repudiated the attacks on Islam in his novel and was committed to working for better understanding of the religion across the world."
His books often focus on the role of religion in society and conflicts between faiths and between the religious and those of no faith. In an op-ed printed in The Washington Post and The Times in mid-August 2005, Rushdie calls for a reform in Islam:
What is needed is a move beyond tradition, nothing less than a reform movement to bring the core concepts of Islam into the modern age, a Muslim Reformation to combat not only the jihadist ideologues but also the dusty, stifling seminaries of the traditionalists, throwing open the windows to let in much-needed fresh air. (…) It is high time, for starters, that Muslims were able to study the revelation of their religion as an event inside history, not supernaturally above it. (…) Broad-mindedness is related to tolerance; open-mindedness is the sibling of peace.
Rushdie supported the 1999 NATO bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, leading the leftist Tariq Ali to label Rushdie and other "warrior writers" as "the belligerati." He was supportive of the U.S.-led campaign to remove the Taliban in Afghanistan which began in 2001, but was a vocal critic of the 2003 war in Iraq. He has stated that while there was a "case to be made for the removal of Saddam Hussein," U.S. unilateral military intervention was unjustifiable.
In the wake of the "Danish Cartoons Affair" in March 2006, which many considered to be an echo of the death threats and fatwā which had followed the publication The Satanic Verses in 1989, Rushdie signed the manifesto "Together Facing the New Totalitarianism," a statement warning of the dangers of religious extremism. The Manifesto was published in the left-leaning French weekly Charlie Hebdo in March 2006.
In 2006, Rushdie stated that he supported comments by the then-Leader of the House of Commons, Jack Straw, criticizing the wearing of the niqab, a veil that covers all of the face except the eyes. Rushdie stated that his three sisters would never wear the veil and added, "I think the battle against the veil has been a long and continuing battle against the limitation of women, so in that sense I'm completely on [Straw's] side."
Rushdie was awarded a knighthood for services to literature in the Queen's Birthday Honours on June 16, 2007. He remarked, "I am thrilled and humbled to receive this great honor, and am very grateful that my work has been recognized in this way." In response to his knighthood, many nations with Muslim majorities protested. Parliamentarians of several of these countries condemned the action, and Iran and Pakistan called in their British envoys to protest formally. Mass demonstrations against Rushdie's knighthood took place in Pakistan and Malaysia. Several called publicly for his death. Many non-Muslims were also angered by Rushdie's knighthood, believing that the writer did not merit such an honor.
According to a July 2007 report by the BBC, Al-Qaeda have also condemned the Rushdie honor. The Al-Qaeda deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri is quoted as saying in an audio recording that Britain's award for Indian-born Rushdie was "an insult to Islam," and it was planning "a very precise response."
Rushdie has quietly mentored younger Indian (and ethnic-Indian) writers, influenced an entire generation of Indo-Anglian writers, and is an influential writer in postcolonial literature in general. He has received many plaudits for his writings, including the European Union's Aristeion Prize for Literature, the Premio Grinzane Cavour (Italy), and the Writer of the Year Award in Germany and many of literature's highest honors. He is also a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres. Rushdie was the President of PEN American Center from 2004 to 2006.
Rushdie has been a controversial voice in the movement for true ecumenical dialogue and understanding. A secularlist, Rushdie has called for moderation and respectful engagement among different faiths, and his fiction is broadly concerned with the role of faith in society. Yet his provocative writings have also disparaged deeply held beliefs, particularly of Muslims, engendering intemperate reactions that ironically validate some of Rushdie's very criticisms of religious extremism.
He was appointed a Knight Bachelor for "services to literature" in June 2007, which "thrilled and humbled" him. He also holds the highest rank—Commandeur—in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France. He began a five-year term as Distinguished Writer in Residence at Emory University in 2007. In May 2008, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His latest novel is The Enchantress of Florence, published in June 2008. In July 2008, Midnight's Children won a public vote to be named the Best of the Booker, the best novel to win the Booker Prize in the award's 40-year history.
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