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Archive for December, 2012

Two days ago (12/16) Rushdie tweeted “My reply to P. Mishra’s latest garbage. Letters: Satanic view that equates democracies and dictatorships.” A few days earlier, Pankaj Mishra published an op ed in The Guardian titled “Pankaj Mishra: Why Salman Rushdie should pause before condemning Mo Yan on censorship” which responds to Rushdie’s Facebook post calling the Nobel Laureate author Yo Man a “patsy of the (Chinese) regime.” Rushdie is mostly angry with Yo Man’s refusal to support author Liu Xiaobo who is under house arrest in China for publishing a political manifesto that encourages reform in Chinese politics. Yo Man reportedly compared censorship to airport security as necessary for the protection of citizens. Rushdie, who has been promoting a petition to address the release of Liu Xiaobo from his unlawful detention, was more than miffed at Yo Man’s analogy.

In Mishra’s article, the author attempts to point out to Rushdie a number of things: 1) Writers in the west can be just as complicit in their democratic nation-state’s evil-doings (as apparently Yo Man is in supporting Liu Xiaobo’s unlawful detention), 2) Western authors are hardly ever judged solely on their politics, so we should consider Yo Man’s literary value, and 3) Western writers are so blinded by the comfort of their situations (free, democratic nations, money, influence, etc) that they do not often challenge government/institutions and should not, therefore, expect Yo Man to “embrace the many perils of dissent and nonconformity.”

Rushdie, in his response, takes pains to point out Mishra’s “misreading” of his position on the war with Afghanistan, and with his misreading of Updike’s mailbox speech. Apart from correcting the perceived errors in Mishra’s article, Rushdie attacks his logic – that of creating a moral equivalence between democracies and tyrranies, as well as the argument that western writers do not challenge the status quo. Finally Rushdie reiterates his opinion of Yo Man and his condemnation of Yo Man’s equation between terrorism (thus the need for airport security) and dissident literature (the need for censorship).

Given Rushdie’s long history and well-known positions on freedom of speech, it is not surprising that he takes this position on Yo Man’s analogy, but does Mishra have a point? Mired though it is in essentialisms, does Mishra’s article produce any valuable critique of Rushdie’s position? Should Yo Man only be judged for his literary talent, or should his politics come into play? Can someone living in a “free” society expect another living in a “censored” society to buck the system? Can that person living in the “free” society even judge? And given Rushdie’s past with censorship, violence, and his defense of literature as literary (see my previous post), what might we say about Rushdie’s opinion of Yo Man?

Tawnya Ravy is a PhD candidate at The George Washington University. She is currently writing her dissertation on Salman Rushdie in the 21st Century, and she is the creator of the digital humanities project the Salman Rushdie Archive. She is also one of the founding members and current secretary of the Rushdie International Society. Follow her @litambitions and/or salmanrushdiearchive.com  

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Since the publication of Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie has been enjoying relatively positive press. The many reviews of the book and interviews with the author generally side with his behavior during the years of the Fatwa, admire the third person format and Birds metaphor, and are almost gleeful about the gossip and name-dropping that occurs throughout the memoir. Not to mention the buzz that is happening around the release of the film adaptation of Midnight’s Children (release date in the US: Dec. 26). However, earlier this month, Zoe Heller published a review of the memoir in the New York Review of Books which quickly became viral because of its blunt critique of the memoir. This zinger of a review has been declared the best “hatchet job of 2012.” In the review, Heller explores some of the more predictable critiques of Rushdie’s memoir, including his “lordly nonchalance” and the justifications for his various affairs. A more interesting criticism, however, is her focus on Rushdie’s rhetoric on literature and politics:

“More troubling, however, than his exaggerated claim to naiveté is the case that Rushdie seems to be making for fiction’s immunity from political or religious anger. In a departure from the standard, liberal notion that literature must be free to offend, he proposes that literature, properly understood, cannot offend. Muslims who were insulted by The Satanic Verses were guilty of a category error: just like Anis Rushdie, in his “unsophisticated” reading of Midnight’s Children, they had confused fiction with other sorts of speech.”

She further cites earlier essays written by Rushdie (“Outside the Whale”) in which he establishes the essential and significant connection between literature and politics (for example, the perpetuation of racist stereotypes in books). With this critique Heller enters in the various debates surrounding Rushdie’s recent rhetoric – whether he “knew” if Satanic Verses would offend Muslims or not, how his arguments for absolute freedom of speech (freedom to offend) connects to the idea that literature should not offend, etc.

The online world is positively gleeful about this development, eagerly waiting for Rushdie’s response to such a cutting review. Following the dissemination of this article, it seems the online community has returned to many of the familiar Rushdie criticisms: he is too public, he name-drops, he is ungrateful for the British protection, he has an awful personality, etc. In fact, the New York Times cited a public annoyance with Rushdie’s “relentless public presence” at the same moment  “when many of New York’s most successful writers appear to lead lives of domestic tranquility in Brooklyn.”

What is it about Rushdie as a public figure that provokes such strong responses (from reviewers and ordinary citizens)? What can we learn from his self-aggrandizement in Joseph Anton? I am still personally contemplating the significance of Rushdie’s own words about what happened – so vastly different than the hundreds of interviews that I’ve read where he isn’t in complete control of the narrative.

Read the whole Heller article here, but also check out “How the Mullahs Won” published earlier this month in The Atlantic which gives a slightly more balanced review of Joseph Anton.

Tawnya Ravy is a PhD candidate at The George Washington University. She is currently writing her dissertation on Salman Rushdie in the 21st Century, and she is the creator of the digital humanities project the Salman Rushdie Archive. She is also one of the founding members and current secretary of the Rushdie International Society. Follow her @litambitions and/or salmanrushdiearchive.com  

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