A few weeks ago I heard a lecture by the world renown author, Salman Rushdie. A man whose mere mention evokes controversy and emotion for many. Even my mother asked me, “Why do you want to hear what he has to say?” But I thought, what good has my education and upbringing done for me if I can not use it to engage myself intellectually with controversial issues? I wanted to hear what he would say, knowing that I may disagree with his comments. I think most people know of Salman Rushdie for his controversial novel, “The Satanic Verses”, which generated much criticism from the Muslim world and even drew an order threatening his life. However, I was surprised that despite my criticism for some of his arguments, I found myself appreciating other arguments he offered, including his view on literature.
Rushdie grew up in Bombay, a city established by the British in India. Rushdie says that this dynamic of the city made him aware of Eastern and Western culture at a very early age. His family was friends with the Urdu poet, Faiz, and he credits his early literary influence to him. He says it is through literature that he learned about the world. His point was that reading literature from different parts of the world is a way for us to access foreign places, people and cultures.
Although fictional stories may have many things that are ‘made-up‘, the environment and the character’s reactions to events teach us much about culture. He noted how literature used to be the method that brought news to the world. He gave the example of when Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, met President Lincoln in 1862, he said, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!” Her novel, being based on actual experiences and anecdotes, was vital in starting the movement opposing slavery. He stressed the importance that we should read about other cultures. A statistic he cited was that less than 2% of books published in the US are translations not originally written in English. American English readers are denied access to a large portion of the world’s literature.
Despite modern technology, I sometimes wonder how all this advancement has caused us to become more lazy, more sheltered. We can easily access the news online, on demand, even watch “one minute world news.” But what are we really learning about the world and each other through these ‘short cuts’? Now that I have less time to read, I find myself choosing non-fiction books in the hopes I can learn something solid in the time I have. Perhaps I need to pick up a good foreign novel next time.
On a somewhat lighter note, Salman Rushdie also wrote the lyrics to the U2 song, “The ground beneath her feet”. Here is the video to the song…