Writer Salman Rushdie acknowledged a brim-full Lorimer Chapel (and almost 100 people watching video feeds around campus) by thanking Colby for coming out in such numbers on April 17 to “hear a writer speak.”
“There’s no reason why writers should be able to do this,” he said. “And in an hour or so you may come to the same conclusion.”
To the contrary, the literary lion held his audience spellbound, talking for almost all of that hour and then answering questions late into the evening afterward.
He was suggested as a speaker by the student advisory board of the Center for the Arts and Humanities, and he aligned some of his remarks with this year’s humanities theme at Colby: Censorship Uncovered.
Tracing the role of literature through history, Rushdie noted that novels no longer bring news to readers about what’s happening in their societies the way works by Charles Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stowe did. The news media, and more recently less formal media, have supplanted that role. Rushdie said he fears that, “The more ways there are for us to receive information, the less information we receive, and that other forms of information expand to fill the whole continuum of the news space. One might call it the Kardashianization of the public space,” he said.
News media cover events—explosions for example—all over the world. “What literature does is to tell you what life in these parts of the world which we are concerned with is really like.” He cited Iraq War veteran Phil Klay’s recent collection of stories, Redeployments. “If you want to know what actually happened in Iraq—what it was really like to be there fighting that war—these stories tell you more in the course of less than two hundred pages than you ever learned from the news.”
“Read outside your own world,” he advised. “Use reading as a way of learning the world, because it is something that literature can open you up to.” Stories, he said, are “the essence, the heart of what it is to be a human being.” He explained how stories define families, and how they also define nations. Nations realize this, and that’s where literature and politics collide.
“The attempt to limit the kind of stories we can tell, of course it’s censorship, but I think it’s something more profound than that. It’s an existential offense. It’s an offense against what we are as human beings. What we need to be as human beings is people who can tell stories any way we choose ”
And his experience with censors was a large part of why he was invited to Colby this year. Indira Gandhi of India had planned to sue him, he said, and President Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan had banned his work. “In the matter of my little disagreement with the Ayatollah Khomeini,” Rushdie said, referring to a 1989 fatwas calling for his own death, “I should just point out that one of us is dead.”
Throughout his talk he recommended a broad spectrum of fiction writers with diverse backgrounds, and Rushdie concluded citing Saul Bellow’s novel The Dean’s December. In particular he recalled a barking dog in that story that “is making a protest on the limitation of dog experience. What it’s saying in its piteous barking,” he said, “is, for God’s sake, open up the universe a little more.”
“I thought when I read it, ‘That’s not only about that dog.’ What great art tries to do,” he said—including literature music, painting, and more—“it tries to open the universe … to push out the boundaries and to increase by some small measure the sum total of what we’re able to think and understand and feel and therefore, finally, to be.”
Though there will be powerful forces pushing back—attempting to censor—this opening of the universe is not accomplished by occupying the middle ground, he said. He advised students, “If you want to increase the boundaries of the possible, you have to go to those boundaries, and you have to push against them. This, in my view, is what the greatest art has always done.”