Archive for February 16th, 2023

Salman Rushdie: “I’ve always tried very hard not to adopt the role of a victim.”

Thursday, February 16th, 2023
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Salman Rushdie before the attack, with friend Abbas Raza in Brixen, in the Italian Alps.

It was the worst Valentine’s Day present ever: on 14 February 1989, the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini called for the novelist Salman Rushdie‘s death. The author’s crime? A brilliant book written with his characteristic wit, erudition, and playfulness called The Satanic Verses. Blasphemy, said the grim and fanatical ayatollah. Rushdie went into hiding, but as the years went by, he inevitably relaxed his guard and began to live more openly, appearing at speaking engagements, parties, P.E.N. meetings, and universities. It seemed he would beat the rap, until last August 11, when an rootless nobody named Hadi Matar attacked him at a speaking engagement in Chautauqua, NY. This month, a fascinating article in the New Yorker, “The Defiance of Salman Rushdie” by David Remnick, discusses his life under a fatwa, his injuries in last year’s attack (he’s lost an eye and the use of a hand), his books, and his indefatigable courage.

Excerpts:

Did he think it had been a mistake to let his guard down since moving to New York? “Well, I’m asking myself that question, and I don’t know the answer to it,” he said. “I did have more than twenty years of life. So, is that a mistake? Also, I wrote a lot of books. The Satanic Verses was my fifth published book—my fourth published novel—and this is my twenty-first. So, three-quarters of my life as a writer has happened since the fatwa. In a way, you can’t regret your life.”

***

Whom does he blame for the attack?

“I blame him,” he said.

***

At this meeting and in subsequent conversations, I sensed conflicting instincts in Rushdie when he replied to questions about his health: there was the instinct to move on—to talk about literary matters, his book, anything but the decades-long fatwa and now the attack—and the instinct to be absolutely frank. “There is such a thing as P.T.S.D., you know,” he said after a while. “I’ve found it very, very difficult to write. I sit down to write, and nothing happens. I write, but it’s a combination of blankness and junk, stuff that I write and that I delete the next day. I’m not out of that forest yet, really.”

He added, “I’ve simply never allowed myself to use the phrase ‘writer’s block.’ Everybody has a moment when there’s nothing in your head. And you think, Oh, well, there’s never going to be anything. One of the things about being seventy-five and having written twenty-one books is that you know that, if you keep at it, something will come.”

Had that happened in the past months?

Rushdie frowned. “Not really. I mean, I’ve tried, but not really.” He was only lately “just beginning to feel the return of the juices.”

How to go on living after thinking you had emerged from years of threat, denunciation, and mortal danger? And now how to recover from an attack that came within millimetres of killing you, and try to live, somehow, as if it could never recur?

He seemed grateful for a therapist he had seen since before the attack, a therapist “who has a lot of work to do. He knows me and he’s very helpful, and I just talk things through.”

The talk was plainly in the service of a long-standing resolution. “I’ve always tried very hard not to adopt the role of a victim,” he said. “Then you’re just sitting there saying, Somebody stuck a knife in me! Poor me. . . . Which I do sometimes think.” He laughed. “It hurts. But what I don’t think is: That’s what I want people reading the book to think. I want them to be captured by the tale, to be carried away.”

Many years ago, he recalled, there were people who seemed to grow tired of his persistent existence. “People didn’t like it. Because I should have died. Now that I’ve almost died, everybody loves me. . . . That was my mistake, back then. Not only did I live but I tried to live well. Bad mistake. Get fifteen stab wounds, much better.”

Read the whole thing here.