I heard the news about the attack on Salman Rushdie yesterday, that he’d been giving a reading at a peaceful literary event, and a young man rushed up on stage and stabbed him multiple times, including in the neck. When I first read the news, Rushdie was still in surgery, and it wasn’t clear if he would survive.
The latest news seems to be that he may live, but will likely lose an eye. The nerves in his arm were severed, and his liver was stabbed and damaged.
I teach Rushdie. I usually teach _Midnight’s Children_, which not only won the Booker Prize, but was crowned the best of the Bookers at least twice that I know of. It’s a dense book, but so full of invention, humor, and delight that it is much beloved by a wide audience.
It’s also important — it tells the story of the children born in the first hour after India gained independence, children born with powers like telepathy, or the ability to travel through time, or to change sex at will. (Yes, the book has both science fiction and fantasy as central elements.) It is lush and funny and complicated and sweet; it’s also a powerful meditation on identity, both for humans and for nations. It’s astonishing.
What can a writer say in response to such an attack? All we can do, I think, is bend back over our desks, with renewed commitment to the work.
I’ve had men in India send me hate mail, because they were furious and disgusted that one of ‘their’ women was writing about sex.
So I wrote more. I wrote faster.
I teach essays of Rushdie’s too — _Imaginary Homelands_ is a book full of pieces that were important to shaping my own thinking as a diaspora writer, and I commend it to you.
But if I were to tell you which of Rushdie’s books I simply loved — well, that would be his children’s book, _Haroun and the Sea of Stories_. This is the opening, and when I think of what has happened, it seems all too apropos. Soon after this opening, young Haroun sets off on a dark and frightening adventure.
When all is sad and dark, set forth. Search for brightness.
“There was once, in the country of Alifbay, a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name. It stood by a mournful sea full of glumfish, which were so miserable to eat that they made people belch with melancholy even though the skies were blue.
In the north of the sad city stood mighty factories in which (so I’m told) sadness was actually manufactured, packaged and sent all over the world, which never seemed to get enough of it. Black smoke poured out of the chimneys of the sadness factories and hung over the city like bad news.
And in the depths of the city, beyond an old zone of ruined buildings that looked like broken hearts, there lived a happy young fellow by the name of Haroun, the only child of the storyteller Rashid Khalifa, whose cheerfulness was famous throughout that unhappy metropolis, and whose never-ending stream of tall, short and winding tales had earned him not one but two nicknames. To his admirers he was Rashid the Ocean of Notions, as stuffed with cheery stories as the sea was full of glumfish; but to his jealous rivals he was the Shah of Blah. To his wife, Soraya, Rashid was for many years as loving a husband as anyone could wish for, and during these years Haroun grew up in a home in which, instead of misery and frowns, he had his father’s ready laughter and his mother’s sweet voice raised in song.
Then something went wrong. (Maybe the sadness of the city finally crept in through their windows.)
The day Soraya stopped singing, in the middle of a line, as if someone had thrown a switch, Haroun guessed there was trouble brewing. But he never suspected how much.”