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'We're hardwired to desire stories': Salman Rushdie at Calabash 2014

Paul Holdengraber interviews Salman Rushdie at Calabash 2014

When Sir Salman Rushdie took over the thatched-roofed stage by the bay at Calabash International Literary Festival 2014, it seemed that the venue suddenly had more patrons than grass. All the seats under the tent were taken, others took their places under the wild tamarind while still others spread blankets and towels on the grass and took their place at the feet of one of the world’s most celebrated writers. 

Rushdie was being interviewed by curator and writer Paul Holdengraber. He opened with an excerpt from The Moor’s Last Sigh then they got down to a conversation that offered insight and humour in equal parts. 

Salman Rushdie reads from The Moor's Last SighMuch of their discussion focused on stories and literature as well as a touch of rock and roll, where he would delight the audience with the observation that, “The Rolling Stones were trying to be Black American boys and the Beatles were trying to be Black American girls.”

But in the main he spoke about stories.

“I’m in the business of untrue stories. Stories that you dream rather than record.” Rushdie said. He went on to explain that one of the defining elements of humanity is that we are the only animals who tell stories to each other. He remarked that the desire to hear and tell stories is an instinctive one.

“Who knows why but we seem to have a story instinct. We’re hardwired to desire stories,” he said. 

Yet, he certainly outlined the value of literature to humanity. 

“It gives us the world,” he said.The Calabash audience enjoys Rushdie's words

“One of the great features of our age is that we live in the age of translations,” Rushdie said, noting that translations allow us to access books originally written in a language that we do not speak. 

Even so, the man who had earlier spoken about writing about a minority of one, highlighted that it is important that stories be about particular places and people.

“I think that there is a problem with what is being called global literature. The danger in trying to be about everywhere is that they end up being about nowhere,” Rushdie said, going on to explain that the such stories are not grounded in any particular place. “They end up being six inches off the ground of everywhere they’re supposed to be about.”

So, naturally the discussion veered towards writers he admired those who had created a mountainous presence in his life. His answer was James Joyce.

“I think Joyce is one of those writers whose genius is so great that you have to recover from it.” He argued that after reading Joyce a writer feels as though everything that should have been written about already has been and so there is nothing more to say.

Interestingly, though he had said earlier in the discussion that he told stories that were untrue, he explained that fiction was about truth, including genre’s such as magical realism.

“The problem with that phrase is that when people hear magical realism they only hear magic and not realism,” Rushdie said. “It’s another way of telling the truth,” he continued.

“Fiction is fiction. It’s made up but it’s not a way of telling lies,” Rushdie said.

By way of talking about his interaction with readers, Holdengraber and Rushdie got around to the point behind Rushdie’s writing. Rushdie regaled the audience with an anecdote describing an encounter with a “waspish” reader who was clearly unimpressed with the point of his prose.

Holdengraber enjoys a sip of his Red Stripe while Salman Rushdie speaks“So Mr. Rushdie, your novel Midnight’s Children is a very long novel, but never mind I read it through,” he recalled the unnamed woman asking him, “I have one question. Fundamentally, what is your point?” 

He confessed that his unimpressed reader did not give him an opportunity to answer the question, but now supplied one for the Calabash audience.

“I think the answer has something to do with the point of intersection between the private and public life,” he said, noting that is was a constant point behind his writing.

His experience with younger readers was quite different.

“Letters from young readers are the most enjoyable letters a writer ever gets,” he said. 

The 2014 installation of the Calabash International Literary Festival opened on Friday, May 30, 2014 and continues through to Sunday, June 1, 2014. The festival takes place at Jakes in Treasure Beach, St. Elizabeth.