PERHAPS TO HIS DISMAY, the prolific novelist and essayist Salman Rushdie may be best known for the fatwa Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued against him for his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses (1988). He is, of course, more than a once-persecuted writer. Mr. Rushdie is the author of 11 novels, three collections of essays (one co-written), two children’s books, one book of nonfiction, numerous essays, and most recently Joseph Anton: A Memoir. A man of many accolades, he is a public intellectual, a father, a citizen, a man.
Mr. Rushdie is also the founder of the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, an annual gathering in New York City of writers, journalists, and intellectuals from around the world. Hosted by PEN American Center, an institution dedicated to promoting freedom of expression, PEN World Voices Festival, now in its ninth iteration, is a weeklong event where writers talk about writing, translators deconstruct their craft, critics discuss the art of the review, activists draw attention to human rights issues, reporters share their experiences, and philosophers ask why. This year’s participants include eminent writers like Eduardo Galeano and Lewis Lapham, prominent thinkers such as Cornel West and Judith Butler, some newcomers to the international literary scene, including Téa Obreht and Najwan Darwish, and seemingly everyone in between. Jamaica Kincaid is teaching a master class. Ai Weiwei will be there by video feed, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor will deliver the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture, and Philip Roth will be presented with the PEN Literary Service Award.
There are few writers better equipped than Mr. Rushdie to head up an effort that seeks to promote freedom of expression in arts and literature. Mr. Rushdie and I spoke on April 22 about this essential festival in an interview exclusively for the Los Angeles Review of Books. The theme of this year’s event is “bravery.”
The PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature takes place in New York City, April 29–May 5 .
Shaun Randol: This year, PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature highlights bravery in art, politics, and our everyday lives. What is the inspiration behind choosing bravery?
Salman Rushdie: The most obvious inspiration is that we all feel it: you can’t have free expression right now in a very wide range of countries. It takes a lot of guts for writers and journalists in those countries to stand up against repression and do what they do. Russia is a case in point where, as you know, journalists have an embarrassing habit of being killed for their reporting. PEN has done a lot of campaigning on behalf of Russian journalists both jailed and in some cases actually murdered.
China is also of growing importance, which is why I am so pleased we’re able to get a video link with Ai Weiwei, who has been fighting censorship courageously. That’s one kind of courage — the bravery of standing up to various forms of authoritarianism and repression.
For me, what I’ve always seen in writers and artists is the courage it takes to make an original work of art. I think the real risks in literature are linguistic and intellectual, and I hope we can highlight those, as well as political courage.
S. Randol: Last year, in your Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture, you said that art is stronger than censorship, but the artist remains vulnerable. Is this what makes PEN and the World Voices Festival necessary today?
S. Rushdie: It is definitely what makes organizations like PEN necessary because, as I tried to argue, the actual work that writers and artists do has an ornery way of surviving. Particularly in this age of the internet, it is very easy for forbidden work to be found online somewhere if you know where to look. Artists themselves, however, are in increasing danger, and not just artists. The great concern is that year after year, rising numbers of journalists are being killed in pursuit of their work. They are increasingly seen as not being neutral but rather as combatants by one side or the other.
It’s true that the human body is more vulnerable than the products of the human mind. We need to protect those people to allow them to work.
S. Randol: You mentioned in the same lecture that one way to protect writers, journalists, and artists is to keep the spotlight on them.
S. Rushdie: Very much so. I’ve become quite friendly with, for example, the Italian writer Roberto Saviano, whose life is in serious danger from the Camorra Mafia [for writing Gomorrah, an exposé of the Camorra Mafia in Naples]. One of the things he says repeatedly is that he tries to keep not just his cause but also himself in the public eye, so he’s actually co-hosting an evening television program. He very much sees the public arena as a place where his safety is increased by attention.
I think that’s true all over the world. One of the strange things about violent and authoritarian regimes is they don’t like the glare of negative publicity. If you can make them sufficiently uncomfortable, they frequently respond by doing what you need them to do in the spirit of setting people free or ceasing arrests, which has worked time and time again with PEN. The PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award is a way of spotlighting individual cases. If you look at the history of the award, the freedom rate is very high: a very high percentage of people who receive those awards are freed in the next six months to a year. The only weapon there is attention, but interestingly it works.
S. Randol: Another thing authoritarians don’t particularly like is being made fun of. I’m thinking now of the Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef who was recently arrested for insulting Islam and President Mohamed Morsi.
S. Rushdie: Yes, I suppose because authoritarian rulers have a very inflated sense of themselves and don’t like being deflated, which makes it all the more important to continue to deflate them. These are very courageous people around the world who poke fun from inside these societies. So, we now have to broaden the definition of what we mean by “writer” to include bloggers, cartoonists, song writers, visual artists — all these people are, in different ways, quite brave.
Photo: Beowulf Sheehan
S. Randol: Ai Weiwei will be participating via video link to discuss democracy and freedom of expression. Is there a question you are dying to ask him?
S. Rushdie: I’m going to be guided by him because clearly there are all kinds of considerations that surround him which he has to be cognizant of. I don’t want to make his situation worse than it is.
The questions I actually want to ask him are questions about his work. I have a general feeling that writers and artists who are in this peculiar situation, of being a persecuted artist, all anyone ever asks about is the persecution. It may well be that’s the last thing in the world they want to talk about. There were many years in which every journalist in the world wanted to talk to me, but nobody wanted to talk to me about my work. That felt deeply frustrating because I felt there was an attempt to stifle me as an artist. The best revenge I could have was to write. That’s something I’d like to ask him about, whether he feels now as I felt then, and if so, how should we respond? Should we not talk about politics and talk about art? If he wants to go that way, we’ll go that way. I am willing to be guided by him.
S. Randol: This year the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture will be delivered by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Why was she selected?
S. Rushdie: First of all, she has her own good memoir, which qualifies her as a writer. There are so many issues right now with the law, and as a Supreme Court justice she can talk about the law at its highest level. There are a whole range of important matters that the Supreme Court will have to consider very soon. There are human rights issues inside America that need looking at (as well as outside).
A big change in PEN’s consciousness happened around when I was president, where we understood if we’re going to be able to argue about human rights abuses in other countries, then we have to not be vulnerable to the argument that we’re doing similar things ourselves. There’s no point going to a country which is torturing people to ask them to stop if they can point out that the United States is doing it too. It enormously weakens the argument. Back in the early days of the Bush administration, PEN made a decision that we would try and make human rights issues and civil rights issues in this country part of the priority, and not just international issues, which had more or less been the priority up until then.
I think Sotomayor can speak about that. I’d like to hear her thoughts on whether human rights and civil rights in this country have strengthened or weakened in recent years, and if so why does she think so. And if they haven’t been weakened, then what can we do to strengthen them?
S. Randol: Do you think that the freedom to write and to read is a human right?
S. Rushdie: One of the things human beings have always done throughout time is to tell stories, to ask to be told stories, and to wish to read stories. After children are born it’s about the next thing they want, after sustenance and nourishment. They want to be told a story, which can be sung or recited. The desire for story is very, very deep in human beings. We are the only creature in the world that does this; we are the only creature that tells stories, and sometimes those are true stories and sometimes those are made up stories.
Then there are the larger stories, the grand narratives that we live in, which are things like nation and family and clan and so on. Those stories are considered to be treated reverentially. They need to be part of the way in which we conduct the discourse of our lives and to prevent people from doing something very damaging to human nature.
S. Randol: Which is more nefarious: authorities that censor or authorities that lie?
S. Rushdie: Wow. Do I have to choose?
S. Randol: No, you do not.
S. Rushdie: Put it like this: if there was a group of authorities that was untruthful that did not censor, then it would be possible — through the exercise of free expression — to expose the untruth. If people censor, then there’s no way of expressing what you think about what they’re saying, so in a way they can say anything they like.
In the end, the thing that’s important about free expression is that it’s the right from which all other rights are derived. If you can’t articulate ideas and if you can’t articulate critiques of other peoples’ ideas, then you’re powerless. What always increases the power of an authoritarian regime is whether it can successfully prevent people from expressing themselves.
The worst case of all, which in a way unites the two sides of what you’re saying, is when the lie and the censorship combine, as they often do in China, where the combination is so powerful that large numbers of the population believe the lie. One of the problems of truth being censored for a really long time is that people lose the ability to intuit what truth might be, and therefore begin to swallow whatever they’re fed. I think that’s something that the Chinese have learned very well. They’ve even managed to persuade quite large segments of the population that the martyrs of Tiananmen were actually an anti-national element. People don’t view them as heroes, they see them as troublemakers. There you have a combination of censorship of truth creating a new truth, which is the lie, but it’s not seen as such.
S. Randol: What is the role of the writer in a time of conflict? This sort of implies that a writer’s duties differ from a citizen’s.
S. Rushdie: The writer is, among other things, a citizen and has the obligation of citizenship, which we all do. I remember a conversation I had a few years ago around the time of the PEN World Voices Festival with David Grossman and Giaconda Belli, both of them coming from countries where politics was very much at the center of daily life. Both of them said the same thing, in a way: that even in such a place and such a time, it is very important for writers — and these are my words, not theirs — to continue to write about those small things that make us human and those great things that make us human. To write about love and hatred and family and yearning and all those things that make us human, and not forget the humanity, especially when history is roaring in our ears.
S. Randol: Do you think you can separate the artist from art? Is that possible?
S. Rushdie: Yes, I believe so. In our time, we have become too interested in the artist and his or her character and experience as a way of understanding art. In my view, you should be able to read a book or see a film without knowing a single thing about conditions or circumstances or character of the artist, and experience the work to the full without such information. Sometimes I feel — speaking for myself — that people know much too much about me, and I wish people knew less and could just read these books and respond to them purely as words on a page.
I think it can be done, but we live in an age in which it is hard to do it, in which the issue of personality has become very central to the way we discuss works of art. I don’t think it’s always such a good thing.
S. Randol: I’ve been thinking about that question lately because it was recently revealed the artist Charles Krafft, whose beautiful porcelain art often features Nazi elements, is a Holocaust denier. Should this color our perception of his product?
S. Rushdie: It’s difficult not to. There are so many examples of this. What do we think of Ezra Pound — clearly a great poet and clearly kind of an asshole? You can say the same thing about Louis-Ferdinand Céline, who clearly was a Nazi sympathizer, and yet one of the great writers of the 20th century. It is tough, but there are enough examples around where we have to somehow find a way of separating the work from the artist and seeing what there is to see in the work, while also condemning the thoughts we see in the man.
S. Randol: I’ll end on some lighter fare: Last year in your conversation with Gary Shteyngart you had yet to make up your mind about Twitter — whether it’s a force for good, for distraction, or what.
S. Rushdie: If you follow me on Twitter you’ll notice that I’ve hardly been doing it recently. About three months ago I suddenly felt that I had enough. The reason I haven’t deactivated my account is partly that I don’t want someone to cyber-squat my name, which actually happened before I started tweeting: someone else was using my name, and I had to reclaim it. Having now got my blue tick I might as well hang on to it.
The thing I really like about Twitter is the speed with which information reaches me. You find out things from Twitter long before they’re on the news. That I think is valuable. In terms of actually tweeting myself, I have just lost enthusiasm for it. Maybe I’ll do some of it this week to tell people about the PEN Festival and encourage them to show up.