“This is the question we ask ourselves as we explore and narrate our history: how did we get here from there?”
Salman Rushdie poses this to the reader amidst a world out of control in his new novel Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Days—a work inspired by the Arabian Nights and other tales, which blends history, mythology, and an 800-year-old love story. But it’s a question he’s also been examining himself for decades.
The sweet and tranquil Kashmir valley of his childhood—where Rushdie enjoyed long, philosophical talks with his devout Muslim grandfather—vanished as the India-Pakistan conflict intensified during the mid-20th century. Then the progressive future he imagined as a 1960s Cambridge student was forever compromised when Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa (or call for Rushdie’s death) on Valentine’s Day in 1989. And the outspoken secularist role he’s played post-September 11 has cemented his struggle as a writer of magical realism who implores us to move beyond “ancient fictions.” In many ways, Rushdie has always longed to live in a world that history seems destined to deny.
But that hasn’t impeded his creative energy. Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1997 for "services to literature" and appointed Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France, Rushdie is one of the world’s most celebrated living writers, having received the Whitbread Prize for Best Novel (twice), the Crossword Book Award in India, the James Joyce award of University College Dublin, the Golden PEN Award, and so many others. He is the author of a dozen novels, including The Satanic Verses and Midnight’s Children, which won the Booker Prize in 1981. After teaching at M.I.T and Emory University, he joined NYU this fall as a distinguished writer in residence in the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.
With Two Years, Rushdie offers a look at what happens when a sort of spirit world breaches ours—and the most ordinary people are called on to do extraordinary things. NYU Stories recently spoke with Rushdie about the book, his place in the public discourse, and his prospect for gardening in Manhattan.
You’re so committed to ending religious conflict, but it seems sectarian violence is only intensifying. Does it ever feel like a losing battle?
Not really. I mean one of the things about the study of history, which was my university subject, is that you learn the incredible power it has to surprise you. One of the things you absolutely learn is that history is not inevitable. No matter how strongly it may seem at any given moment that the world is going in a particular direction, it almost invariably does not go in that direction. I mean, sometimes it's worse, you know? Sometimes it's better. But what it invariably is—is different.
Your new book is often unpredictable as well—both in terms of the story’s trajectory and where the moral compass points. Was that intentional?
I think this is one of the great gifts of the form of the fable—that it can be shifting, it can be fluid and metamorphic. And to my mind, that's more how I see the world. I don't see it as being fixed and eternal, I see it as being slippery.
I dislike intensely books that preach to me. Joyce had this phrase where he said that "literature should be static, not dynamic." And what he meant by that I think was that it should not seek to impose a view on the reader—it should simply be. I think that's a useful way of thinking about it, you know? What you try and do is create a place in language that people can inhabit and think their own thoughts in that space, or be prompted to think various thoughts and have various feelings in that space.
Is it challenging to stay that fluid when mapping out such an elaborate story?
In fact, this book really showed me what it was rather than my knowing it from the outset. Initially, I didn't even know that [Dunia] was a supernatural creature, you know. It was only gradually that I thought "Oh, hang on, wait a minute, something's happening here which is bigger than that."
Does that happen often in your writing?
No, no. But it's happening more and more. When I was younger, I used to feel unsafe beginning a book before I had quite a strong architectural framework. And I think it's just experience and maybe a little bit of confidence that I feel better able to improvise now and just see where the book takes me. And actually one of the things that happened in this book is that sometimes it would take me down blind alleys. I mean, there's quite a lot of discarded material.
But you wouldn't instruct your students to do the same.
Nope, nope. I say in my case, it's something that I've felt more confident to do with the passing years. Michael Ondaatje for example does this quite routinely where he has a couple of narrative threads to pull on, but he doesn't really know where they're leading. Then there's the other extreme, there's writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald who really planned everything out very carefully. And me, I'm somewhere in the middle. But I just find—certainly with this book—I just try to trust my imagination to lead me places and then judge whether it had led me to where I wanted to go.
Why did you opt to conjure the supernatural in this novel?
I wanted to create this conflict between two worlds, one of which is familiar to us, one of which is unfamiliar. The inspiration comes out of the wonder tales of the East, and one of the interesting things is that if you read something like the Arabian Nights, the stories are full of magic, they're full of enchanters and spells and fairies and this and that, but there's very little religion in them. God doesn't often show up in the Arabian Nights. They're oddly secular stories full of the cunning and deviousness and unreliability and slyness of human beings. They're full of sex and comedy and adventure and magic, but they don't really have a religious dimension very much. It's one of the things that makes them attractive to me.
It’s no secret that you’re happier in a secular dimension. In fact, after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, you said: “Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.” Is a controversial statement like this harder to make in academic settings these days?
I mean, I'm all done with being careful. Anybody who's going to walk into my classroom is going to have to know that I'm going to say what I have to say and if they don't like it, they don't have to be there. But no, I think I am a little worried about all this business of trigger warnings and so on. I mean, I was quite encouraged by the fact that Columbia decided not to put trigger warnings on its books and I would hope that most universities would make that decision because I think that the idea that a university is a place where young people are cocooned and protected from things that will challenge and upset them seems to me is the exact opposite of what a university should be. A university precisely should be the place where young people are challenged and made to question what they've taken for granted and learn by doing so. That's the kind of safe place a university needs to be—a safe place for ideas, not for sentiments.
You were one of the most vocal critics of the PEN members who opposed honoring Charlie Hebdo at their annual gala. What bothered you most?
These writers, some of whom are my really old and close friends and who I have admired for decades—I would have bet serious money that they would not have been on that side of the fence. And it's very, very shocking to me that I find myself in opposition to them because I think this is actually a no-brainer. You either believe in free speech or you don't. I mean, it's a yes–no question, you know? To say that you only believe in free speech for people you don't disapprove of is frankly…that's what we call censorship, if you only permit free speech of an approved nature.
The other dimension was that their accusations against [Charlie Hebdo] were incredibly unjust. They called it a racist magazine when in fact it was a very, very emphatically anti-racist magazine. They said it was obsessed with Islam; in fact, it almost never dealt with the subject. Le Monde did a survey of 10 years of Charlie Hebdo covers—523 covers total—of which exactly seven dealt with Islam. Twice that number dealt with the Catholic Church, three times that number dealt with Israel and Jews, and hundreds of covers attacked the National Front political party and French racists. And all the remaining covers were attacking the government. So to unjustly vilify the dead is, I think, a terrible thing to do.
Since the fatwa, you’ve spent more than 25 years under something of a public microscope. What effect does that have on your work?
What happened to me pushed me into this very bright spotlight and I've tried to use it for good, if you like, use it in order to have interesting conversations. But increasingly, all I want to do is sit in a corner and write my books. And one of the great pleasures of this book was just that—just the pleasure of creation. And all I really want to do with whatever time remains is that. I've been trying somewhat but I keep getting thwarted by things like the PEN protest. I've been trying to in a way retreat from getting into every fight there is. I'm sort of fed up with it.
So like your protagonist in Two Years, do you long just to be a gardener who spends his time cultivating?
I want to be a gardener. Yeah. If I could just stay home and make flowers bloom, that would be... by the way, it's a most terrible metaphor for me. I can't do anything in a garden!
Well, good thing you’re living in New York now. But you once said, "writers are curious, crazy, diseased people." Do you imagine a time when you might put the pen down and take a rest from that?
I mean I can imagine it. I can't imagine what I would do with all the time that was made available. I'd sit here with nothing to do. But yes, you know, there are moments when it's difficult, and it doesn't get easier as you get older. And it's very demanding in the making of it, but it's also very demanding as a public act when the book comes out. A lot of writers would say that it feels very exposed and vulnerable, that moment of publication. And so there's all kinds of things about it that make you think, “Well, if there was something else I could do maybe I would do that.” But actually, you know, truthfully, I like what I do.
You describe yourself as a “hardline atheist.” As you get older and ponder what happens next, does any sort of belief appeal to you?
Well, I think you know you just have to... this is the time we have, you know. The point is to use it. I mean, I'm not in any way inching towards religion as the end approaches. I watched my father die and he never for an instant called out to any kind of deity. And I'm not interested in that. I'm just not interested in it.
I think what happens as you get older is a kind of clarity arrives about not wasting time. When you're young, the time that spreads ahead of you seems to be vast and accommodating, and there's plenty of time for everything. And by the time you get to this point, you realize there's hardly time to do the things you really have to do. And so don't waste time—that's my message to myself now every day, you know, don't waste the day. Do something.
But there are creatures in your new book who exist in such a beautiful, seductive timelessness. Do you ever ponder something other than this linear frame we're talking about?
No, except that you know, my friend Martin Amos has this wonderful phrase where he says "What you hope to leave behind you is a shelf of books." You know, you want to be able to look at a bookshelf and say, “From here to here it's me.” And that, if you've done your job properly, then that's the timeless thing, that's the thing that might be able to endure. And that's what you hope to leave behind.