What Sir Salman taught me last week

Free Speech and Writing

So the National Endowment for the Humanities threw its 50th birthday celebration, Human / Ties, in Charlottesville, VA, mid-September 2016. Almost all the events, over a span of several days, were offered free to the public, and I went to a few of them. It was a treat. I ended up feeling chuffed – and sobered – about being a writer myself.

Publicity from UVa on behalf of the NEH and HUMAN/TIES

Publicity from UVa on behalf of the NEH and HUMAN/TIES

On the Friday evening, 16 September, at the Paramount Theater – our lovingly refurbished former Vaudeville theater now hosting drama, music, speaking, meetings, large-screen movies, etc. – Sir Salman Rushdie came for a chat. The successful author and teacher, who catapulted to international fame when an Iranian Ayatollah put a bounty on Rushdie’s head in 1989, sat on an elegant chair near the center of the vast Paramount stage. To his right, in a identical chair, his interlocutor, Suketu Mehta, a fellow professor at New York University’s School of Journalism, spoke for several minutes, after which, inserting brief questions from time to time, he let his friend and colleague do most of the speaking, .

Rushdie in 2016. Photo from Wikipedia.

Rushdie in 2016. Photo from Wikipedia.

I didn’t know what to expect. I signed up weeks before the event for my free ticket, as soon as I heard about it, on the theory that this was an important occasion and I might be surprised by what I observed and learned. I’m so glad I did that. Turned out to be a worthwhile theory.

Following are some of the nuggets I came away with, from Rushdie’s conversation with Mehta.

FYI: To the best of my knowledge, the quoted material here is accurate. I had a little notebook with me in which I scribbled 😉 Any errors in transcribing are mine.

 

On Dissidence and Writing

The writer is the voice that nobody owns.

The authoritarians … want to control the narrative.

If you say, ‘no it doesn’t,’ that’s why they want to lock writers up.

These remarks and the narrative around them led me to feel pleased and proud to be one more member of the international clan of writers, dating back from the storytellers in the cave, to the present-day, where we express ourselves through so many means in so many media. It’s a privilege and perhaps a duty, Rushdie implied, to write the truth as we perceive it – and as we choose to communicate it.

On Freedom of Speech

Having lived in the New York area for twenty years, he said, he applied for and received US citizenship. Rushdie emphasized that “the most important thing” in his decision to do so is the existence of the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

Handwritten text that would become the First Amendment

Handwritten text that would become the First Amendment. Courtesy Wikipedia.

After overcoming some discomfort about people in the US being able to say more terrible things about others than they are permitted to, for instance, in England or Germany, he said he gradually came to value more the First Amendment’s wisdom. It favors openness over control. After all, some people will be in power, and they are the ones who’ll say what’s permitted and what isn’t. What if you are on the wrong end of the people in power?

All it says, as adopted in 1791, is this:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Here’s some of what Rushdie had to say about the importance of that brief paragraph.

Bad ideas don’t disappear if you forbid them.

I want to know where the assholes are. … [T]hen we’ll know where they live.

Lest we try to believe that censorship can be used for good, in the interests of protecting those segments of a society that are smaller, less recognized, or less vocal, he gave us this heartfelt advice.

Don’t use censorship to defend minorities – it will backfire.

Rushdie was clever, funny, and sincere. His friend, Professor Mehta, conducted the conversation elegantly, with minimal fuss.

I am grateful for the chance to sit there, take notes, and take it all in. All writers can be brave. Some like Rushdie are called on to be publicly, conspicuously, so. That night, he did not let us down. Seated in his chair, under the spotlight, he stood up for all writers.

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Her company, Chenille Books, helps nonfiction authors develop their books. Her first nonfiction book, Becoming Unstuck: The FLOAT Approach for Writers, is forthcoming in 2016. #becomingunstuck 

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