'Writers have no armies': Salman Rushdie on the fear of stories - Hindustan Times

'Writers have no armies': Salman Rushdie on the fear of stories

By | Posted by Krishna Priya Pallavi, Delhi
Oct 20, 2023 04:19 PM IST

After surviving a brutal knife attack, the Indian-British author is at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Salman Rushdie is making a rare public appearance at the Frankfurt Book Fair after he was brutally attacked in August 2022 and subsequently lost sight in one eye. The author of the Booker-prize winning "Midnight's Children" (1981) and "The Satanic Verses" (1988), the work that triggered a fatwa or death sentence by the then-Iranian Ayatollah, is at the book fair to discuss his latest novel, "Victory City" — and to receive the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade on October 22.

Salman Rushdie appears at the Frankfurt Book Fair only 14 months after being stabbed at a public reading. (DW/Andrew Matthews/AP/picture alliance )
Salman Rushdie appears at the Frankfurt Book Fair only 14 months after being stabbed at a public reading. (DW/Andrew Matthews/AP/picture alliance )

(Also Read | On stabbing incident, Salman Rushdie says he is 'more or less OK' but faces this dilemma)

DW caught up with the author to discuss his recovery and the power of literature.

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The Peace Prize of the German Book Trade is not only awarded for artistic work but also for international understanding and, in your case, your commitment to freedom in the world. What does this prize mean to you?

It's very important. I think all of us in the world of books are familiar with this prize. And a remarkable list of people have it. So I'm just very gratified to have my name added to that list.

How are you today, only 14 months after you were attacked and seriously injured?

As you see, I'm feeling much recovered. I mean, I'm a little beaten up, but I'm alright.

In an interview with The New Yorker in February, you said that you have been suffering from writer's block since the attack. But a few days ago, your publisher announced that you will be publishing a new book ["Knife"] next spring, in which you deal with the attack and its consequences for you. How did you find your way back to writing?

It just came back. I think quite soon after I spoke to The New Yorker and that interview, I found that it began to flow again. So I'm happy that I've been able to write this book, which will come out in the spring.

Was there anything that helped you?

You know, just practice. I've been doing this job a long time. In the end, that's what gets you back to work.

Let's talk about your current book, "Victory City," which was published this year. It's a fictionalized telling of the rise and fall of the medieval city of Bisnaga in southern India, where men and women of diverse faiths were meant to be equal. But the empire perishes at the end because it abandons all its ideals. Is this a commentary on the contemporary world?

Well, I mean, if you write about history, to some extent, you're also writing about the present day because when we look at the past, we see what interests us, our own concerns reflected in earlier times.

But really, I wanted to create a world of my own. There are many writers who have done this, whether it's William Faulkner with his Yoknapatawpha, [Gabriel] Garcia Marquez with Macondo, or the Indian writer R. K. Narayan with Malgudi. I wanted a little world of my own, and this saga became that world.

Some critics have said that the book is a feminist novel. Was that your intention?

Well, one of the things that interested me doing the research for the book was that it's really true that in this very long ago period — this is the 14th and 15th century we're talking about — the place of women in society was very advanced in many ways. There was a lot of attention given to the education of girls, with almost as many schools for girls as for boys. Women worked in every walk of life: in the army, in the legal profession, or as merchant traders, et cetera.

That was true, but of course, the thing about history is that nothing is true all the time. And my character Pampa Kampana, who's in a way telling the story that I'm retelling, her own life goes up and down, there are moments when she's queen, and there are moments when she's an exile in the jungle.

And I think that's also true of the values of the society. There are moments when it's liberal, tolerant and open, and other moments when it becomes illiberal and intolerant. I guess human life is like that.

The fatwa imposed on you over 34 years ago almost cost you your life during last year's attack. Why are autocrats, dictatorships and powerful people so afraid of stories of literature?

It's always been the case, you know, in many parts of the world that dictators fear poets. And it's very strange because writers have no armies.

What's your explanation?

I think they fear alternative versions of the world. One of the things about authoritarian rule is it also imposes its own version of the world to the exclusion of all others. Of course, all writers have their own version of the world and sometimes those don't please people in power, and so they try to silence them.

Amid the current war between Hamas and Israel, what can literature do to help?

Very little. You know, I always try not to overstate the power of literature. What writers can do — and what they are doing — is to try and articulate the incredible pain that many people are feeling right now and to bring that to the world's attention. I think writers everywhere are doing that right now, and that's probably the best we can do: articulate the nature of the problem.

So are you saying that words in this situation lose their power?

I just think there are things that words can't do, and what they can't do is stop wars.

One of the first casualties usually of war is truth because people start presenting their own propaganda version of events. And that's very difficult when you can't distinguish fact from fiction in a war zone.

So I think the problem reporters and journalists have to face now is how to establish the facts. And if journalism can do that, then it's performing a very valuable service.

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