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Unedited — separated by “xxx” centered, references list at the end
Salman Rushdie, “Reality is an argument,” interview by Nahlah Ayed, IDEAS host
We are in a very interesting moment in history in which as you write, “We are urged to define ourselves more and more narrowly to crush our own multidimensionality into the straitjacket of a one-dimensional national, ethnic, tribal or religious identity. This, I have come to think, may be the evil from which flow all other evils of our time.” How do we possibly extricate ourselves from this?
Well, one answer is: read novels. Because in a novel, if a character is only one-dimensional, the character is absolutely uninteresting. If the character is only defined by class or race or a particular kind of opinion or one kind of behaviour, they’re not alive. Because human beings are not like that. We are contradictory. As Walt Whitman said: “Do I contradict myself? Very well. I contradict myself.”
The idea of a homogeneous self is no longer tenable. We are all heterogeneous. We’re all a bag of selves in a bag of skin, and that’s what makes us interesting. That’s why we like meeting people, because they’re complicated, and we like reading about people who are complicated. Because simplicity is tedious and really not believable, because we’re not simple creatures.
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So I think that idea of saying that you have to define yourself by race or class or gender or religion … it’s [not that these] things are not significant. I define myself, in part, by race and by my personal history. But I won’t be put into a box. And I think the trouble is we live in a moment in which people are trying to put us in boxes. But the nature of this world, this shrunken planet, is that we can’t live in those little boxes anymore. All our boxes collide with all the other boxes, and plurality is the truth.
The novel has from the very beginning told us that we are plural entities and the world is plural. So read. Novels tell the truth.
Emma Brockes Guardian 09-2017
Rushdie has been in the US for more than 15 years, but he is still on the outside, a survivor, or beneficiary depending on your view, of a double displacement, first as a child moving from India to England to attend boarding school and then as an adult, when he left London for New York in 2000. It is a gift, he says, “to feel really connected to three places”, and it has nourished his fiction.
Setting the novel against the backdrop of the years preceding Trump’s election was not only a way of creating an elegy to the Obama era, but of suggesting that Trump didn’t emerge from a vacuum. “One of the reasons why I think it was possible to write the book is that a lot of what Trump represents and unleashed was there anyway, if you were looking properly, and would not have been destroyed by his defeat. Once you take the cork out of the bottle, things fly out.”
And while the rise and fall of Obama’s US – “the journey from that moment of optimism to its antithesis” – gave the novel a structural symmetry that has, says Rushdie, “horrible to say it, but a formally pleasing quality”, he is clear of the connection between then and now. “A big chunk of white America has been unable to stand the fact that for eight years there was a black man in the White House. Couldn’t stand it. And unfortunately Hillary was a bad candidate, and I think everybody underestimated, including me, the incredible hatred for her, including among leftwing people, young people and women.”
Paris Review: interview 200_ [below]
INTERVIEWER Could you possibly write an apolitical book?
RUSHDIE Yes, I have great interest in it, and I keep being annoyed that I haven’t. I think the space between private life and public life has disappeared in our time. There used to be much more distance there. It’s like Jane Austen forgetting to mention the Napoleonic wars. The function of the British army in the novels of Jane Austen is to look cute at parties. It’s not because she’s ducking something, it’s that she can fully and profoundly explain the lives of her characters without a reference to the public sphere. That’s no longer possible, and it’s not just because there’s a TV in the corner of every room. It’s because the events of the world have great bearing on our daily lives. Do we have a job or not? How much is our money worth? This is all determined by things outside of our control. It challenges Heraclitus’s idea that character is destiny. Sometimes your character is not your destiny. Sometimes a plane flying into a building is your destiny. The larger world gets into the story not because I want to write about politics, but because I want to write about people.
INTERVIEWER In Fury, Solanka is born in Bombay, educated at Cambridge, and lives in Manhattan. Maybe that’s why reviewers assumed it was about your own life in New York.
RUSHDIE Yes, I was saying I’m over here now. It felt scary to write so close to the present in time, and to my own experience, but both were deliberate choices. I wanted to write about arrival. I didn’t want to pretend that I was Don DeLillo or Philip Roth or anyone who’d grown up in these streets. I wanted to write about the New York of people who come here and make new lives, about the ease with which stories from all over the world can become New York stories. Just by virtue of showing up, your story becomes one of the many stories of the city. London’s not like that. Yes, there’s an immigrant culture in London that enriches it and adds to it, but London has a dominant narrative. There is no comparable dominant narrative in New York; just the collected narratives of everyone who shows up. That’s one of the reasons why I am attracted to it.
As for Solanka, he’s a grumpy bastard. I put the world’s grumpiness about America into Solanka, and then surrounded him with a kind of carnival. Whereas I love being in New York, I’m as interested in the carnival as in the grumpiness. And even Solanka—you know he may be someone who bitches a lot about America, but it’s to America that he’s come to save himself. I thought it was silly the way the book was read as being about me. It’s not my diary. You can start close to your life, but that’s a starting place. The question is, what’s the journey? The journey is the work of art. Where do you finish up?
INTERVIEWER You’ve lived in—and between—very different parts of the world. Where would you say you’re from?
RUSHDIE I’ve always had more affinity to places than nations. I suppose if you were asking me formally, I would still think of myself as a British citizen of Indian origin. But I think of myself as a New Yorker and as a Londoner. I probably think of those as being more exact definitions than the passport or the place of birth.
Urdu. Urdu is literally my mother’s tongue. It’s my father’s tongue, too. But in northern India one also spoke Hindi. Actually, what we spoke was neither of them, or rather more like both. I mean, what people in northern India actually speak is not a real language. It’s a colloquial mixture of Hindi and Urdu called Hindustani. It isn’t written. It’s the language of Bollywood movies. And some mixture of Hindustani and English is what we spoke at home. When I went to England for school, when I was thirteen and a half, I would have been more or less exactly bilingual—equally good in both languages. And I’m still very colloquially comfortable in Hindi and Urdu, but I wouldn’t consider writing in them.
Tishani Doshi, ‘I’m here all by myself’: The Salman Rushdie interview,” The Hindu
The novel asks some big questions about whether there’s a universal good and evil, for instance. We seem to be in a divided time where everyone has a side, and there’s a great sense of offence if someone chooses a side that’s not yours.
Exactly. We’re all being told to define ourselves very narrowly, but it seems to me that one of the things that the art of the novel has always known, is that our selves are not like that. Our selves are much more complicated and mixed up and sometimes contradictory.
As Whitman said: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself.” That idea of the human self as being heterogeneous and not homogeneous is at the heart of literature. It’s at the heart of all great characters in the history of the novel. I don’t like the idea of didacticism in literature but it may be something that people can gain from reading literature, which is to renew their knowledge of human beings as being complicated and not simple, of being multidimensional and not two-dimensional.
The writer and dancer’s book of poetry, Girls Are Coming Out Of The Woods , will be out soon.
Leo Robson, in the New Statesman, describes Rushdie’s voice as “that riffing, streaming, bubbling voice, halfway between Greek chorus and Twitter feed, that (with due credit to Nabokov, Joyce, Grass, Marquez, Calvino and Pynchon) is easily identified as Rushdiesque.” Later says “The models invoked – Nero as Captain Ahab, as Jay Gatsby, as Lucius in Apuleius’s The Golden Ass – suggest a study of hubris, with America as an all-too-willing home, but the relationship between subject and backdrop is lost amid so much verbal noise.”
New York Times book critic Dwight Garner panned the book xxx Increasingly, however, Rushdie has left cool English so far behind that his fiction has grown bombastic and close to unreadable.
[…] at around its midpoint, Donald Trump puts his head into this novel, as if he were Jack Nicholson hacking into the bathroom with an axe in “The Shining.” (Here’s Donny!) In Trump, Rushdie finds such a perfect villain that he finds it hard to let him go.
The Trump character is named Gary “Green” Gwynplaine, a wealthy vulgarian, born with green hair, who likes to refer to himself as the Joker. About this Joker, and about the threat he poses to an America this writer loves, it’s a treat to watch Rushdie let fly.
The immigrant in Rushdie thinks: Can this really be how the experiment that began with the Mayflower ends? “Why even try to understand the human condition if humanity revealed itself as grotesque, dark, not worth it.” He adds: “America’s secret identity wasn’t a superhero. Turns out it was a supervillain.” These passages are some of the novel’s best, because you sense the author’s heart is in them.
Mark Athitakis, in USA Today xxx, “Nero isn’t a facsimile of President Trump, but he’s unmistakably Trump-ish, and our current brackish political atmosphere colors The Golden House, which ranks among Rushdie’s most ambitious and provocative books. Its story stretches from the first Obama inauguration to the present day, with Nero and his family serving as symbols for America’s current identity crisis. It captures Rushdie’s concern that America’s ‘dark side…roared out of its cage and swallowed us’.”
Pick your classic hubristic figure — Oedipus, Lear, Gatsby — and you’ll hear him echoed in Nero.
Aram Mrjoian is a visiting assistant professor in creative writing at Pacific Lutheran University, an editor-at-large at the Chicago Review of Books,
Make no mistake, The Golden House is a pop culture jamboree.
Bizarrely, there is both Trump and shadow Trump, with Nero Golden functioning as the latter. Like Trump, Nero is vastly wealthy, made his fortune in real estate, and has a plethora of shady, Mafioso business dealings. They are not the same (and we’ll get to that in a minute), but they occupy the same gilded airspace. Nero, indeed, feels like a watered down, less fame-crazed version of the asshole occupying the White House.
On the other hand, Trump, the man himself, creates the majority of the novel’s shortcomings. Rene summarizes the Donald’s meteoric rise in politics using an extended metaphor in which Hillary Clinton is Batwoman and Trump is the Joker, the punch line of DC in D.C., but the result feels reductive and cartoonish. It’s a flat jab that comes across as marshmallow satire.
The book begins with the election of Barack Obama and ends eight years later on the eve of an election in which the lead contender refers to himself as “the Joker”. Nero’s character contains echoes of Trump, too; he is a man of fabulous wealth, with a beautiful Russian wife, and a fortune thought to be in part built on real estate. The novel’s transnational supporting cast includes an Australian hypnotist; a Burmese diplomat; Ivy Manuel, a night-club singer; a Somalian artist; and Nero’s assistants, Fuss and Blather. As the election nears, America is deeply divided.
The Goldens arrive having fled an unknown city – later revealed to be Bombay/Mumbai – as well as an unknown threat, but seem unable to escape their destiny. At the centre of each character’s predicament lies the question of identity. Here Rushdie puts his finger on the existential crisis of our times and presses down hard. The Goldens are immigrants, refugees of a sort, who have abandoned their ties to their natal country and chosen new names for themselves, names that morph into newer forms in the months following their arrival.
The notion of identity as overlapping and many-layered is something with which large sections of white America are grappling, in a nationwide identity crisis: they thought they knew who they were, only to discover their sense of self has increasingly relied on telling others what they weren’t.
There is no escaping destiny, Rushdie seems to be saying, because character creates destiny. This is as true of an individual as it is of a country. Nero is smart, entrepreneurial, charming and quick-witted. He is also corrupt, greedy and ruthless, unable and unwilling to curb those tendencies: thus he is the architect of his own downfall.
Gaby Wood, director of the Booker Prize Foundation, posted to the Booker PRize blog in August:
Midnight’s Children didn’t just win the Booker Prize once. It also won the ‘Booker of Bookers’ and the ‘Best of the Booker’, as a result of votes taken on the 25th and 40th anniversaries of the prize. When he completed the ‘Proust Questionnaire’ for Vanity Fair magazine, Rushdie was asked where he would like to live.
‘On bookshelves. Forever,’ he replied.
As news of his health improves and we wish for his ongoing physical recovery, that particular fate seems secure. His next novel, Victory City, is due to be published early next year.
Why should his living on bookshelves matter to us, his readers? Well: I’ll leave it to Rushdie to explain the empowering force of invention and self-invention.
In 1992, when he was living under the protection of Scotland Yard, Rushdie wrote a short, brilliant book about The Wizard of Oz, a ‘radical, enabling film’, in his words, that had been the inspiration for his very first work of fiction (written at the age of ten). Dorothy’s famous line, ‘there’s no place like home’ led him to remark drily that ‘my own relationship with “home” has become, let’s say, more problematic of late’. But when he came to analyse that part of the film’s ending more closely his book became an essay about the nature of fiction – about where it can take us, what it can do for us, and the notion that at its best it’s inextricable from who we are.
Jovially objecting (‘Well, excuse me, Glinda’) to the ‘conservative little homily’ of ‘there’s no place like home’, Rushdie goes on to say that in later Oz books Dorothy takes Auntie Em and Uncle Henry to live in Oz, rather than accepting the limitations of Kansas. ‘So Oz finally became home; the imagined world became the actual world, as it does for us all, because,’ he explains:
‘Once we have left our childhood places and started out to make up our lives, armed only with what we have and are, we understand that the real secret of the ruby slippers is not that “there’s no place like home”, but rather that there is no longer any such place *as* home: except, of course, for the home we make, or the homes that are made for us, in Oz: which is anywhere, and everywhere, except the place from which we began.’
Thomas Hylland Eriksen
In a later essay explaining the mission of his instantly controversial novel – burned in Bradford, leading to a fatwa in Tehran, creating a decade-long global stir – Rushdie offers his view of creativity, contrasting it with the cultural purism and fear of contamination he associates with the enemies of The satanic verses. The book ‘rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Mélange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world . It is the great possibility that mass migration gives the world, and I have tried to embrace it’ (Rushdie 1991:394). This view of ‘newness’ corresponds well with the perspectives on cultural dynamics and change developed in Ulf Hannerz’s œuvre for more than three decades, and although anthropological purists have never threatened with anything like a fatwa, Hannerz’s position is more controversial than his congenial style of argument usually betrays.
Perhaps more than any other major novelist, he celebrates the hybridization and cultural mixing caused by international migration, global flows of ideas and the spreading of a modern world-view entailing a willingness to accept cultural change and a suspicious ambivalence towards tradition and ascribed identities.
About Rushdie it may be said that he spends his entire life on board a plane between London and Bombay (such as Air India’sFlight 420), never being able to – or wishing to – land.
Rushdie’s sub-continental people, places and environments are presented both in a matter-of-fact way as if the readers were initiates, and in a sometimes exaggerated exoticizing way, creating a Verfremdung effect [German for alienating the audience] to his majority of non-Indian readers (and considerable irritation in India). Rushdie has turned his betwixt-and-between condition of exile into a blessing (notwithstanding the exhausting fatwa), which has given birth to a truly innovative form of literature with respect to language, form and content, by assimilating and mixing material of diverse origins.
The Jamaican music form dub, which has mutated and spread all over the world under a variety of labels, is an explicit form of recycling where existing material is manipulated in the recording studio. As an aside, let me add that the term intertextuality has been one of the most common trade words in literary theory since the 1980s, a word that refers to the relationship between ‘new’ texts and older texts. Radical theorists may accordingly suggest that everything has been written before; what remains to do for the creative artist is, as it were, to combine existing texts in new ways. Critics might say that this is exactly what an author such as Salman Rushdie does and that the ‘seething cauldrons’ of cosmopolitan culturally-creolized cities produce little of lasting artistic value other than a fast-moving, never-ending string of reconfigurations and meta-commentaries, adding little or nothing to existing works of art.
Randy Boyagoda, Is Salman Rushdie the novelist we need to capture America under Trump?
Salman Rushdie is a writer always keen to take on big, messy matters—and few are bigger or messier these days than American life at home and abroad—but he has also been consistently fascinated by something specifically American that generations have pursued: the desire and drive “to move beyond memory and roots and language and race into the land of the self-made self, which is another way of saying, America.”
Gatsby redux? This rendering of one prominent national myth comes to us from René, the narrator of Rushdie’s latest novel. He is a filmmaker living among artists and assorted eccentrics in contemporary Manhattan, and he is here riffing on the rationale for why people come to America as a way of making sense of his mysterious new neighbors, the Goldens, an aging wealthy patriarch and his three sons. From origins initially unknown (and they seem very keen on keeping it that way), the quartet take up residence in a Greenwich Village mansion down the street from René. They do so shortly after Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. The story of their strange and tragic past and equally strange and tragic present—punctuated by Nero’s decision to marry a stunning 28-year-old Russian who swiftly and successfully pursues a hostile takeover of a family life more and more defined by untimely deaths—extends forward eight years to the election of a new president, called simply “the Joker.”
Returning to a method he deployed to famous effect in his 1982 novel Midnight’s Children, set at the founding of India, Rushdie creates analogical relationships between familial and national experience, as a means of both embodying large-scale political effects and revealing the political meanings of seemingly personal pursuits.
Chockablock jokes and fiction-making about crazy-making American life aside, Rushdie is at his finest in drawing us toward higher concerns, as when he balances the novel’s early celebrations of the self-invention made possible by coming to America with more wistful reflections about the irreducible continuities of our lives: “I did it, and here I am, and now I am seeing ghosts, because the trouble with trying to escape yourself,’” one of Nero’s sons tells René, “is that you bring yourself along for the ride.” A comic book villain wants to rule the country, the narrator observes elsewhere, and there is no Caped Crusader to take him down, because ours “is not an age of heroes.” Instead, it is an age of division and violence, one in which the question of the value of human life itself emerges as the question that matters most, both in national life and family life. Rushdie makes as much clear late in the book, with shocking presidential elections matched to shocking family revelations.
But then, with a lovely, light, punning touch, Rushdie points beyond the triumphant political and personal firestorms and nihilisms that otherwise threaten to rule this big brawny novel. “The ace of trumps was Little Vespa himself,” a four-year old boy whose parentage and prospects and historical-political moment in time are all complicated and controversial, yes. But in Rushdie’s assured handling, this child will join and, we can hope, flourish in the “great whirling movement of life.”
Cites and Links
Mark Athitakis, “In Salman Rushdie’s ‘Golden House,’ a Trump-like figure rules the manor,” USA Today, Sept. 5, 2017 https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/books/2017/09/05/salman-rushdies-golden-house-trump-like-figure-rules-manor/616279001/.
Randy Boyagoda, “Is Salman Rushdie the novelist we need to capture America under Trump?” America, Sept. 29, 2017 https://www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2017/09/29/salman-rushdie-novelist-we-need-capture-america-under-trump.
__________, “Just Read Him,” The Atlantic, Aug. 13.2022 https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/08/salman-rushdie-fatwa-artistic-freedom/671137/?utm_source=feed.
Emma Brockes, “Salman Rushdie: ‘A lot of what Trump unleashed was there anyway’,” The Guardian, Sept. 2, 2017 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/sep/02/salman-rushdie-interview.
Tishani Doshi, ” ‘I’m here all by myself’: The Salman Rushdie interview,” The Hindu, Chennai (Madras), Sept. 1, 2017 https://www.thehindu.com/books/interview-with-salman-rushdie-on-the-golden-house/article19600953.ece.
Thomas Hylland Eriksen, “Creolization and Creativity,” Global Networks: A Journal of Transnational Affairs, 3, no. 3 (July 2002) https://www.academia.edu/5091543/Creolization_and_creativity.
Aminatta Forna, “The Golden House by Salman Rushdie review – a parable of modern America,” The Guardian, Sept. 16, 2017 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/sep/16/the-golden-house-salman-rushdie-review.
Dwight Garner, “Salman Rushdie’s Prose Joins the Circus in ‘The Golden House’,” New York Times, Sept. 4, 2017
Aram Mrjoian, “Rushdie’s Intellect Shines in ‘The Golden House’,” Chicago Review of Books, Sept. 5, 2017 https://chireviewofbooks.com/2017/09/05/the-golden-house-salman-rushdie-review/.
Leo Robson, “The Golden House is Salman Rushdie’s not-so-great American novel,” New Statesman, Sept. 10, 2017 https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2017/09/golden-house-salman-rushdies-not-so-great-american-novel.
Salman Rushdie, “The Art of Fiction, No. 186,” interview by Jack Livings, Paris Review, Summer 2005 https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5531/the-art-of-fiction-no-186-salman-rushdie.
__________, “Salman Rushdie: Reality is an argument,” interview by Nahlah Ayed, CBC/Radio-Canada, Oct. 4, 2021 https://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/salman-rushdie-reality-is-an-argument-1.6198895.
Gaby Wood, “Salman Rushdie has opened doors between the real world and imagined worlds – and for decades has been unafraid to pass through them,” Booker Library, Features [Aug. 2022] https://thebookerprizes.com/the-booker-library/features/salman-rushdie-has-opened-doors-between-the-real-world-and-imagined.