A grab bag of short takes …
I also have a chaotic and unedited collection of “Notes and Quotes” — my term for research notes — on the postcolonialist author Salman Rushdie, who was recently stabbed by an Iranian-American youth, and some of the themes raised by his fiction — and by the attack against him. Link HERE. These are more thought out, but still way short of a finished, coherent blog post.
What ties it all together is a vague hunch that Rushdie expresses values I think are worth preserving … and that I try to support in my own research and writing. And the attack threatens some of those values in ways I might want to address in my historical writing about cultural and religious pluralism in 19th-century America.
This, too: Rushdie is a avowed atheist, and I come down decidedly on the other side of that argument, but he’s extremely knowledgeable about religion. Not only the cultural Islam he was born into, but western Christianity. I haven’t read his Satanic Verses, the book that earned him death threats from Islamic fundamentalists and a 1989 fatwa against him from the Islamist government of Iran, but I’ve read enough about it to understand it was not at all blasphemous.
Yes, he’s wary of fundamentalists — of all stripes — but I think if anybody has earned that right, it’s Salman Rushdie.
I haven’t endured any death threats — knock on wood! — but I’m leery of the kind of fundamentalism that veers off into intolerance, too, whether it be religious, political or diehard sports fans. More to the point: As an expat from India educated in England now living in New York, he has thoughts about immigrants, diasporas, globalization, etc., that have influenced the way I write about immigration, cultural assimilation and, yes, creolization. (In fact, I got the title for one of my articles from a Rushdie quote.) In short, sometimes I feel like we’re both spiritual mutts barking up similar trees.
Brian Stelter, CNN’s media critic, had what has to be the classiest reaction yet to last week’s attack on Rushdie
On “Reliable Sources,” I spoke with Henry Reese, who was on stage with Rushdie when the attack occurred. At first, he said, “it looked like a sort of bad prank, and it didn’t have any sense of reality. And then when there was blood behind him, it became real.”
Reese said he didn’t want to talk about the details, or his own injury (he had a bandage above his eye), but he definitely wanted to talk about the protection of writers. That’s what Friday’s planned event was all about. And that’s what Reese’s organization City of Asylum is about, too. Billed as the “largest residency program in the world for writers living in exile under threat of persecution,” the group defends the values Rushdie represents.
Reese said “we should all go out and buy a book by Salman Rushdie this week and read it.” And writers, he said, should “write to the full extent of truthfulness and their ability.” We should all recognize the importance of creative expression “and how it brings people to discuss important issues and to think about people other than themselves.” [Boldface type and links in original.]
A BIT LATER: A sad note. Selter got sacked from CNN a few days later. The Guardian has the story. Classy headline: “Brian Stelter rebukes CNN on final show: ‘It’s not partisan to stand up to demagogues’.” Stelter’s final monologue, which was also classy, aired Sunday, Aug. 21.
David Bauder, “By chance, AP reporter on scene to witness Rushdie attack,” Associated Press, Aug. 12, 2022 https://www.ap.org/ap-in-the-news/2022/by-chance-ap-reporter-on-scene-to-witness-rushdie-attack
The reporter was Joshua Goodman, who was on vacation at the Chautauqua Institution with his family. Was interviewed by David Bauder of AP after he had phoned in the spot news [note date of published story]. A nice bit of old-fashioned reporting:
Rushdie’s interview, advertised as focusing on the importance of persecuted writers having a place to work, was one of the week’s highlights. Goodman arrived at the outdoor amphitheater just as it was about to begin.
The threats against Rushdie — a $3 million bounty was placed on his head and he spent years in hiding — had not been forgotten. Some audience members joked nervously about not wanting to be in the front row. But there was very little security at a location where many families don’t even lock their doors at night, Goodman said.
Rushdie was seated and was being introduced when his attacker climbed onstage and began assaulting him. From his vantage point, Goodman said he wasn’t sure if Rushdie was being punched or stabbed, until he could see what appeared to be blood.
“There was a moment of shock,” he said. “Everyone in the audience was sitting in disbelief.”
When an officer with a police dog and others rushed toward the stage, Goodman realized what was happening and switched into reporter mode. He quickly sent an email to several of his editors at AP about what was happening and headed toward the stage himself.
Goodman lingered to take pictures and interview witnesses despite the institute’s staff saying he and all the audience members had to leave, he said. Goodman had covered protests before while stationed in Latin America, so scenes of violence were not foreign to him, but never in such a bucolic setting.
The AP sent an alert to its members about the news at 11:06 a.m. Eastern, followed by the first story six minutes later.
I imagine this in my mind as being like the scene in Front Page where Hildy Johnson picks up a phone and growls “Gimme rewrite.” Good reporting, whatever the technology.
Creolization enters the picture here because of a remark of Rushdie’s that Satanic Verses, the novel he’s best known for, “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 was picked up by scholars from Sweden and Norway, who in turn influenced a study I wrote for the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society titled “‘How Newness Enters the World’: Cultural Creolization in Swedish-American Hymnals Published at Augustana College, 1901-1925” (Spring 2016).
Ulf Hannerz, a cultural anthropologist at Stockholm University who coined the term cultural creolization, quoted it several times, and Thomas Hylland Eriksen of Oslo U, who gave this context in an article “Creolization and Creativity,” Global Networks 3, 3 (2003) 223:
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
The list of references at the end of Eriksen’s article, alas, fails to mention anything written by Rushdie in 1991. So I can’t track down his source at the moment.
Cite: 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.
The outpouring of commentary following the attempt on Rushdie’s life by a youth of Iranian descent, and my own efforts to learn more of his backstory, have me rethinking my own research on creolization, etc. It’s far too early to know his assailant’s motivation, and I’m not going to repeat the speculation in scandal sheets like the New York Post and the Daily Mail. But here’s an early account in The Guardian, which has (IMHO) by far the best commentary on Rushdie of any of the daily media. Cite: Oliver Milman, “Salman Rushdie attack: details emerge about New Jersey suspect,” Guardian, Aug. 13, 2022 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/aug/13/salman-rushdie-attack-suspect-new-jersey.
Even now, it’s enough to make me reassess — once again — the contemporary context for writing up my story of Swedish-American immigrants of the old Augustana Synod. To what degree do you ever leave the old country behind? What does it have to say about the broader picture for globalization, creolization, cultural blending, diversity, pluralism, the things I write about? Especially diversity and pluralism. How do the things I write about intersect with the broader issues of identity that Rushdie raises?
A telling passage from an interview Rushdie gave with the German magazine Stern (picked up at length in the Guardian) two weeks before he was attacked and released ahead of its scheduled publication date of Aug. 18:
Just a fortnight ago, Rushdie had talked to the German news magazine Stern about his safety. The author said his life would have been in a lot more danger if social media had been around at the time he wrote The Satanic Verses: “More dangerous, infinitely more dangerous”.
“A fatwa is a serious thing. Luckily we didn’t have the internet back then. The Iranians had send the fatwa to the mosques by fax. That’s all a long time ago. Nowadays my life is very normal again.”
Asked what made him afraid now, Rushdie said: “In the past I would have said religious fanaticism. I no longer say that. The biggest danger facing us right now is that we lose our democracy. Since the supreme court abortion verdict I have been seriously concerned that the US won’t manage that. That the problems are irreparable and the country will break apart. Today’s greatest danger facing us is this kind of cryptofascism that we see in America and elsewhere.
“Oh, we live in scary times. That’s true even though I always tell people: don’t be afraid. But the bad thing is that death threats have become more normal. Not only politicians get them, even American teachers who take certain books off the syllabus.
“Look at how many guns there are in America. The existence of all these weapons in itself is scary. I think a lot of people today live with similar threats to the ones I had back then. And the fax machines they used against me is like a bicycle rather than a Ferrari compared with the internet.”
Cite: Ed Pilkington and Philip Oltermann, “Salman Rushdie had started to believe his ‘life was normal again’,” Guardian, Aug. 13, 2022 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/aug/13/salman-rushdie-had-started-to-believe-his-life-was-normal-again.
In a remarkable interview in October 2021 on Canadian public radio,
Salman Rushdie, “Reality is an argument,” interview by Nahlah Ayed, IDEAS host
So I guess I’m wondering, to what extent do you think it’s possible or even desirable to return to a kind of shared consensus about what reality is?
Well, I think we have to have a different consensus. And I think that’s beginning to happen. We now understand that the world is different depending on where you stand on it. The world is different if you’re a man or if you’re a woman, or Black or Asian. The world is different depending on the way in which you navigate the world and the way in which people respond to you.
So I think we can’t go back. And in a way, it’s impossible to go back to the idea of the world which is the unified reality. But the idea of this polymorphous reality, which is many things, because it’s more inclusive, it gives more people access to the microphone.
So I’m not proposing some naive return to a simpler world. I’m suggesting the need for a sophisticated advance towards a more beautiful, complicated view of the world.
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.
Cite: 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. [Links and photo in the original.]
Some final notes to myself, jotted down on a legal pad 3 a.m.-ish today (and copied here in the hope they prove to be worth something): Creolization and postcolonialism are an academic theory dealing with the legacy of Empire … especially influential in the UK and Europe. We should not assume we can’t learn from them in America. Ours is a white settler society that grew out of the British Empire of the 1700s, and American thinkers — especially William Faulkner — have addressed similar concerns in their work. Faulkner’s treatment of the legacy of slavery and dispossession of the Choctaw people has been especially influential in postcolonial circles, e.g. Édouard Glissant.
I’ve blogged about Glissant and Faulkner, HERE, and about a possible postcolonial theme in Faulkner HERE; although I didn’t use the word, you can’t read much Faulkner without encountering postcolonial themes including race, identity, power dynamics between master and subaltern cultures … with a heavy dose in Faulkner of sin, redemption and tragedy from the time the land was fraudulently obtained from the Indians through the tragedy of chattel slavery and its legacy of white supremacy. Glissant, who was from the former French colony of Martinique and taught for a while at LSU, was aware of all that, wrote a fine book on it (which I’m about halfway finished reading0, and it resonates with me.
[Uplinked Aug. 18, 2022]