Rushdie Imaginary Homelands Essay Format
he subtitle of "Imaginary Homelands" -- "Essays and Criticism 1981-1991" -- is perhaps too grand a term for this assemblage of Salman Rushdie's seminar papers, television broadcasts, book reviews, movie reviews, public lectures, interviews and articles. Would it have been published now -- and in its present form -- were it not for the high and terrible drama of the author's recent life? Probably not, given the scrappy and occasional nature of a considerable part of its content. Still, enough strong pieces are included to make the book welcome to anyone who has grappled -- in delight or exasperation or both -- with Mr. Rushdie's tumultuous novels or who shares his interest in the political and cultural plight of the migrant.
In his view, the migrant -- whether from one country to another, from one language or culture to another or even from a traditional rural society to a modern metropolis -- "is, perhaps, the central or defining figure of the twentieth century." On the complex situation of this emblematic figure, Mr. Rushdie himself can of course speak with unique authority, for he has embodied the outsider, "the Other," all of his life: first as a Muslim in predominantly Hindu India, then as an Indian migrant to Pakistan, next as an Indian-Pakistani living in Britain and, since the publication of "The Satanic Verses," as a "blasphemer" against Islam, a man in hiding, marked for murder.
Mr. Rushdie does not pull his punches when it comes to the failings of his adopted land (and by extension Western Europe and the United States) in the matter of racial prejudice. Writing from the position of the British left, in a 1984 essay with the neo-Orwellian title "Outside the Whale," Mr. Rushdie voices his scorn for the current nostalgia for the empire and the raj as exemplified in what he calls "the blackface minstrel-show of 'The Far Pavilions' in its TV serial incarnation" and the "overpraised" "Jewel in the Crown"; nor has he much good to say about Richard Attenborough's "Gandhi" or David Lean's film of "A Passage to India." He writes that "there can be little doubt that in Britain today the refurbishment of the Empire's tarnished image is under way. The continuing decline, the growing poverty and the meanness of spirit of much of Thatcherite Britain encourages many Britons to turn their eyes nostalgically to the lost hour of their precedence. The recrudescence of imperialist ideology and the popularity of Raj fictions put one in mind of the phantom twitchings of an amputated limb."
In a piece called "Home Front" (1984), Mr. Rushdie analyzes racism in terms of "the fear of the primal Dark" and "the idea of the Other, the reversed twin in the looking-glass, the double, the negative image, who by his oppositeness tells one what one is" -- only to conclude that "it will not suffice to blame racism and the creation of lying images of black peoples on some deep-bubbling, universal failing in humanity." Nor will it do to excuse racial prejudice on the grounds of its universality. While "it is obviously true that blacks and Asians need to face up to and deal with our own prejudices, it seems equally clear that the most attention must be paid to the most serious problem, and in Britain, that is white racism. If we were speaking of India or Africa, we would have other forms of racism to fight against. But you fight hardest where you live: on the home front."
Turning to the literary front, we find Mr. Rushdie attributing his eagerness to break with traditional literary forms in part to his status as a migrant; denied his roots, his original language and the social norms he grew up with, the migrant "is obliged to find new ways of describing himself, new ways of being human." Mr. Rushdie is most persuasive when writing about those novelists whose approach to fiction is similar to his own: writers like Gunter Grass, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Italo Calvino, who mix fantasy and naturalism, who employ all of the radically disjunctive techniques of modernism and post-modernism to create fictional worlds of their own that are nonetheless linked in a thousand ways to the world as we experience it. In his essay on Mr. Grass ("half a migrant"), he speaks of books that give aspiring writers ("these would-be migrants from the World to the Book") the "permission to become the sort of writers they have it in themselves to be. A book is a kind of passport." For the author of "Midnight's Children," the passports included "The Film Sense" by Sergei Eisenstein, the "Crow" poems of Ted Hughes, Jorge Luis Borges's "Ficciones," Laurence Sterne's "Tristram Shandy," Eugene Ionesco's play "Rhinoceros" and Mr. Grass's novel "The Tin Drum." "This is what Grass's great novel said to me in its drumbeats: Go for broke. Always try and do too much. Dispense with safety nets. Take a deep breath before you begin talking. Aim for the stars. Keep grinning. Be bloody-minded. Argue with the world."
The writing throughout is attractive: lively, allusive, a little flippant. But one could wish that "Imaginary Homelands" had not been quite so inclusive. What is the point of reprinting a 1983 campaign diatribe against Margaret Thatcher ("A General Election")? The account of a two-week trip to Pittsburgh, New York and San Francisco in 1985 ("Travels With a Golden Ass") seems both glib and dated as it revives once again that hoary old comparison of the follies and horrors of American life to those of Rome in its decadence. The reviews of works by E. L. Doctorow, Richard Ford, Saul Bellow and Grace Paley are hardly more than brief appreciations.
Whatever weaknesses the collection contains are more than redeemed by the eloquence and pathos of the three concluding pieces, published in 1990. These deal directly with Mr. Rushdie's response to the fanatical (and often politically motivated) reaction to "The Satanic Verses" in parts of the Muslim world.
In the first piece ("In Good Faith"), he again proclaims his allegiance to those novels that "attempt radical reformulations of language, form and ideas" and his "determination to create a literary language and literary forms in which the experience of formerly colonized, still-disadvantaged peoples might find full expression." He defends his own novel as being, "in part, a secular man's reckoning with the religious spirit" and goes on to say: " I am not a Muslim. It feels bizarre, and wholly inappropriate, to be described as some sort of heretic after having lived my life as a secular, pluralist, eclectic man. . . . The many Muslims I respect would be horrified by the idea that they belong to their faith purely by virtue of birth, and that any person so born who freely chose not to be a Muslim could therefore be put to death."
In the second ("Is Nothing Sacred?"), Mr. Rushdie, without repudiating his secularism, acknowledges the potency of the sacred and the human yearning for transcendence. He proposes that art -- particularly literature -- can be "the third principle that mediates between the material and spiritual worlds," that it can offer us "something that might even be called a secular definition of transcendence."
It is the very eloquence of the reasoning in the two preceding essays that makes his statement of submission in the final piece, "Why I Have Embraced Islam," seem so desperately sad.
Robert Towers teaches in the graduate writing division of the Columbia University School of the Arts. His most recent novel is "The Summoning."
A KISS BEFORE READING
I grew up kissing books and bread.
In our house, whenever anyone dropped a book or let fall a chapati or a "slice," which was our word for a triangle of buttered leavened bread, the fallen object was required not only to be picked up but also kissed, by way of apology for the act of clumsy disrespect. I was as careless and butterfingered as any child and, accordingly, during my childhood years, I kissed a large number of "slices" and also my fair share of books.
Devout households in India often contained, and still contain, persons in the habit of kissing holy books. But we kissed everything. We kissed dictionaries and atlases. We kissed Enid Blyton novels and Superman comics. If I'd ever dropped the telephone directory I'd probably have kissed that, too.
All this happened before I had ever kissed a girl. In fact it would almost be true, true enough for a fiction writer, anyhow, to say that once I started kissing girls, my activities with regard to bread and books lost some of their special excitement. But one never forgets one's first loves.
Bread and books: food for the body and food for the soul -- what could be more worthy of our respect, and even love?
It has always been a shock to me to meet people for whom books simply do not matter.
-- From "Imaginary Homelands."
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Even before The Satanic Verses (1988) appeared and became an international episode—with riots and book-burnings in Great Britain, India, and Pakistan; bomb threats and bombings at bookstores and Rushdie’s publisher’s offices in England and America; a death sentence and a bounty of $5.2 million placed on Rushdie’s head by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini; and the author driven underground, guarded at an undisclosed location by the Special Branch of Scotland Yard—Salman Rushdie had already established himself as one of the most important writers in contemporary Britain.
His second novel, Midnight’s Children (1981), was awarded the prestigious Booker-McConnell Prize; his third, Shame (1983), was also highly praised. Throughout the 1980’s, Rushdie also wrote essays, eloquently and often: about the politics of religion and race in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, Indira Gandhi’s India, and Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq’s Pakistan; about writers and books from India and Pakistan, Africa, Britain, Europe, South America, and the United States; about the vocation of the writer and the powers of literature, the potential of the imagination and the dangers of censorship; and, repeatedly, about migration as the archetypal experience of the twentieth century. Imaginary Homelands brings most of these essays together with the several major statements Rushdie has written in the wake of The Satanic Verses controversy to form what amounts to an extraordinary intellectual autobiography.
Born in Bombay, Rushdie was sent to be educated in England at fourteen and made that country his home. Although his parents were members of the Muslim minority in India, neither they nor he was religious. At fifteen, he reports in “In God We Trust,” he lost his faith and found himself “drawn towards the great traditions of secular radicalism—in politics, socialism; in the arts, modernism and its offspring.” He attended Rugby, where he experienced British racism at first hand, and Cambridge, where he discovered the writers who shaped his own aspirations, and then spent several years as an advertising copywriter. Gradually, the experience that he would make his own—the experience that had made him—pressed itself upon him as an inevitable subject. Migration—losing one’s country, language, and culture and finding oneself forced to come to terms with another place, another way of speaking and thinking, another view of reality—is Salman Rushdie’s great theme; metamorphosis is its metaphor, and reflections on migration and metamorphosis permeate these essays as thoroughly as embodiments of them populate his novels.
“Writers in my position, exiles or emigrants or expatriates,” Rushdie says in this collection’s title essay, “are haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being mutated into pillars of salt.” Such a writer comes to understand, however, that “we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind.” In his own fictions, Salman Rushdie has created just such imaginary homelands: an India of the mind in Midnight’s Children, a Pakistan of the mind in Shame, an Islam, Bombay, and London of the mind in The Satanic Verses. While they are not precisely real, these imaginary homelands capture the essence of reality as seen through the eyes of characters who, like their author, face the challenge of straddling two cultures.
The word “translation,” he points out, comes from the Latin for “bearing across,” and “having been borne across the world, we are translated men. It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in the translation; I cling, obstinately, to the notion that something can also be gained.” As he writes in an essay on John Berger, “the migrant is not simply transformed by his act; he also transforms his new world.” As Rushdie has amply demonstrated in his own writing, the gains from this transformation are real and many.
One such gain is a tremendous potential for reinvigorating both the language and the form of the novel. Rushdie’s works overflow with a mélange of voices, images, and inventions: digressions and disquisitions, anecdotes and myths, mundane details and philosophical meditations, puns, jingles, song lyrics, catchphrases, names, and ideas that only he could have brought together. Drawn from both the world he left behind and the world into which he has been thrust, they expand one’s sense of what is while enriching one’s sense of what the novel can be and do.
“Description is itself a political act . . . [R]edescribing a world is the necessary first step towards changing it,” Rushdie writes, and this suggests another contribution that the migrant can make to world culture. By describing the world as he does in his fiction and nonfiction, Rushdie can help to change those aspects of society that he so often laments and protests against in these essays: the institutional racism and nostalgia for past glories of...
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