Salman Rushdie: ‘I am stupidly optimistic – it got me through those bad years’

·20 min read

Poor Salman Rushdie. The one thing I am most keen to talk to him about is the one thing he absolutely, definitely does not want to discuss. “I really resist the idea of being dragged back to that period of time that you insist on bringing up,” he grumbles when I make the mistake of mentioning it twice in the first 15 minutes of our conversation. He is in his elegant, book-lined apartment, a cosy armchair just behind him, the corridor to the kitchen over his shoulder. He’s in New York, which has been his home for the past 20 years, and we are talking – as is the way these days – on video. But even through the screen his frustration is palpable, and I don’t blame him. He’s one of the most famous literary authors alive, having won pretty much every book prize on the planet, including the best of the Booker for Midnight’s Children. We’re meeting to talk about his latest book, Languages Of Truth, which is a collection of nonfiction from the last two decades, covering everything from Osama bin Laden to Linda Evangelista; from Cervantes to Covid. So why do I keep bringing up the fatwa?

We try again. I want to do better because, really, he’s a lot of fun to chat to. Given his success and his history, pomposity should be a given, paranoia would be understandable. But this thoughtful man with an easy giggle is neither, as happy to talk about Field Of Dreams (“A very good film!”) as he is about Elena Ferrante, of whom he’s a fan. Also, Rushdie, 73, tells me, that since he recovered from Covid last spring, he’s been working on his first play. “Ooh, that’s exciting,” I say. “What’s it about?”

“Helen of Troy. It’s written in verse, and she’s interesting because all we really know about her is that she ran off with Paris. But who is she? Why does she do what she does? How does she feel about the consequences of her actions?”

“You know,” I say, “quite a few people were asking the same questions about you during the fatwa period.”

“No!” cries Rushdie, waving his arms in front of his face, as if trying to bat away my point and, most likely, me.

***

Rushdie is many things to different people: author, public intellectual, occasional actor, heretic, ex-husband (to four women) and father (to two sons). But the one thing everybody knows about him is that in 1989, five months after the publication of The Satanic Verses, the Ayatollah Khomeini called for his death, and he had to spend almost a decade in hiding. It is still one of the most notorious terrorist threats of all time, and even though the fatwa was nominally lifted in 1998 (at which point he no longer had to have constant police protection and live a frantically peripatetic life in the shadows) Iranian hardliners, including the state media, still have a $4m bounty on his head. This has now been going on for almost half Rushdie’s life, and, despite that, he has still managed to be one of the more prolific literary authors working today: Languages Of Truth is his 20th book.

Protesters take to the streets in Derby in 1989, following  publication of Salman Rushdie's. The Satanic Verses. In Hartington Street, Derby, 15 March 1989.
Protesters take to the streets of Derby in 1989, following publication of The Satanic Verses. Photograph: Getty Images

I assumed that Rushdie hates to talk about this side of his life because he has to block it out mentally in order to live, but he says it’s simpler than that, he just hates to be defined by it: “It destroys my individuality as a person and as a writer,” he says. “I’m not a geopolitical entity. I’m someone writing in a room.” His accent is a vocal passport, bearing the stamps of all of his homes: clipped Indian intonations, elongated English vowels and some flattened American consonants.

It would take more than a fatwa to destroy Rushdie’s individuality as a writer. All of his books are wildly different from one another – from the joyful cacophony of Midnight’s Children to the fascinatingly sociological Fury – and yet they are all instantly recognisable as being by Rushdie. Languages Of Truth is no exception. Like the man himself, it is culturally omnivorous, politically engaged and thoroughly optimistic. An essay about human nature includes references to Tom Stoppard, the Bible, the Beatles and Oprah Winfrey in just the opening two paragraphs. You feel as if you are in the company of someone who is endlessly delighted by the world around him.

And yet, the world around him has not always been delightful. He has lived through incredibly unstable times: he was born eight weeks before the partition of India; shipped off to a starchy boys’ boarding school in England at the age of 14, where he was bullied; forced into hiding for almost a decade; moved to America just before 9/11, and lived there during the Bush and Trump years. But, unlike so many of his contemporaries, not least his friend Christopher Hitchens, whom he writes about in a loving but clear-eyed essay, he has resisted the shift to the right that often happens with age and a growing pessimism about the world. The issues he was talking about at the beginning of his career (literature, migration, and freedom of speech) still preoccupy him today. How has he withstood the lure of conservatism? “One of the benefits of being a writer, I think, is that if what you’re doing for a living is examining your life, hopefully by the time you reach this advanced age, you understand something about yourself and why you think what you think. Of course, other writers go in different directions,” he concedes.

Like Hitchens? Rushdie makes a fond shrug. Many of the men he writes about in his book had a performative kind of masculinity: Hitchens, Philip Roth, Harold Pinter. But there has never been anything macho about Rushdie. He has a professorial kind of gentleness. He was born in what he still stubbornly refers to as Bombay, one of four children. Was he his parents’ favourite?

“I think the truth is, yes. I was the eldest and the only boy. This was an Indian family, you know. I was that kid who always had his nose in a book,” he says. He was terrible at sports (“My abilities at cricket need not detain us”), and after graduating from Cambridge he struggled to fulfil his dream of being a writer, working instead in advertising. His first novel, Grimus, was ignored when it was published.

I think a lot of men are scared of competent, brilliant, self-assured women. To me, that’s enormously attractive

Unlike Hitchens, Rushdie has many female friends; my favourite essay in the book is his compassionate paean to Carrie Fisher, which captures her brilliance and her complications. You can tell just from the female characters in his novels (the gloriously emotional Amina in Midnight’s Children; the symbols for India, the Shakil sisters, in Shame; the bewitching Qara Köz in The Enchantress Of Florence) that he finds women at least as fascinating as men.

“More so, probably,” he says. “I grew up in a very female world with three younger sisters, so I was always comfortable around women, which was one of the reasons I hated my boarding school [Rugby], because there were no girls or women there. I think a lot of men are scared of women, and if the women are competent, brilliant or self-assured, they become even scarier. But to me, that’s enormously attractive. I can’t dream of having as a friend, or anything else in my life, a woman who is not those things,” he says.

We discuss Roth’s depictions of women in his books – a subject that has recently been revived. “You can see in many of the portraits of women there is enormous affection, and you can’t read Roth without seeing how important the Jewish mother is to him,” he says. I’d heard that Rushdie is thin-skinned, so I ask what he made of the claim in Blake Bailey’s recent authorised biography that Roth thought Rushdie “a great writer” but, as a human being, “an interesting shit”.

“People say all kinds of shit,” he shrugs, and then adds pointedly, “Philip asked me to deliver the 2018 Philip Roth Lecture, and he asked me on the basis of reading The Golden House [Rushdie’s 2017 novel], thinking it nailed a lot of things about America. So, you know, people change their minds and life is long.” If Rushdie does bruise easily, he has the inner resources to recover quickly.

It’s not just Roth’s depiction of women in his books that has come up for debate in the wake of the Bailey biography, but also his treatment of them in real life. “Philip was not just enormously desirous of women – he was enormously attractive to them. There’s no suggestion that he behaved criminally, just that he went to bed with a lot of women,” Rushdie says.

In a twist that is almost Rothian, Bailey himself has been accused of grooming young girls and rape, which he has denied. A few days after my interview with Rushdie, Bailey’s publisher, WW Norton, announced that it was taking the Roth biography out of print in response to the allegations.

I email Rushdie to ask what he thinks. Should a book be cancelled because of allegations about the behaviour of the author?

“I have not read the Bailey book, but, in general, I don’t like the idea of any book being pulped because the author may be a scumbag,” he writes back immediately. “I can understand the publishers’ distaste for such an author, obviously. But it feels like moral censorship. And I don’t like the suggestions that have been made that this somehow ‘cancels’ Roth as well.”

Rushdie is not a fan of what is known today as “cancel culture”, and, given the various efforts made at cancelling him, this is hardly a surprise. Does he think there’s more support for censorship these days? “I don’t know if there’s more of it, but it’s certainly more obvious. There’s a youthful progressive movement, much of which is extremely valuable, but there does seem to be within it an acceptance that certain ideas should be suppressed, and I just think that’s worrying. Wherever there has been censorship, the first people to suffer from it are underprivileged minorities. So if in the name of underprivileged minorities you wish to endorse a suppression of wrongthink, it’s a slippery slope.”

These days Rushdie is a writer-in-residence at the journalism school of New York University – do his students ever defend cancel culture to him? “No, and if they did they would get a short reply,” he says.

In 2015, six authors (Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi) withdrew from the PEN American Center gala in protest at the organisation’s decision to honour the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Earlier that same year, 12 people were killed and 11 injured in Charlie Hebdo’s office by two Islamic extremists, who were enraged by the magazine’s depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. Carey objected to “PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognise its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population”. Rushdie, who had been president of PEN American Center from 2004 to 2006, and who grew up in a liberal Muslim family and is now an atheist, was scathing. “If PEN as a free speech organisation can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organisation is not worth the name. What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them,” he said to the New York Times. He was even more blunt on Twitter: “Just 6 pussies. Six Authors in Search of a bit of Character.”

That can’t have won him many friends, I say. “No, it was an incredibly painful episode, and a lot of people had their friendships strained as a result of it, including me, because several of those people were my friends,” he says with a sigh.

It hasn’t put him off continuing to sign pretty much every letter defending freedom of speech that comes his way. (“You don’t know how much I don’t sign!” he protests.) Last year he was one of the signatories, along with Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood and 150 others, of the so-called Harper’s letter. Published in Harper’s Magazine, the open letter claimed that, while demands for greater diversity in the arts and media were welcome, these had led to “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favour of ideological conformity”. It sparked enormous kickback among the left: “JK Rowling and Other Assorted Rich Fools Want to Cancel ‘Cancel Culture’” was a typical headline in a liberal publication. The reaction seemed to prove the Harper’s letter’s contention that there is a marked intolerance of differences of opinion on the left these days.

SALMAN RUSHDIE LEANING AGAINST GATE, DEC 1983
Rushdie in 1983. Photograph: Sten Rosenlund/Rex/Shutterstock

“Put it like this: the kinds of people who stood up for me in the bad years—” in other words, people in the liberal arts and on the left “—might not do so now. The idea that being offended is a valid critique has gained a lot of traction,” Rushdie says. In his view, he says, “it’s better to know where ideas are than to give them the glamour of taboo. I want to know where the enemy is.”

Of course, the giant pachyderm in the room while we are discussing all this is the fatwa. I understand why Rushdie wishes everyone (I) would get off this subject. But unfortunately for him, ahead of our interview, I reread Joseph Anton, his fascinating memoir about his time in hiding, which evokes so sharply the disruption and fear he endured, that I put it down bewildered as to how the man emerged with his marbles, let alone his career. And despite telling me off for bringing up the fatwa, Rushdie repeatedly brings it up himself. He hates to have it thrust in his face, but that experience has, inevitably, left its mark.

It’s easy to forget now, 30 years on, just how horrific that era was. Bookshops in the US and UK were bombed. Rushdie’s Japanese translator was murdered and his Italian translator and Norwegian publisher were seriously injured by terrorists. Fifty-nine more people were killed at protests against the book, and hundreds more injured. The British media questioned why money was being spent on police protection for Rushdie, this “unlikeable” (the Sunday Times) and “schizophrenic” (the Independent) fellow, and others whispered that he liked the attention. He was advised by the police against speaking out in self-defence, but every time he stayed silent he regretted it, which must partly explain his determination to keep speaking out now. Somehow, he kept writing, publishing the children’s book Haroun And The Sea Of Stories; the short-story collection East, West and the novel The Moor’s Last Sigh while in hiding. Some tartly questioned whether he was affected at all by the chaos around him.

“I’ll tell you quite truthfully that the great wound in my life [from then] is India, because of the way I and my work have been treated there,” he says. The Satanic Verses is still banned in Rushdie’s home country and although Rushdie does visit, in 2012 he had to pull out of the Jaipur literary festival because of threats on his life. Perhaps the most heartfelt piece in Languages Of Truth is a short postscript on how India has changed under prime minister Narendra Modi, who, he writes, is “demolishing India’s secular ideals day by day”.

Salman Rushdie with sons Milan (left) and Zafar in 2012
With sons Milan and Zafar in 2012. Photograph: Jabpromotions/Rex/Shutterstock

Rushdie is silent for a few moments, thinking about his relationship with India. “I don’t know what to do about that except to say that it’s painful. My imaginative being is still there. But everyone who gets to this age has been knocked around a bit. Life gives you bruises,” he says.

It also brings balms. It was hardly a compensation, but the fatwa turned him into a cultural figure far greater than most novelists. As his friend Martin Amis put it at the time, Rushdie “vanished into the front page”, and although he said he’d rather be back on the books pages, there is, he concedes, “the fun side” to global notoriety.

In Bridget Jones’s Diary, Bridget makes a fool of herself in front of Julian Barnes; when Helen Fielding turned the book into a film, she swapped Barnes for the more widely recognisable Rushdie (“Julian has always been very nice about it,” Rushdie says). He was a joke on Seinfeld (when Kramer swears he’s seen him in the gym), and 20 years later he appeared on Curb Your Enthusiasm, offering Larry David advice when David gets a fatwa issued against him after doing an impression of the Ayatollah on TV (fatwa sex, David is thrilled to learn, is the best sex.) I ask how he came to be on the show. “There is no good way to say this: I met Larry David at the Vanity Fair Oscar party,” Rushdie says, and laughs delightedly. “We had a nice chat and he then called me up and said he had this idea. I said, ‘Can I see a script?’ And he said, ‘Well, it’s all improv, so there’s no script.’ So I said, ‘Can you tell me about it?’ So he did, and my first reaction was: is this funny? And my second reaction was: actually, I think it’s kind of great that it can be funny, as it’s a way of taking the teeth out of it. So I said OK. And then I had the best two days of my life.”

One thing I feel proud of is, if you only knew my books, I don’t think you'd feel something traumatic had happened to me

Since the fatwa was lifted, Rushdie’s reputation in the media has shifted from “slightly suspicious author” to “party boy”. He has repeatedly said that reports of his social life are wildly exaggerated, but it’s also true that there aren’t many winners of the Booker who get photographed in the tabloids embracing Courtney Love. This phase of his life took off after he left Elizabeth West, his third wife, and the mother of his younger son Milan (he also has a son, Zafar, from his first marriage), moved from London to New York and started a relationship with the glamorous celebrity chef Padma Lakshmi, whom he met in 1999. The photos of them on red carpets (her sleek as a mink, him rumpled as a water rat) were endearing in their oddness, and they looked happy. Alas, it didn’t endure, although the viciousness with which they wrote about one another afterwards proves the passion was once there. He wrote in his memoir that “selfishness is her most prominent characteristic”; she wrote in hers (Love, Loss And What We Ate) that he referred to her as “a bad investment” when she couldn’t have sex because of her endometriosis. They divorced in 2007.

What did he make of his ex-wife’s book? “I didn’t like it. She didn’t like mine. We’ve patched things up since then. I think if you have quite a difficult divorce, then each person’s view of it is not going to be to the taste of the other person. We’re kind of in touch. I haven’t seen her for a long time, but we get on fine,” he says just that tiny bit too smoothly.

Salman Rushdie Appears At The High Court LONDON - AUGUST 26: Indian-British novelist Salman Rushdie leaves the High Court with former wife Elizabeth West and their son Milan Rushdie on August 26, 2008 in London, England. Salman Rushdie received an apology from former police officer Ron Evans, Evans’ ghost writer and John Blake Publishing Ltd over alegations against himself and his ex-wife in the memiors of his former Special Branch bodyguard.
With ex-wife Elizabeth West and Milan in 2008… Photograph: Cate Gillon/Getty Images

Rushdie’s memoir does not exonerate him. One of its great strengths is that he shows the times he hurt those closest to him, especially West, who had stayed loyally by him in hiding, only for him to then betray her with Lakshmi. After getting divorced for the fourth time, Rushdie swore off marriage, but not women. When I ask him who he’s been locked down with, he replies, “You can Google it,” with the airiness of one who’s used to having his love life in the news. Google informs me that the answer is Rachel Eliza Griffiths, a 40-year-old poet and artist, or, as the New York tabloids call her, his “young gal pal”. (When I ask why his most recent partners – West, Lakshmi and now Griffiths – are so much younger than him, he replies with a swift, “No comment.”)

Ever since Midnight’s Children came out 40 years ago, narrated by Saleem, the boy born just before the partition of India and who grows up in Bombay, fed on stories, readers have been conflating Rushdie with his protagonists. He loathes this cheap approach to literary criticism, but if he does have an alter ego in his fictional creations, I suspect it’s in his last novel, Quichotte, a modern retelling of Don Quixote, which was shortlisted for the 2019 Booker prize. Quichotte is an incurable optimist who keeps moving forward no matter how many punches he gets, who always believes he can get the woman, no matter how out of his league she is.

“It’s true, I am stupidly optimistic, and I think it did get me through those bad years,because I believed there would be a happy ending, when very few people did believe it,” he says.

In his essay on the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, Rushdie argues against the idea that character determines destiny, writing this “doesn’t take into account the liquid things about life”. And yet surely the most obvious argument in defence of character as destiny is Rushdie himself. He is still entirely recognisable as the adored bookish child he once was; the bullied boy at boarding school who wanted to belong; the unknown man who worked in advertising who desperately longed to be a writer; the man hiding in the shadows who was forced to wait to speak his mind and embrace fun. Rushdie’s character withstood the liquid things in life.

“One thing I feel, well, proud of, let’s say, is if you knew nothing about my life, if all you had were my books, I don’t think you would feel that something traumatic happened to me in 1989. I’m glad I had the brains to think in the middle of all that: I don’t want to be the victim of this. I could write frightened or revenge books, and both would make me a creature of the event. So I thought: be the writer that you want to be,” he says.

It takes a certain amount of ruthlessness not to change when you’ve been through what you’ve been through, I say. To be the writer and the man he always wanted to be, to live the life he wanted, even when others threaten him or laugh at him.

“Determination, I think, is the word,” he says. “Determination.”

• Languages Of Truth (Vintage Publishing) is out on 27 May, priced £20. To order a copy for £17.40 go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Salman Rushdie will discuss Languages of Truth at a Guardian Live online event on Tuesday 29 June. Book tickets here

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