Partway through his appearance at Wellesley College Thursday night Sir Salman Rushdie, without necessarily knowing it, hit on a very Wellesley issue: Whether you can go home again.
Every time we write about big changes in town, such as housing tear downs or the loss of an old school or town building, we receive comments from people who grew up here or longtime residents lamenting the loss of what they knew as Wellesley. But as the Bombay-born Rushdie said, citing what’s currently known as Mumbai, you can go home again — it’s just not going to be the same place.
Even for those who long for the old days of Wellesley, there are surely many new things to love about the town. The very fact that Wellesley College brings someone like Rushdie to campus as part of its Distinguished Thinkers series and invites the public to show up for free is a good case in point.
A grateful packed house at Diana Chapman Walsh Alumnae Hall made the Man Booker Prize-winning author feel right at home on a drizzly Thursday night as he read from his latest book and entertained questions from a professor of French and a handful of students. Rushdie didn’t disappoint, coming off as humorous and peaceful (“I’m from the 60’s…”), much like his writings.
But isn’t this the guy who wrote the notorious 1988 book The Satanic Verses that earned him a fatwa from Iran’s Ayatollah in 1989 that sent the author into hiding? Indeed, but as Rushdie alluded to several times last night, those with the loudest complaints about books are often those who haven’t actually taken the time to read them.
In the case of The Satanic Verses, he said a “deliberate attempt to decontextualize it” — to pick out the parts that could be taken offense to and play them up — resulted in widespread misconceptions about the book that have taken years to erase. He said critics of James Joyce’s Ulysses, those who called it pornographic, obviously never read that book. Inciting sexual arousal “was not one of James Joyce’s great gifts,” Rushdie quipped.
The fact that people still read and study The Satanic Verses, though, vindicates its publication, Rushdie said. If it was just a scandal piece, it would have gone away by now.
The author said it amuses him when people say how they are surprised his writings are so humorous, and his latest book, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, has been touted for its humor and quirky cultural references. At the age of 68, Rushdie said, “I’ve finally become a comic writer.” (I’m about one-third through the book, and while I’m not exactly slapping my knee while reading it, it is clearly a fairy tale with much lightness and a bit of darkness mixed in, too.) Rushdie the comedian did pander to the largely female audience and got some easy yucks by reading a passage from his One Thousand and One Nights-inspired new book that poked fun at the human male’s lack of imagination upon being offered wishes by a jinni (i.e., genie).
Rushdie also shared insights into his writing process, which involves trial-and-error and discovery along the way. “A lot of it is just instinct,” he said.
His books tend to be heavier on fantasy than reality. Rushdie said one reason for this is that sticking to realism is tough in a time when — and I paraphrase here — “ideas about what’s real are very fractured.” I’ll leave it up to you whether my account of his visit to Wellesley delivers the truth.