Edwidge Danticat and Salman Rushdie share stories of violence and fear, well-leavened with humor
When Edwidge Danticat told friends that she was appearing with Salman Rushdie at 92Y, they asked her if she was afraid.
“I'm from Haiti by way of Brooklyn,” she said. “I'm perfectly capable of defending myself against Salman Rushdie's charms.”
The question may have been inspired by the ongoing threats against Rushdie's life, but Danticat's reply, full of wit and elan, reflects how much things have changed since the years Rushdie spent in hiding. Now Rushdie is as well known for his vigorous social life—including his courting of attractive women, which has made him one of the few novelists worthy of American tabloid coverage—as he is for his writing.
Always happy in the spotlight, or on a dais, or with a microphone pinned to his lapel, Rushdie is now in the odd position of promoting a book about a time when he could do precisely none of these things, when he was living in hiding after Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the author's death. And Rushdie is indeed promoting the book, titled Joseph Anton: A Memoir, with great energy. His appearance Thursday night came amidst a busy calendar of events, including recent appearances in Washington, D.C., and Boston, on "The Daily Show," and at The New Yorker Festival.
But first the stage belonged to Danticat, who was introduced by the writer Emily Raboteau. Danticat read from Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist At Work, her most recently written book (she's edited two anthologies in the interim). The section describes the experience of one of Danticat's friends, Daniel Morel, who witnessed the execution of two men, Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin, in Port-au-Prince on November 12, 1964.
Numa and Drouin had been arrested for participating in a rebel movement called Young Haiti. Their execution was to be a major event: the country's dictator, Francois Duvalier, ordered government officials furloughed for the day so that they could attend the execution, and the National Cemetery was specially chosen as the execution site. According to Danticat, a popular rumor stated that the men's bodies were later taken to Duvalier for his inspection.
The execution proved a catalyzing event for Morel. After photographs of the dead men were put up in the city as a warning to would-be traitors, Morel decided to take up a camera himself. “I never intended to become a photojournalist,” he told Danticat. “I became a photojournalist because at Numa and Drouin's execution, I felt afraid and I never wanted to feel afraid again. I take pictures so I am never afraid of anyone or anything.”
Fear and the prospect of death were themes of the evening, though they were leavened by comedy from the speakers, none of whom seemed interested in remaining maudlin for long. That included the English poet James Fenton, who introduced Rushdie and counts himself among the circle of close-knit Anglophone writers that also includes Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, and the late Christopher Hitchens.
Among his remarks Fenton related a story about receiving a call from an unnamed MI5 official. Fenton was asked to hang up and call them back at a certain number. When he did, he could hear his phone call being forwarded from line to line, until finally he was reconnected with his original caller. The MI5 official asked Fenton if he could take a trip for a while: they wanted to stash Rushdie in the poet's house.
“It was very exciting,” Fenton said. “It was very adult.
“You're going to hear frivolity from me,” he added by way of excuse, “and you're going to hear profundity from him.”
But of course, the situation Fenton was relating was deadly serious. It's only that in retrospect, like much else from the fatwa affair, the grimly comedic and absurdist elements have risen to the surface. It's a process cultivated by Rushdie in his media tour and in his memoir, and in the reminiscences of his friends, who are now free to speak about events that they were once sworn to keep secret.
Fenton submitted to the MI5 official's request. He decided to visit his aunt in northern Wales. Puzzled by her nephew's visit, she asked, with some annoyance in her voice, “Now tell me why you are here.”
Fenton duly explained the situation with his friend—his one violation of secrecy. His aunt responded: “I'm so relieved. I thought that the family had sent you to find out whether I'm going soft in the head.”
Rushdie's memoir, which spans more than 600 pages, covers far more than the lighthearted moments of his time in hiding, but these are the sorts of incidents that he and his coterie have taken to recalling in public. When he finally took the stage, Rushdie shared some anecdotes that would be familiar to anyone who's read recent press on the man—a potentially deadly collision with a truck full of fertilizer in Australia; a humorous conversation with a deadpan NYPD officer; super-agent Andrew Wylie, notorious for his aggressiveness and confidence, exulting in being part of an 11-car motorcade.
But Rushdie can't be faulted for repeating himself—every public figure has his talking points—nor for treating this book tour as a belated victory lap. After all, he's won: he's still alive, the fatwa was rescinded, and many commentators and journalists now treat his experience as an early incident in an ongoing confrontation between Western ideals of free speech and political Islam. (Rushdie has made that claim.)
The celebration is communal as well, and Rushdie is happy to share. Reviews of Joseph Anton have often seized upon those who Rushdie calls out for not coming to his defense, but as he said Thursday night, the book is also an opportunity to credit those who, like Fenton, protected him or spoke out on his behalf.
“This is the literary world we're talking about,” Rushdie said. “This is like the leakiest organization on earth. But not one of those people told a soul.”
That may be true (Fenton's telling his aunt seems the sort of exception that's easily overlooked), though the triumphal atmosphere surrounding Joseph Anton, as well as Rushdie's talent for the tasty anecdote, elides the fuller scope of the book. Still, reviews have been mostly positive, but some critics have been exasperated by its length and puzzled by Rushdie's use of the third person. (Both choices seem, somehow, to be reflections of Rushdie's not insignificant ego.)
Despite its prolixity and other flaws (Pankaj Mishra's essay in The Guardian, for example, masterfully deconstructs Rushdie's politics, which arguably veer towards neoconservative), Joseph Anton also contains some fascinating sections about the artist as a young man. Thankfully, Rushdie read one of those passages at 92Y, recalling when he first encountered the story that inspired The Satanic Verses.
He was a student at Cambridge and much under the influence of his father, Anis Ahmed Rushdie.
“[He was] a godless man who knew and thought a great deal about God.” Anis Rushdie was fascinated by the birth story of Islam, particularly because it occurred within recorded history.
Salman Rushdie, too, took a historiographic approach to Islam's beginnings, and he laces his account of the original “Satanic Verses”—texts which may have been briefly included in the original Koran and which allowed for worship of three pagan Meccan goddesses—with political analysis of pre-modern Mecca. In his telling, Rushdie pays as much attention to Muhammad's divine revelations as to his social status as a successful merchant, his relations with Mecca's powerful elders, and the political expediency of drafting popular pagan goddesses into his new religion as angels eligible for worship.
This story—its vast potential for interpretation, the gaps in the historical record, its origins as both a divine revelation and a dictated text, its mix of mysticism and political intrigue—is terribly fertile ground for a novelist. Taken in this light, the Satanic Verses practically cry out for close reading and questioning, but one can understand how an orthodox religious tradition would recoil at one of its foundational elements being taken up by a fiction writer like so much wet clay, to be remade in his image.
As he read the story with obvious joy, his description studded with ironic remarks (“It was probably a good idea to go back and check if God was trying to get in touch”), it became clear that Rushdie had no choice but to write The Satanic Verses. For him, the temptation was too great; it appealed too much to his sense of play, his writerly imagination, and to his dual inheritance of godlessness and fascination with tradition.
“Good story,” Rushdie recalled thinking some decades ago at Cambridge.
“Twenty years later, he'd find out just how good it was.”