Salman Rushdie  by Ameena Meer

BOMB 27 Spring 1989

Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company

Rushdie 01 Body

Salman Rushdie. Photo by Andrew Douglas © 1989.

“So, the news of the death threats and bombs is really exaggerated,” I say. As Salman Rushdie nods his head, a car crashes up onto the sidewalk rattling the huge picture window in front of which we’re sitting. It backfires and I nearly throw myself to the Oriental carpet while terror seems to paralyze Rushdie. A few seconds later, we’re collecting ourselves, trying to look as if we’d known all along that cars backfire and park on the sidewalks in London.

When people found out that I was going to interview Rushdie, I started to get regular phone calls from relatives. “That horrible man,” said my great uncle, a barrister in England, “how dare he?”

“It’s absolute rubbish, Papa can’t make head or tails of it,” said a cousin.

“Of course it’s sacrilegious, he calls the Prophet a liar. He talks about his sex life.”

“Doesn’t he have any responsibility to his own people?”

Worse, I like the book. And now I’m sitting in his living room in London, thinking that I liked all of his books, and a documentary he made for the BBC that was also banned in India. Something about his chaotic, mystical style that belongs to the Third World, in the crazy, laid-back streets of Muslim India: an old man in his kurta pajama, leaning back on cushion, spitting red beetle juice against the wall, taking another long puff of his hookah and contemplating the nuclear power plant across the road. “Hai baba, this firungi magic is keeping this country going.”

I read Midnight’s Children on a train trip from Delhi to Hyderabad, a crashing bus ride from Madras to Trivandrum and then forty-six hours third class unreserved with people lighting little fires to make their tea on the train, crates of chickens around them, and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” distorted on someone’s radio all the way back to Delhi. The novel melted into the dusty hours through the Deccan plains. It was a book that had entrapped some of that Indian “magic,” in the same way The Satanic Verses manages to catch the spirit of the Asian immigrant in England.

Ameena Meer You’re quite often compared to Gabriel Garcia Márquez. How do you feel about that?

Salman Rushdie I don’t see that much of a similarity myself. When I wrote my first novel, I had never read Garcia Márquez. I think there are clearly certain things, not just Garcia Márquez and me, but a whole group of writers, who, broadly speaking, are thought of as a family.

AM Magical realists.

SR Magical Realism is a group developed and named, of South American writers in the generation around Borges and after. If you talk about it to refer to them, it means something. Surrealism is not really that different from Magical Realism except that it happened in Paris. It’s a kind of writing that there’s always been. Always. Garcia Márquez didn’t invent fantasy.

The group I feel an affinity with as a writer, not just a modern group, but forever, are the people for whom the processes of naturalism have not been sufficient.

AM Who are they?

SR Among present day writers, (Italo) Calvino and (Gunter) Grass, (Milan) Kundera—but the older tradition, which is really the one I learned from, are writers like Gogol or Dickens, who have that ability to be on the edge between the surreal and the real. Who understand that the surreal works only when it has very strong roots in the real—in the observed world. Dickens can use very surreal imagery, but set it in a completely known and credible London. If those roots weren’t there, then the fantasy wouldn’t work. I think that’s what I learned from those writers.

I also learned from the storehouse of Indian stories. And from the Arabian Nights. If you look at how this fantastic writing came into Spanish culture, it came when the Arabs took the Arabian Nights with them to Spain. And it also came in my direction with the Muslims. In that sense, what you could say about Magical Realism is that we come from the same source material. But translated through different histories.

I was brought up on those stories—flying horses and invisible cloaks—and I loved it all. It seems to me to be the birthplace of stories.

The thing about Garcia Márquez that I admire, that I think is extraordinary, is that his writing is based on a village view of the world. What he does is take reality as it is experienced by the people of Macondo and elevate it above the reality of a city. So that miracles—girls rising to heaven—are commonplace, but the railway car is bizarre. That reversal of his vision is what gives the writing that novel quality.

AM That’s what you do in the story of the girl dressed in butterflies, Ayesha, in the novel, The Satanic Verses.

SR I think of myself as a completely urban writer. In this novel, it’s the first time in my life I’ve been able to write a passage in a rural Indian setting. That’s one of the bits of the novel that I feel very pleased about as a result. For having managed to leave the city.

AM Tell me about Ayesha, why was she there?

SR One of the things I wanted to contrast were those views of the world.

But something like that really happened. It’s different in the novel, in the story of the landowner (whose wife leaves him to follow Ayesha). And actually, the girl is different. But there was really an incident in which this girl persuaded a village that they should make a pilgrimage and the waters would open. And they drowned. Lots of people drowned. It was different in that it happened in Pakistan and the village was a Shia village and they were told that they should go to Kerbala. I was trying in the novel, to face up to, not just the nature of revelation, but also the power of belief. If you hear a story like that, where a hundred-odd people illiterate, impoverished, are willing to, on the say-so of a teenage girl, walk two hundred miles, at all kinds of physical risk to themselves. Leaving their crops, leaving their homes, because they believe that the ocean is going to part so that they can walk to the holy place. Well, the level of belief that requires is astonishing. And I wanted to try and understand it. And the tool I use to understand the world is to write about it. That’s why I wanted it in the book. Because it was the most extraordinary image of faith that I’d come across in years. I wanted to see how that works. What is it that drives people?

AM Don’t you think it’s a question of the level of education or exposure to the rest of the world?

SR It happens just as much to the landowner’s wife as it happens to the poor. I think it does happen to the educated. Dhiren Bhagat (recently deceased Indian correspondent to the Guardian) was a disciple of Satya Sai Baba (a guru). One comes across that all the time in India. People who are completely educated, Westernized, will still have a Guru or whoever that they’re completely devoted to.

AM But would they follow them into the sea?

SR I don’t think walking into the sea is that far away. I don’t think it’s just simple people. I think it’s a phenomena of belief and as somebody—I mean, there’s nobody who could make me walk into the ocean on the belief that it was going to part, and I can swim. One of the reasons for writing books is to try and understand the world other than yourself, and the other is to try and express what it is you see in your position of the world. This book tries to do some of both. But certainly, that section of the book is to try and make a reckoning with the phenomena of religious belief.

AM It’s a kind of magic, isn’t it? Like if I run past all the lamp posts on my way home, I’ll find my lost glasses. It’s grown up magic. Like lighting a candle to a saint.

SR [Saul] Bellow writes that this is an age obsessed with realities. His characters are all “reality instructors,” who want to tell you, “It’s like this.” I didn’t set out to be a reality instructor. For example, that section of the novel has a very ambiguous ending. The landowner experiences the truth of the miracle. Which you could explain by saying that he’s starving to death and has all kinds of disorders, but you don’t have to. You can also take it straight. I wanted to leave that ambiguity. Because I don’t want to simply explain it away. It’s more interesting that it can’t be explained away. It’s more interesting that the villagers who survived claimed they saw the miracle.

AM What about the “Ayatollah in exile” character?

SR It’s another scene from the career of the Archangel Gabriel, isn’t it? That’s one of the places where this novel really germinated, writing the biography of the Archangel Gabriel. I began to assemble stories in which the Archangel might feature. The question of the Imam, that scene is a description of how what is powerful in religion can turn against the faithful. How religion, which is after all one of the great codifications of good human beings have invented, can become a force for evil. How it can eat its children. Which is certainly how I think about the Khomeini revolution. Which is that it’s a genuinely popular revolution. It only could have been organized through the Masjids [mosques], there’s no other place through which that could have been done. It united not just the devout, but also the middle classes, the trade unions—and immediately as it won this enormous victory, it ate everybody. It ate most of the people who supported it. It ate the unions, it ate the middle classes, it ate the women’s groups, it ate the socialists and left behind only its own bloated members—and that seemed to me quite a proper thing to have in the book, in a book which is about how the nature of good and evil is sometimes very difficult to tell apart. It seems to me that that’s an extraordinarily vivid illustration of that fact in the modern world. The Imam is obviously not Khomeini and the opponent is not the Shah; it’s fabulated in that sense. But that’s because it connects to other sections of the book.

AM Despite all the exploration of faith in the novel, I really got the feeling that it was more a story of identities—good versus evil, Occidental versus Oriental—or mistaken identities.

SR Yes, and the upheaval in the self that migration creates, and beyond self, in the community and the culture. That’s what it’s about really. It’s not what the mullahs say it’s about; it’s about that. I think its obviously a theme that American readers would connect with. But there’s a difference between Europe and America. Here, in Europe, you’ve got an old culture arriving in another old culture, as opposed to arriving in virgin territory, more or less. That makes up a set of completely different tensions and problems. So, in a sense, this is not a novel in the tradition of the American immigrant novels, because the canvas isn’t blank here. And there’s the frictions between those two cultures—what I wanted to write about was what I had experienced in another way, growing up in a city like Bombay. Because Bombay, much more than Delhi, is a city in which the West is very present. So it’s not that I had a sort of pure experience of growing up in India and then came to an entirely other, Western experience. Even as a child, things were mixed up—the kind of relationship between them was different but the mixture existed. And it still exists inside me, I suppose. The nature of that mixture, the hybridity of the self, that’s what I wanted to write about. If I do have a kind of moral view of the world, which I suppose I do, I should come clean and admit that I do, it’s trying to construct for myself, a sense of the spiritual life of human beings which doesn’t rely on outside validation. Which doesn’t rely on some moral absolute like a God or a devil or a holy hook. But which tries to create—what I’m trying to do for myself is work out a set of spiritual values and a way of thinking about the spiritual life of people which is internal. Which says that we all have that inside us, you don’t need to go outside to look for the divine. Nor for the demonic. You don’t need to look outside—it’s all there—in a shifting relationship. So that a person can be, I mean it’s almost banal to say this, a person can be at one moment good and at the next, not so. And especially given what we know about the shifting nature of the self in the 20th century.

AM That’s what the innkeeper was explaining to Chamcha when he was transformed into the devil/goat, about Lucretius and Ovid.

SR That’s right, you see it’s the old debate about whether the soul changes, or whether it doesn’t. Whether it’s the same thing all along or whether there’s a kind of choice to make—about what you think human beings are like—whether social conditions can make such a revolution in the self that there’s nothing left of the original self, or whether there is always that irreducible thing. I go more along that line myself. That there is something. In another way, that’s what the novel’s about.

AM Are you a “lapsed Muslim whose aim is to write your own Koran”?

SR Yes. I suppose I am a lapsed Muslim. I used to be more religious than I am. “Lapsed” means I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in the existence of an external Supreme Being. But I consider myself to have been shaped by Muslim culture more than any other. I’ve been a student of it, etc.. But I’m not somebody with any formal religious belief. So, in that sense, lapsed. But it certainly wouldn’t have occurred to me as I was writing the book, I wouldn’t have put it as strongly as that. I never thought that I was writing my own Koran. Centrally, my book is about a dispute between different ideas of the text. Between the sacred and the profane ideas of what a book is. The book whose legitimization comes simply as an act of the imagination—and these other kinds of books that are supposed to he handed down from another place. There is a discussion of the dispute that exists between those kinds of texts. Of the dispute that existed within the life of the Prophet Muhammed between himself and other kinds of writers, which I didn’t make up. The argument about the status of the work of the imagination as opposed to so-called revealed texts—it seems to me that that’s the real dispute.

In a way, it’s rather strange that a book which discusses that dispute, immediately becomes surrounded by exactly that dispute.

The arguments aimed against the book by these Muslim groups are at two levels, with what they seem to be about and what they are about. What they seem to be about is a lot of specific things—like I’ve called the Prophet’s wives prostitutes, which actually I haven’t, that I used the name Mahound. which is the pejorative, although it says specifically in the book the reason for doing that is to reclaim the name. The book is full of attempts to reclaim names and phrases. Like the Poet who’s writing a poem called “Rivers of Blood,” it’s a way of reclaiming that phrase from the Right. So the name is explicitly stated as being used as an act of reclamation, but nobody notices that when the Mullahs attack. There are specific answers to almost all the allegations. But the real level of the attack is, I’m not allowed to write about these things at all.

AM Well. I’m a Muslim myself, but I didn’t find the book offensive. First, if you situate it chronologically as a work of literature, it belongs to a certain aesthetic, which I understand. Secondly. I think a discussion of ideas is essential to modern Islam.

SR I know plenty of Muslims who think like this, who sit around in cafes and have similar discussions to this. I don’t pretend to be the first person to ever have these thoughts. I think the real issue is who has power over the story. What these people are saying, the Mullahs and the Saudis, and God knows who, is that they are the only people who have power over the story and that’s because they have power: financial power, political power, and the power of the pulpit.

I think that’s a very interesting dispute because it’s a dispute which goes way beyond Islam. The same dispute is happening in Judaism—look at what happened to Philip Roth when Goodbye, Columbus came out. There’s a similar dispute in Christian fundamentalism as well, we’ve seen that. The Scorcese movie is only one example, and not a particularly good example because the status of written text is different. But it happened to Kazantzakis.

You could suggest that as we arrive at the end of the century there’s an upsurge of religious belief.

AM Well, it’s also a discussion that hasn’t yet happened in Islam. that’s going to have to happen if the religion is going to move into the 20th century. There’s never been a Protestant reformation in Islam.

SR There is a kind of discourse which has become accepted as commonplace in Christianity and Judaism, in spite of the Scorcese fuss. There’s a way of discussing first principles. “Did Christ live?” You could have those conversations without being called a blasphemer. Somehow, in that sense, Islam is lagging behind. That skeptical tradition doesn’t exist in Islam. People have compared what’s happened with this novel to what happened to Naguib Mahfouz—his book is still banned, thirty years later. When the theologians from El Asr in Cairo issued their fatwah against this book, they reissued their fatwah against Mahfouz—just because he’s won the Nobel prize doesn’t mean he’s allowed to say stuff like this. I do think there’s a very obscurantist air around and it’s very sad to see this community closing itself off to the processes of the imagination and to the processes of scholarship. All you have is this crazy literalism. And if you go against that, you are called a bad person.

AM What do you feel about the book ban?

SR It feels very sad to me. It’s hard to talk about. It’s easy to talk about the politics of it—and people say it’s good for sales and all that, which actually it isn’t. I don’t think it’s at all good for sales, actually. One of the sad things about this is the incredible willingness to receive ideas secondhand. People point and say, “Don’t read that, it’s full of crap.” And immediately, they’re willing to repeat that. They’re willing to say things about me, although they don’t know me, and they’re willing to say thing about my work which are not based on any reading of the work. The only thing I can think is that it’s a short term thing generated by this stink. Gradually what’ll happen is that the book will be read. It is being read and it’s selling very well and I can’t believe there aren’t some people in the Asian community who are reading it.

AM But can you understand Rajiv Gandhi’s reason for banning it?

SR It’s very easy to come with sensible reasons for banning books. Everywhere you go in the world, people will give you sensible reasons for censorship. They’ll do it to you in Northern Ireland, they’ll do it to you in South Africa. South Africa is full of sensible reasons for censoring books. It seems to me that you just have to decide whether that’s the world you want to live in. A world in which there can be sensible reasons for not being exposed to ideas. To tell the truth, I’m not surprised that, given the kind of leadership that exists in the Arab world, that this kind of thing could have happened. India’s very sad because it shows that it’s going down a certain path. Look at the Last Temptation of Christ, not banned in any Christian country, but banned in India. That’s an even more laughable circumstance. The idea that India’s Muslims would be offended by the film and therefore it should he prevented. What would the Indian Muslims do? Burn the country down? It’s sad. The country I’m really sad about is India.

AM There’s a very big difference between the way Islam is practiced in India and the way it’s practiced, and enforced, in the Arab world,

SR The form of Islam that developed in the Subcontinent, because of the effect and the juxtaposition of Hinduism and Buddhism—the form that seemed most fitting in that context was basically Sufism. As a result, it was very unlike what the Arabs call Islam. It was a much gentler, more mystical, more pantheistic almost, kind of religion. I think Indian Islam is by far the most attractive manifestation of the animal anywhere. I don’t believe Indian Muslims are intolerant and narrow-minded. They’re just not. I mean I grew up as an Indian Muslim, surrounded by them. It was a very broad-minded, inquisitive community. I think it’s very sad that that this kind of Wahabi rigorous Islam—which I don’t even accept as fundamentalism. I think it’s a false term for it. It’s not fundamentalism because there are things that it claims as canonical which you don’t see in the Koran, which there is only very limited support for. I think it’s wrong to pretend that the Koran doesn’t have some very harsh remarks about women, but, for example, there’s nowhere in the Koran where it says that a woman’s legal evidence is only half that of a man’s. Or that a woman needs four witnesses to prove rape. It’s not there. That’s to do with another kind of power. Using the religion to validate itself, passing itself off as the real thing.

AM There are a lot of practices in Indian/Pakistani Islam that would be considered heresy in Saudi Arabia. Have you heard of a milad, for instance? It’s a gathering of women in which they sing songs to the Prophet Muhammed. That wouldn’t be allowed in Saudi Arabia.

SR For example, orthodox Islam says that you should keep no relics of the Prophet. Kashmir is full of them. And Saints, roadside zialeths where people bring flowers and sweets—you’re not allowed to have that. So it’s sad that those kinds of Muslims are unwilling or unable to speak up for the kind of Islam that they actually enjoy practicing. But nothing is forever.

AM But Indian Muslims are a rapidly disappearing race. They’re either going to Pakistan or getting swallowed up.

SR I think the situation’s going to get a lot worse before it gets any better. I think it’s a—the documentary I made was about the heightening of religious tensions. It was banned because the politicians are using it. That’s why they attack the film.

AM Your film, Midnight’s Children (a BBC documentary about the current views of people born at the time of India’s independence) was also banned, wasn’t it? My father rented the video from Anand’s in Khan market (in New Delhi).

SR They already have black market editions there, do they? One of the problems in a country in which the broadcast media has been censored, always, very tightly, is that people are entirely unfamiliar with work which is skeptical, caustic, or whatever you want to call it, because they’ve never seen it. And it’s very hard for them to see that kind of work without thinking that the position is hostile. It seems to me that the film is not at all hostile about India. What it is, is critical. I think that’s a distinction that people who are completely unused to seeing that kind of work find very hard to make. It’s one of the long-term damages that censorship does. There’s an attitude that says, “Even if it’s true, you shouldn’t say it.” Television and radio are censored the most. I have seen a lot of what I’ve said in the English-language press.

AM In my family, the partition of India and the formation of Pakistan has always been a subtle point of contention: part of the family was for it, and they left; and part of the family was very much against it, and they stayed in India. What do you think about it?

SR What do I think? It happened. I come, broadly speaking, from a Muslim family which was not in favor of partition. And my father didn’t go in 1947. He had no interest. My family, more or less, divided itself down the middle. Sort of half and half. Some of my aunts and uncles went and some of them didn’t. My father’s parents went to Pakistan, my mother’s parents didn’t—so it was very divided. And I certainly think there were moments in the independence process in which it could have been avoided. There are key things in the way in which Gandhi alienated Mohammed Ali Jinnah, for example. Instead of being a person who was totally opposed to the partition, which he started out being, he ended up being the person who was the architect of it. There’s a lot to do with the power struggle in the Congress that accounts for that. So I think that there were moments in the 30s when it could have gone a different way. But I think by the time you get to the Quit India resolution and the Muslim League starts forming governments after people in the Congress get put in jail—once those kinds of really deep divides happened, it was very difficult to see any other possibility. It seems to me that it was an avoidable thing, and from my point of view, it would have been preferable to have been avoided, but history is history. I can’t see a reunification of India, anymore than one can see a reunification of Germany—which is even more plausible.

AM Or a unification of Israel and Palestine, in the best of all possible worlds, in which both could live peacefully in the country as equal citizens.

SR It makes a problem like Anton Shammas has been talking about in Arabesques. He’s writing exactly about that position—being an Israeli Palestinian. And wishing to maintain and express that double self. But I don’t believe they’ll let that happen. On the other hand, it does seem as if—well, we’ll see about the Palestinian homeland. It seems closer than it’s been for a while. As everyone says, it’s Arafat’s last card. If it doesn’t work, it’s going to be sad. It’ll destroy Arafat. It seems to me the cause of Palestine needs Arafat very badly. As Edward Said says, the point of Arafat is that he’s survived. That he’s still there means that the subject can’t go away. Let’s just hope there is a change.

AM Do you think Benazir Bhutto is going to make a big change in Pakistan?

SR No, not really. Maybe in a certain level of society, but she seems to be more concerned with revenging her father’s death than with the country.

AM What do you think about Amitav Ghosh, who wrote Circle of Reason and, I can’t remember the name of his second book, but he just had an essay in the new issue of Granta?

SR I think Ghosh will get better. There are some good young writers coming out of India right now, like Vikram Seth.

AM But wouldn’t he be an American writer?

SR I think Seth would consider himself an Indian writer. I know about the Golden Gate being written in America, but now he’s gone back to Delhi to write this long sequence of family novels set in India. I think he has quite a gift. A big gift.

AM When I was in India, I did an article on English-language theater in Delhi and I found there was a great dearth of writers writing in English, and not just plays, anything.

SR I’ve changed my mind about all this. I used to think that English would remain a very vital artistic language in India. I now have serious doubts about that. You’re right, there’s very little. When I say that there are one or two writers around, literally there are one or two, and we all notice when they arrive. There’s nothing else so you notice a new building because there was an empty space.

AM I thought it was strange that people weren’t writing in English because most of my Indian friends don’t speak Hindi, or the local language, very well. Most of them failed their Hindi exams at University.

SR There is that educational divide, between English medium and Hindi medium. English is the language of the University-educated class, really. But I’m not optimistic about the future of English as an artistic language. English has to remain in India at certain levels, it’s very important in business, the legal system. It’s very important in science and technology. It’s indispensable in those fields. As a result, it’ll survive. But for it to survive as a language of song and poetry, I can’t see it.

AM The problem with that is that if you’re an Indian writer writing in Tamil or Malayalam, no one in the North will understand your work. As everyone says, perhaps the reason Tagore has such a great reputation as an Indian writer is because only Bengalis can really read his work.

SR One of the advantages of being an Indian writer writing in English, and one of the reasons those writers get disproportionate attention is that inside India it becomes possible for that educated elite around the country to read their books.

AM Do you consider yourself an Indian writer?

SR I don’t think of myself as an Indian writer anymore because really, I don’t live there. In a way, that experience of belonging to the diaspora is more interesting than trying to pretend that I am what I’m not. That shift in my way of looking at it was this novel. When I wrote Midnight’s Children, and when I wrote Shame, with a slightly greater distance—I’d have been very upset if people reading Midnight’s Children thought it was an outsider’s book. I didn’t want it to be. I wanted it to be written from an insider’s position.

AM The character named after you, sort of, in the book ends by going back to India, resolving everything by admitting his origins.

SR When we are born, we are not automatically human beings. We have to learn how to be human beings. And some of us get there and some of us don’t. And in this novel, one of the two main characters makes it and the other one doesn’t. And the one who does, does so by facing up to the big things. Like facing up to love and death, basically. And the reason why the scene with the father is there, at the end of the novel, is because I think that’s the moment at which he achieves it. Both loving and allowing himself to be loved. And looking in the face of death. And having done those things he becomes a human being or begins to become one. I think that’s what does it, rather than the fact that he’s returned to Bombay. Because his return home is, anyway, rather ambiguous. You don’t know if it’s going to last or be permanent. Anyway, the place he’s come back to, feels very different than the place he left. So it’s not some kind of simple, sentimental return. The thing that’s important is the recognition of his own humanity. Because it seems to me that up to that point, the book is full of people who have quite a large capacity for love and so forth and never seem to do it successfully. Even Gibreel has it, but he goes down a different path. And Chamcha manages to do it, and in a way, he becomes the hero of the novel, which I hadn’t expected. It was one of the valuable things for me about writing the book.

AM You don’t see yourself going back to India?

SR I love going back to India. Some of my closest friends live there and I feel very joined to it, you know. But the decision I have made for the moment about my life is that I don’t want to go and live there. However, then it’s very interesting to have a fictional character who makes the opposite decision. You can see what happens. You send him off to do it and you don’t have to do it yourself. I think that certainly had a lot of interest for me, in the Chamcha character. Apart from this kind of moral evolution, is the fact that in many ways he, at several points in his life, takes the opposite decision from me. For example, his relationship with England is basically an assimilationist relationship. A sort of wanting to be the other relationship. It’s not one that I really think of as being my position. Although I think I’m reasonably comfortable in this society, I don’t think I have a desperate urge to be a white man. But, to me, it’s a completely recognizable need in a migrant, in a settler in a strange land. To want to become the thing you’ve come to. So I wanted to write about that idea of migration and of the self. So that was one way in which he was not like me. And then, of course, having had that great need to belong that he has, he does the other thing that I didn’t do, which is to leave this place which he was very keen to belong to and go back the other way. So, in both senses, he’s different. It’s much more interesting to write about the other possibilities that you didn’t take, then simply to write about who you are.

One of the things that’s been slightly irritating about some of the press coverage in this country, which seems to follow me around really, is this kind of assumption of autobiography.

AM That’s inevitable, though. Anytime one writes something, everyone else reads one’s life into it.

SR People assume that because certain things in the character are drawn from your own experience, it just becomes you. In that sense, I’ve never felt that I’ve written an autobiographical character.

AM What are you working on now?

SR I’ve been doing some stories, which is rather pleasant after doing something that size which takes that long. I also have a longstanding promise to my son to write a children’s book. I have one son who’s nine and a half. I more or less made a deal with him that I would write a children’s book after I finished this book. So now he keeps asking, he’s not letting me off the hook.

I’ve got the beginnings of another novel, just beginnings, there’s nothing really to talk about now. But this book has brought me into a slightly different place as a writer where, what I think I think now, I mean, this is obviously going to be disproved by my next book, don’t let it fool you. But what I think I think is that those three books, the last three novels, seem to have completed a kind of a project. And there’s a certain kind of writing and a certain kind of character that I don’t want to do again for a while. I don’t actually want any more people with big noses and horns. I think I’m going to have to do without that stuff. I mean, no more magical realism.

AM No more props?

SR No, I think we just have to deal with human beings. straightforwardly. I think I’ve been doing it anyway. I think the interesting thing about those two characters is not the horns or the nose, it’s to do with their souls. What Saladin Chamcha learns when he’s looking at his dying father and what he becomes after that, which is an ordinary human being, is also a lesson for his author. And what interests me as a direction to go in is more of that and less of the magic noses.

Edward Said by Phillip Lopate
Said 01 Body
Margaret Morton’s Cities of the Dead: The Ancestral Cemeteries of Kyrgyzstan by Claudia Steinberg
Margaret Morton

Margaret Morton reports that on her first long drive through the mountains of Kyrgyzstan she was delighted when a skyline of minarets and domes appeared out of the silvery-blue, thin, stone-dry air, like a mirage.

Mohsen Namjoo by Shirin Neshat
Namjoo 01

As a young musician, Mohsen Namjoo first captivated Iranians’ attention with his magnificent album Toranj from 2007.

Shirin Neshat by Arthur C. Danto
​Shirin Neshat 02

In 1999, in consequence of the wide success of her video installation Rapture, Shirin Neshat achieved immediate celebrity as a major contemporary artist. This standing was reinforced by Fervor, one of the highlights of the Whitney Biennial 2000.

Originally published in

BOMB 27, Spring 1989
Read the issue