“You don’t want to be caged by origin.” Salman Rushdie admonished a rapt audience at Tribeca Cinema’s Varick Room in New York last night. “Western writers have always felt completely unlimited to write about anything they want. If writers from the Third World decide to not write about the Third World — immediately that question about authenticity crops up. As if we are only allowed to write about where we come from.”
Rushdie was there to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Asian American Writers Workshop and to celebrate his latest creative projects — the release of his memoir “Joseph Anton” and the film adaption of his novel, “Midnight’s Children.” Prior to the event, Rushdie joined his fans for drinks at the Varick Room speakeasy while the DJ — Himanshu Suri, formerly of Das Racist, played old-school Bollywood mixes.
The event included readings of Rushdie’s work from acclaimed authors Jonathan Safran Foer, Tea Obreht and Zadie Smith — all of whom spoke glowingly of his support to young writers. Afterward, Rushdie joined writer Amitava Kumar in a frank discussion about his work and his techniques.
“I have a rule that I offer to young writers,” he told Kumar. “There must be no tropical fruits in the title. No mangoes, no guavas. None of those. Tropical animals are also problematic. Peacock, etc. Avoid that shit.” Rushdie was equally blunt about the difficulty of his craft. “Writing is an act of love. If you don’t love it, go do something else for God’s sake. Go get a job.”
Here are some of our favorite Rushdie quotes from the event.
On Pakistan: “I felt that the novel I wrote after ‘Midnight’s Children,’ ‘Shame,’ was written with the opposite of love. It was written about a world of power that I have enormous dislike for. You have this world where all the power is concentrated. The powerful are crazy — but they still have all the power. And then I had this sudden imagery. Suppose we were to take King Lear and cast him entirely with circus clowns. But keep the plot. The lines don’t change. What would Shakespeare look like if it were performed by circus clowns? And I thought — that’s Pakistan.”
On Thomas Pynchon: “Don’t try to write like Thomas Pynchon. Because nobody can do it and sometimes not even Thomas Pynchon. I met Thomas Pynchon — I had to review his novel ‘Vineland‘ for the New York Times. Pynchon has this habit of dropping little verses into his novel. There’s a verse that goes, ‘Fuck you mister/Fuck your sister/Fuck your brother/Fuck your pop/ Hey, I’m a cop.’ Anyway, so I quoted him.
“The New York Times went insane.
“They said, ‘This word has never appeared in the New York Times. You can’t do it.’ I said, ‘How about if we go “f, asterisk, asterisk, asterisk?”’ They said ‘That won’t work, because everyone will know what the word is.’ So this went all the way to the top of the New York Times. I had to take it out — it was not allowed. I was not allowed to quote Thomas Pynchon saying ‘fuck.’
“When I met Thomas Pynchon — he remembered that — and enjoyed it. He was rather great. We had a long dinner together and I thought we were friends. And then he never called again.”
On Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “I was very sad that I never met Garcia Marquez. But I did have this extraordinary moment where I spoke to him on the phone. I was in Mexico City — he was in Havana. He pretends that he doesn’t know any English. Actually he understands English quite well, but he doesn’t speak it. I don’t really speak Spanish at all. I understand some of it. And so we had bad French in common. We had this conversation in English, Spanish and bad French. It went on for an hour. In my memory, there’s no language issue. In my memory we were just talking to each other. It was a very affectionate, intimate conversation.”
On E.M. Forster, who taught at Cambridge when Rushdie was a student: “He was very approachable — he liked undergraduates to come talk to him. He would sit at the undergraduate bar with his glass of beer hoping people would come to talk to him. But they thought, you know, ‘It’s E.M., fucking Forster!’ I stumbled into his room by accident very early during my time in Cambridge. His room was full of Indian memorabilia. I thought ‘What is this?’ And then Forster’s little head stuck out behind the doors, ‘Who are you?’
“When he realized I was from India — he became very friendly. And so I met him four or five times. I enormously admire his work — ‘A Passage to India.’ Not just a great novel, but a brave novel — written at a time when it was not okay to be critical of British heroism.”