A glowing Joanna Scott introduced Salman Rushdie to three English classes in the Gamble Room Saturday morning. Hours later, Rushdie read and spoke to a packed Palestra as part of both Meliora Weekend and the 40th Anniversary of the Plutzik Reading Series.

“You will remember this for the rest of your lives,” Scott said that morning. Rushdie is a man who has proven himself to be more than an author since his name gained recognition ? and then notoriety ? in the ’80s. Rushdie’s talks, essays and fairy-tale fictions have taught his public through the years that he can’t be labeled.

“I’m supposed to be post-something, that’s for sure,” Rushdie said animatedly. “I don’t use theory as much more than something to poke fun at.”

However, one label he can’t help but wear is that of a leader. As a writer, thinker, critic and citizen, Rushdie has stretched boundaries and inspired listeners to do the same. As part of the leadership-focused weekend, students felt that Rushdie was a shoo-in for a relevant and enlightening presentation.

“He was willing to go on writing while he was in hiding and he is now willing to make public appearances. The fact that he believes that much in his work, in literature, and in not being afraid ? that exemplifies leadership,” senior Angela Cucci said.

Rushdie was born in Bombay into a Muslim family the year that India gained its independence. He was sent to London at 13 to attend school, and stayed to study at King’s College. His parents moved to Pakistan and he eventually moved to the United States. Rushdie’s four centers of gravity gave him a varied sense of cultural identity, which he explores in a number of his novels and nonfiction pieces.

His most highly acclaimed novel was “Midnight’s Children,” which was published in 1981 and honored with the prestigious Booker Prize. It also received the “Booker of Bookers,” an award given to the best novel in the Prize’s 25-year history. His 1983 novel, “Shame,” was banned in Pakistan because of its revelations about Pakistani leadership.

Rushdie’s best-known book is “Satanic Verses.” Its publication in 1989 resulted in chaos. A death sentence issued by Ayatollah Khomeini because of the book was only removed with the religious leader’s death in 1998. Rushdie lived in hiding for almost a decade, and now speaks freely although he still receives threats.

Rushdie talked candidly in the library on Saturday. Conversation ranged from his influences ? science fiction, American literature of the 60s and 70s, Borges and Joyce ? to his fascination with cult phenomena like rock and roll.

Rushdie said that he values both sides of every issue. “It is important to give the point of view with which you don’t agree equal time,” he said.

Graduate student Andy Hobart was not familiar with Rushdie before his Meliora Weekend presentation, and only decided to sign up because of a friend’s recommendation. “He said that Rushdie was one of his heroes. I figured he’d be worth listening to,” Hobart said.

“He has some very balanced viewpoints, and that only comes from being well-informed. His perspective is one that should be studied and given some thought,” he continued.

“He wasn’t preaching too much from any biased doctrine,” said freshman Tom Weingarten. “He had ideas and evidence for those ideas, he made sense and he was definitely worth going to.”

Rushdie began his talk in the Palestra by reading a short non-fiction piece called “How the Grinch Stole America.” Using Dr. Seuss’s characteristic rhythmic and rhyming idiosyncrasies, Rushdie told his account of the 2000 presidential election ? which was botched, in his view ? while the audience chuckled.

When he had finished this piece, he read “Heavy Threads: Early Adventures in the Rag Trade,” “Reservoir Frogs” and “Darwin in Kansas.”

The presentation continued with a question-answer session similar to the one held that morning, except that this one focused more on Rushdie’s ideologies than his writing.

The first question was about terrorism and its roots. Rushdie said that terrorists are fanatics who were taught a very narrow interpretation of Islam that includes a “wholesale rejection of the values of the modern world.”

“The state and religion should be separate,” Rushdie said. “Don’t allow religion into schools at all.” He said that the spread of terror-teaching institutions, most of which are in Saudi Arabia, is a huge problem in the world today.

When asked about the backlash “Satanic Verses,” Rushdie smiled ironically. “It was an unusually bad review,” he said. “Nothing on that scale had ever been done before. It would have been almost vain of me to expect such an effect. In the matter of the Ayatollah Khomeini ? one of us is dead.”

English Professor Thomas Hahn felt that the fact that Rushdie’s writing elicits such controversy is a testament to the power of words. “The death sentence was the clearest way of saying that literature does make a difference,” he said.

Fellow English Professor Bette London agreed. “Events like this remind us of the critical importance of literature in particular, and the humanities more generally, in the university and larger community,” she said.

As a leader, Rushdie has been a champion of free speech. “Language is a great gift, as long as we are free to use it,” Scott said.

Additional reporting by Karen Taylor.

Weiss can be reached at jweiss@campustimes.org.



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