Westerville News & Public Opinion

Rushdie: Writers are world's 'rememberers'

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The acclaimed, controversial novelist Sir Salman Rushdie has written award-winning fiction, been knighted by the Queen of England and has been the subject of an Iranian assassination call.

But the The Satanic Verses author and native of India found himself in Westerville last Thursday, when he gave his Public Events, Private Lives: Literature and Politics in the Modern World lecture in Otterbein University's Fritsche Theatre, as part of the school's Vernon L. Pack Distinguished Lecturer Series.

Police dogs and a security team usually reserved for high-ranking officials swarmed the university's streets on the evening of Rushdie's lecture, demonstrating how polarizing the topical and political author can still be, 25 years after Verses -- which resulted in him living under a false name for 10 years -- was published.

The satirical book about the Iranian revolution in 1989 led the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then leader of the Iranian theocracy, to issue a fatwa calling for Rushdie's death.

Before Rushdie took the stage in Westerville April 10, Otterbein President Kathy Krendl thanked both Rushdie and Vernon Pack, the lecture series' namesake who sat a few rows from the stage. Pack, a 1950 graduate of Otterbein, has made numerous donations to the school, including the establishment of the Vernon L. Pack Fellowship in 2006, which awards funding for projects, research, books, software and other necessary expenses.

"It's very nice of you all to come out in such numbers to hear a writer speak," Rushdie began, poking fun at himself and his craft to begin the speech. His humor and sense for the ironic gave the lecture a light edge. "Some writers are good at this, and it kills them. So here I am, risking my life. Not for the first time."

Rushdie's lecture focused largely on the relationship between literature and politics. Many of the author's novels -- especially the controversial Verses -- dwell heavily on topics such as politics and religion, and Rushdie made it a point to emphasize the importance of literature in a free world.

"The more ways to get information, the less information you actually get," he said, condemning cable news outlets and scoop-hungry bloggers. "What literature gives us is, the lived version of the world. It tells us what it is like to live in the world today."

Rather than using himself and his works as an example of this kind of writing, Rushdie cited works from Pakistan, North Korea and other countries with voices that many don't hear from, and urged the audience to find local writers and, "Read outside of your own world."

Writers are the world's "rememberers," Rushdie said, acknowledging the historic divide between politicians and authors.

"It's always been the case that writers and politicians are at odds with one another," he said. "The difference is that the writer puts, 'A novel,' on the cover to tell you that it's not true."

Despite the scope of his talk, Rushdie didn't just speak broadly. Anecdotes about Arthur Miller, Peanuts cartoons and Kim Kardashian references were joined by the author's thoughts on topics such as Edward Snowden and Israel to round out the lecture.

Rushdie finished his talk with a short question-and-answer session, where he discussed everything from the state of India to the most recommended of his novels. He kept his answers as light as his lecture, making the crowd laugh with tales of leaders he outlived and his uncertainty of what a novel is.

But the author did make one profound statement in response to a question about how difficult it was to write his autobiography, Joseph Anton: A Memoir, in 2012.

"The disease of being a novelist," he said, "is that even when you're going through the worst moment of your life, there's a voice in the back of your head -- your own voice -- saying, 'That's a great story.' "

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