Controversial "Satanic Verses" author Salman Rushdie opens the 2004-05 Open VISIONS Forum season


Image: Salman RushdieComplex and controversial author Salman Rushdie, whose works have both won international awards and elicited death threats, opens the 2004-05 Open VISIONS Forum lecture/discussion series on Wednesday, Sept. 22, at 8 p.m. The lecture, a program of Fairfield University's University College, will take place at the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts.

Rushdie leads an Open VISIONS Forum series filled with intriguing speakers, including "Sopranos" daughter Jamie-Lynn Discala; journalists Howard Fineman and Charlayne Hunter-Gault; authors John Irving and Sister Helen Prejean; architect Daniel Libeskind; and humanitarian Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia.

Born a Muslim in Bombay, India, in 1947, Rushdie entered the literary world with his 1975 book "Grimus," a fantastic tale bordering on science fiction that was largely ignored by critics and readers alike. Things changed with his second work, 1981's "Midnight's Children," an exuberant allegory of Indian history that was a stunning success with readers around the world. Considered by many to be his best work, the novel greatly influenced contemporary Indian literature and won the coveted Booker Prize.

With his next novel, the shorter "Shame," Rushdie continued to consider the immigrant through the genre of magical realism. With later works, he began exploring links, both commercial and cultural, between India and the Western World.

Rushdie is probably best known for his fourth novel "The Satanic Verses," an irreverent fantasy depiction of the prophet Muhammad and the birth of Islam that won the 1988 Whitbread Award.

Outraged by the book and Rushdie's open rejection of the faith of his birth, the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran placed a fatwa on him, calling on zealous Muslims to execute both Rushdie and the publishers of the book who understood its concepts. With a $3 million bounty on his head, Rushdie went into hiding, living under British-financed security.

"The Satanic Verses" has been banned in India, South Africa and most Muslim nations. Bookstores in California that carried the book were firebombed and it was burned on the streets in some Arab neighborhoods in England, home of Rushdie's alma mater, King's College, Cambridge University.

While in hiding, Rushdie continued to write and even publish. In 1995, he released "The Moor's Last Sigh," a novel exploring the activities of right-wing Hindu terrorists in contemporary India. "The Ground Beneath Her Feet," published in 1999, considered the hedonistic world of rock-and-roll stars, again in Rushdie's memorable fantastical tone.

Rushdie's interest in magical realism is matched by his love of word play, something he believes stems from growing up in India, a land where most people are multilingual and play between languages is a part of everyday speech.

"If you listen to the urban speech patterns there you'll find it's quite characteristic that a sentence will begin in one language, go through a second language and end in a third," he said in a Salon interview. "It's a very playful, very natural result of juggling languages. You are always reaching for the most appropriate phrase."

His latest books include 2001's "Fury" and "Step Across This Line," a 2003 collection of his non-fiction written between 1992 and 2002.

After Khomeini's death, the Iranian government publicly stated in 1998 that it would not carry out the fatwa. While some Islamic fundamentalists still consider it active, Rushdie believes most of the threat has lifted and he has stopped living in hiding.

He now feels safe enough to have allowed The New York Times to cover his wedding to Indian actress/model Padma Lakshmi earlier this year. He also penned an Op-Ed piece for the Times about six weeks after the Sept. 11th attacks, examining how the world would sort through the stark differences and subtle solidarities between fundamentalist Islamic terrorists and mainstream Muslims and how they each address their place in a modern world.

Rushdie kept a journal during his time in hiding, a period he likens to being "stuck in a bad novel." While he's still sorting through his experiences, he's sure of one thing: Any book that results from his experiences will not be a novel.

"Because I think the important thing about this whole case is that it's true," he told Salon a few years before the Iranian government lifted the fatwa. "It would not be interesting as fiction. The terribly frustrating thing is that I've had to keep a lot of secrets and I am not naturally a secretive person. It's very peculiar not to be able to answer obvious questions. You ask me where I am going tomorrow, and I can't tell you.

"So it will be a total release to be able to tell that story."

Tickets to Salman Rushdie's Fairfield University appearance are $25, $22.50 for seniors and students. For tickets, call the Quick Center box office at (203) 254-4010 or toll free at 1-877-ARTS-396. For more information, visit the website www.quickcenter.com. A cocktail reception with Rushdie is open to those wishing to join Open VISIONS' Patron's Circle, which includes priority seating for the season. For membership information, contact Elizabeth Hastings, producer, at 254-4000, ext. 2688.

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Media Contact: Nancy Habetz, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2647, nhabetz@fairfield.edu

Posted on August 1, 2004

Vol. 37, No. 14