Honoring Sir Salman Rushdie: Maker of Fiction, Teller of Truth

Indiana University Auditorium

Thursday, March 29, 2018

IU President Michael A. McRobbie confers an honorary degree to Sir Salman Rushdie. Photo by James Brosher, IU Communications

Our guest of honor, Sir Salman Rushdie, is a true giant in the field of world literature, and he is widely considered to be one of the greatest living writers.

He is the author of

  • 13 novels,
  • an anthology of short stories,
  • two plays,
  • a screenplay for the cinematic adaptation of his novel, Midnight’s Children,
  • and four works of non-fiction.

He was born in Bombay, India, just two months before the Indian Independence Act of 1947 divided British India into the new independent states of India and Pakistan. As a young child, he spoke only Urdu until he began to learn English at the age of five.

He has described his upbringing as "untypically Indian… middle-class in a country where most people are poor, Muslim in a country where most people are Hindu, and urban in a country where most people live in villages."1

He grew up in a culture characterized by what he has called "a colossal richness of story,"2 that included Hindu myths, the famous 11th century Sanskrit collection of legends known as the Ocean of the Stream of Stories, and the folk tales of One Thousand and One Nights, which his father used to read to him.

He knew from an early age that he wanted to become a writer.

He was educated at Cambridge University in England, where he studied history from 1965 to 1968.

During his time at Cambridge, he also performed in a number of theatrical productions, and even had a small part in the renowned Cambridge Footlights Revue, which was a training ground for some of Britain’s most legendary comic actors, including members of the Monty Python troupe.

After Cambridge, he would go on to work as an actor at London’s Oval House, which earned a reputation as one of the most important centers for pioneering fringe theatre groups. But, because he could not earn enough there to support himself, he took a job as a copywriter for an advertising agency.

He eventually arranged to work for the ad agency for two or three days a week so that he could dedicate the rest of the week to his own writing. Thus, he was able to produce his literary debut, Grimus, a science fiction and fantasy novel, as well as his second book, Midnight’s Children, which became an international hit and has since been translated into more than two dozen languages.

Midnight’s Children was Sir Salman Rushdie’s literary breakthrough. The book sold a quarter of a million copies within three years and was an enormous critical success. Clark Blaise wrote in the New York Times in 1981 that Midnight’s Children was "a novel of India’s growing up. …and," he continued, "(Rushdie is) …an author to welcome into world company."3 

Midnight’s Children won the prestigious Booker Prize in 1981 and has subsequently been twice recognized as the best of the Booker Prize recipients.

His next novel, Shame, was a close runner-up for the Booker Prize. The book begins, writes Sam Jordison in The Guardian, with "a wonderfully unworldly fairy-tale feel, but it soon becomes an urgent commentary on real-world politics."4

Sir Salman’s next published work was The Satanic Verses, which he has described as being “a migrant’s eye view of the world."5 Following the publication of the novel, of course, the spiritual leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran issued a fatwā calling for Rushdie to be put to death for writing a book deemed blasphemous and insulting toward Muslims.

The fatwā sparked violence around the world. A number of people involved with translations or the publication the book were attacked, injured, or even killed. Despite the very real threats on his life, Sir Salman demonstrated an unwavering commitment to free speech and expression, and he has continued to be one of the most prominent champions of these ideals.

Though he lived under police protection for several years because of the fatwā, he continued writing and publishing, including the children's book Haroun and the Sea of Stories in 1990, The Moor's Last Sigh in 1995 and The Ground Beneath Her Feet in 1999.

He has also been a tremendous influence on generations of Indian and non-Indian writers through his acclaimed and highly imaginative novels, and through his willingness to take risks, push creative boundaries, and address some of the major issues of our times.

Because his work touches upon such a wide variety of topics, his fiction is taught in academic units across the IU Bloomington campus, including in the Department of English, the Creative Writing Program, the Dhar India Studies Program, and the School of Global and International Studies.

He has, of course, received many of the world’s most prestigious literary awards. He is a Fellow of the British Royal Society of Literature, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and he holds the rank of Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters—France’s highest artistic honor.  
Throughout his distinguished career, Sir Salman has also been a staunch defender of truth.

In 1988, on the BBC Radio program, Desert Island Discs, he said: "Politicians (are) very good at inventing fictions which they tell us are the truth. It then becomes the job of the makers of fictions to start telling the truth."6

In a more recent interview, just last year, he said that we live in a world “where we are surrounded on a daily basis by colossal lies…” He went on to say that, through fiction, “we can understand truths about human nature and the kind of world in which we live."7

For more than four decades, Sir Salman Rushdie has been a teller of truths.

As one of the leading public intellectuals of the late 20th and early 21st century, he frequently offers journalistic reflections on the truth about political and social events of our time.

Through his current work as a teacher and adviser to journalism students at New York University, he inspires the next generation of truth tellers. 

And through his fiction, he shows his readers the truth of human experience, of transformation and change, of dislocation and exploitation, of belief and doubt, of identity and belongingness.

Through the conferral of on honorary degree upon Sir Salman Rushdie today, we acknowledge and recognize that the extraordinary works for which he is renowned constitute major contributions to world literature, advancements of our culture, and that they shed light on the truth of what it means to be human.  

Source Notes

1. Desert Island Discs, BBC 4, Originally aired September 18, 1988.

 2. Ibid.

 3. Clark Blaise, A Novel of India’s Coming of Age,” The New York Times, April 19, 1981.

 4. Sam Jordison, “Salman Rushdie’s Shame is Unembarrassed About its Daring,” The Guardian, September 12, 2017, Web, Accessed March 27, 2017, URL: https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2017/sep/12/salman-rushdie-shame-is-unembarrassed-about-its-daring.

 5. Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1991-1991, (Granta Books, 1991), 394.

 6. Salman Rushdie, Desert Island Discs, BBC 4, Originally aired September 18, 1988.

7. Salman Rushdie, The Ethics Incubator, “On Truth, Beauty, The Ethics Instinct, Universal Humanity, and More,” YouTube video, 59:03, Posted September 2017, URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NJ-atgJaAzk.