‘The story-telling animal’

Salman Rushdie on how attacks on literary freedom are attacks on humanity

One of the several stories Sir Salman Rushdie told during his talk last week in Laxson Auditorium was about a conversation he’d had with an Arab man in London. Years earlier, following Ayatollah Khomeini’s call for Rushdie’s assassination because of supposed anti-Islam blasphemies in his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, the man had led demonstrations in London in support of the fatwa.

Since then, though, he’d had a change of heart. He’d become an atheist—and he’d read the book. “I don’t know what all the fuss was about,” he said.

“Asshole,” Rushdie thought at the time. “You were the one making the fuss.”

Of course, it was much more than a fuss. People with only a tangential relationship to the novel—its Japanese translator, for example—died because of the fatwa, and Rushdie lived in hiding for years.

The reaction among some Muslims to his novel, Rushdie said, was an example of religious-identity politics. “It’s about rage. It’s when you define yourself by what makes you angry, which is an extremely retrograde thing to do.”

Rushdie flitted easily from topic to topic, and it was only later, when I consulted my notes, that I realized just how much he’d covered, and how brilliantly he’d done so, with what great wit and ease. But the heart of his talk had to do with storytelling, and how important it is for people to be able to tell their stories freely.

“Man alone is the story-telling animal,” he said. Stories are how we create belonging, how we define ourselves, our families, our societies. “Any attempt to limit our ability to tell our stories is not just an attack on writers who piss people off; it’s an attack on the humanity of man.”

Thanks to Chico Performances, Chico State President Paul Zingg and Provost Sandra Flake for sponsoring Salman Rushdie’s talk. I knew I wasn’t alone in feeling that I had been in the presence of a remarkable man when the audience rose to give him a standing ovation.

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Last week I noted here that Bob Klang had corrected me about the sound walls on the Highway 99 upgrade, saying there were none above Lower Park. I then heard from Susan Mason, of Friends of Bidwell Park, who said Bob had it wrong, that the walls will indeed extend 300 feet into the park from Vallombrosa. So I did what I should have done in the first place: checked with Andy Newsum at BCAG, which is overseeing the project. Yes, the walls will reach into the park, he said, but by 200 feet, about halfway to Big Chico Creek.

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The CN&R’s news editor, Melissa Daugherty, is about to have a baby, so she’s going on maternity leave after this week. That’s a big loss for us, but the good news is that former CN&R Editor Tom Gascoyne has agreed to fill in for her. I’ll miss Mel big time—we all will—but it’s going to be fun having Tom in the office again. Starting Monday, you can reach him at tomg@newreview.com and 894-2300 ext. 2245.