these are my notes on the 2005 chicago humanities festival keynote speech delivered nov. 13 by writer salman rushdie. the festival's theme is "home and away." i've added words in [ brackets ].
i wish that i were one of those writers who are deeply rooted - who inhabit a tiny patch of earth, mining that patch of earth, and it's enough for them. instead, i forge stories out of another place. rooted writers write out of a provincial place. instead, i invent the ground the book stands on. this is problematic for a writer, because it takes enormous effort to write it to being.
this is the problem my father created for me - he died in the 1980s. when i went to college in london, he sold our house in bombay. if he hadn't done that, i would have gone back to bombay and lived there. the idea of house is endangered - i can't now go back to that same house because other people have bought it, and changed it.
what happens when you loose home? my family and i lived for a time in the muslim city of karachi in pakistan. it was not home - i thought it was like new jersey [ in that new york city is just across the atlantic ]. at that time we moved there, karachi TV was just starting. i worked for a time at a station there. they talked about censorship - all references to the word "pork" was cut but "sex" isn't, and you can be as pornographic in your descriptions as you want, so long as you don't mention "sex."
after that, i moved to london, and it was there that i had to reclaim that home is in bombay - that is the land of my birth. bombay is a city built by foreigners and reclaimed by land. it could be that many expat writers who can't reclaim their land could create invisible cities.
i learned it was important for me to make sure people in bombay could relate and could recognize this truth. the characters came alive while i was away from bombay. but the past does come back - once a boyhood friend of mine reintroduced himself to me with a nickname i invented for a character in one of my stories. he was known as someone else to our friends, but now he's somehow convinced himself i've based a character in one of my stories on him.
it's commonly said that immigrants are always uprooted. well, i actually think of myself as excessively rooted in too many places - and i think this is beneficial. i believe immigrants are children of aeronautics. i've written about many scenes on flights in airplanes. for example, in the satanic verses. [ he reads a passage from the book. i haven't read the book, so i can't tell where. airspace is soft, imperceptible feel - ] way up there in the air, changes take place.
the most enormous event in world history is mass migration - there are greater movements across the world for various necessities: refugees, exiles, immigration for work - humans have ended up in places geographically far away from home. and yet they maintain a bond that tells you they aren't that far away from home.
the roots of the soul are rooted in place - social conventions and customs, ideology - when you move to another cultural place, all that is severed - places, languages, people, belief, ideology or faith is contradictory to your own. you as a community have to reassess all that you have - presence, what you throw away, what you absorb, how do you live in a new place, and what are the internal tensions.
but the new mixed-up world is a better world. our cities are now challenging us, turning into new kinds of people. thus cities are the site of richness and creativity. many people are disturbed by this, because many realities cannot mingle, and are incompatible with each other. in "the satanic verses," i wrote that the world contains incompatible realities - you can't ask for a wilder place.
in "the ground beneath her feet," i had an idea for science fiction - almost all are incredibly badly written, there are few characters and many static figures. but it didn't work for the story i wanted to tell in that book. in jorge luis borges' "the garden of forking paths," where a writer writes what it's like to discuss many possible realities - it explodes and can't happen. but the writer says he's writing about his case - that incompatible realities are fighting for the same space; they are fighting each other. only one of these realities can survive, and this is applicable now. as in roots, continuity has a linear descent - is this necessary for our own peace? but with the way the world is, we can't keep peace anymore because of what it is.
novels in the 18th to the 19th century worked differently - both writer and reader have to agree on a reality, share a description of the world. this is how the realistic tradition came about. but now we don't agree on how the world is about - there is fragmentation of the world. we can't go on pretending we agree that the world is like this, [ that is, there is one reality ]. this forces us to make up an uprootedness tradition, in that there are many realities. an uprootedness fiction may then be necessary.
in "the ground beneath her feet," the myth of home and time is also the myth of the way - myths of home get airtime - and "home is where the heart is" becomes easier, we lay claim to space, we settle down.
but then, we have the desire to leave home - the myths of away is a lot less considered. we aren't content, that's why we leave. at home, we're claustrophobic, constrained, known too well - and sometimes we don't want to be known at all - we can't reinvent ourselves. sometimes we want to be less examined, and this is the value of departure - rather than remaining. if we stayed, we'll be stultified beings.
the families in my books are implausible - but yet others say they're too much like their families. the normal life is uneventful. the reason why we lock our doors at night and when we go home is because it's mayhem out there. but in reality, it's not, it's also violent inside. and we're not allowed to say this. in "the wizard of oz," there's dorothy's lie - she says "there's no place like home," about kansas. she's in oz.
oz is much better than kansas. the writer then proceeded to tell many other stories about dorothy and oz, and in the sixth book she settles in oz. once we've left childhood, there's no longer any place like home, like origins. this is growing up.
the child's fate is adulthood - as children, we always looked up to our parents and they never did anything wrong. but a child soon becomes an adult, a falliable adult, a member of falliable parents. this is the last and most terrible lesson. we all become magicians without the magic, eventually.
we all want to live in oz. to get to oz, dorothy had to ride the great whirlwind. we have to accept transport for good or ill. ancestral homes die not, even as we enjoy the transcultural life, we all still want to go home.
when my family and i lived in kashmir, you belonged to it by ethnicity. people will define themselves first by region before by country - [ for example, they'll say ] i'm keralan first, before indian. it's enchanting for me because kashmir is the most beautiful place i've seen. people with different backgrounds learned to co-exist, they were peaceful. i don't think i can make this up - it's more than i can make it up. things are just as they are in kashmir. lesson for the... the... bushes, there you go. [ reference to the father and son u.s. presidents. ] kashmir is caught between india and pakistan - and it's the myths that matter there.
literature can create lost paradises. it is memory and ancestral homes that matter - humans have the myth of paradise. if you are an artist, you have the good fortune of being able to recreate paradise. artists can live in many different places because of this capacity. where i am right now, my home, is good enough. when people ask me where my home is, i tell them, the home i make in my books.
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