Picture: Salman Rushdie, Albany Poets/NYWC Outreach & Intern Coordinator Courtney Semoff, and her assistant.
By: Jackson Leon
One of the world’s most celebrated authors visited UAlbany’s campus on Wednesday, December 4th, 2019, and I had the pleasure of being in attendance. Award-winning novelist and essayist, Salman Rushdie, graced the campus center auditorium to discuss his new book “Quichotte,” and to offer some much needed words of wisdom to help us through the troubling times facing our country. Rushdie was engaging, personable, and his inspiring words instilled hope in my heart and made me proud to be a writer.
New York State Writer’s Institute Director Paul Grondahl—a gracious host, as always—began the evening by asking Rushdie questions about his newest book Quichotte. The book is actually a remake of the classic novel Don Quixote, and is inspired by the idea of a cross country journey with a companion in which you find love and understanding. Rushdie initially wanted to embark on this journey with his son. However, after much thought and a sly critique from his son about his driving ability, Rushdie decided it’d be better if he made the story up instead. That way his imagination couldn’t be limited.
The conversation quickly moved to society and politics. Rushdie scoffed at our obsession with reality TV, claiming it to be full of manipulated truths and realities, and said that it is quite frightening that we live in a world centered around these people. He even used Trump’s presidency as an example, reminding us all that our president was once a reality TV star. The audience members were eager and creative with their questions; itching to get a glimpse into Rushdie’s brilliant mind. Much to everyone’s amusement, when a question about Trump rolled in, he replied, “I probably shouldn’t say what I’m thinking.” Personally, I had hoped Rushdie would unleash on the president, but he chose to take the higher ground.
However, I did get about as close to my wish as possible when the next audience member asked what the difference is between Rushdie’s fiction and politician’s lies. “Politicians are telling fairytales about the past to justify their present actions.”, Rushdie replied. So simple, yet so profound, and so painfully true. He used Trump’s “red hat” as an example and asked the pressing question, “When was America ever truly great?” Was it when black people were enslaved? Was it when women weren’t allowed to vote? Simply put, lies and fiction differ in the harm that they do. It would be of great benefit to all if politicians left the fairytales to Mr. Rushdie.
My favorite part of the evening was when Rushdie began talking about his craft. As someone who spends a lot of time writing, it is always fascinating for me to get into the head of other writers—to see how they work and hear how they think. There are few writers one you can learn more from than Salman Rushdie. He was quick to point out and made it very clear that things have changed since he first began his career. He is wiser, more efficient, and has much less energy. He now thinks long and hard before embarking on a project. He needs to know there is purpose before he begins. One quote that especially stuck with me was, “There will always be problems on the way, but you will solve them, as long as you know your purpose.”
This mindset can be used when writing, when going through a tough breakup, or even when you’re struggling to keep your GPA intact during finals week. Rushdie concluded the evening by offering his thoughts on the miracle of creation; a process that writers and creatives everywhere can attest to. He said, “In that moment, we write and create things that we’ve never talked about or imagined before.” and that was the most beautiful part of the evening for me.
Salman Rushdie has earned his spot among the literary elite through his hard work over the past couple of decades. But tonight, he show that he is more than a celebrity. We were all blessed and relieved by his humor, wit, knowledge, and his words instilled hope where there is a desperate need for it. As people, we are lucky to have beacons of light like Mr. Rushdie. For those of us that are writers we are even luckier to share a common community.