Nearly 1,000 hear Rushdie speak at Staples
Updated 5:06 pm, Friday, October 23, 2015
Award-winning author Salman Rushdie, who lived under threat of death for years after the publication of his book, “The Satanic Verses,” addressed in opening remarks for the Westport Library’s 13th annual Malloy Lecture in the Arts the tight security measures and the fear that some parents expressed in anticipation of his Thursday appearance at Staples High School.
“I’m sorry you had a bit of fuss about my showing up. All I can say is that you don’t look scary to me and I hope I don’t look scary to you,” said Rushdie, the author of 12 novels including “Midnight’s Children,” for which he won the Booker Prize.
“He’s an iconic figure in the world and I’m not afraid of being bombed,” said Doris Levinson of Westport.
Alan Hodge of Westport said Rushdie is one of the most important writers of the late 20th century and his local appearance exemplified the importance of freedom of speech.
Rushdie read from his latest novel, “Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights,” took questions from the audience of 950 people and spoke about the importance of championing freedom of thought, imagination and speech in all forms, including spoken and written words, as well as political cartoons.
“In a free society you say things because you think them and if other people find them outrageous, tough ... If offending people is wrong than nothing can be said because everything offends somebody,” Rushdie said, adding that liberation of the word that we now enjoy is precious and must be protected because few people in the world have it.
In an open society people will regularly say things someone doesn’t like, Rushdie. “Lots of people say things that I don’t like, who have strange hair,” he said, referring to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. “Even if I could have that hair I wouldn’t want it,” joked a balding Rushdie. On a serious note, he said that nonetheless Trump “should be allowed to publish, and live.”
Rushdie, despite his literary honors, perhaps is most widely known for the death threat, or fatwa, issued against him by Iran’s late Ayatollah Khomeini after publication of his novel, “The Satanic Verses,” in 1989. The threat — issued because some Muslims consider the book blasphemous — prompted Rushdie to avoid public appearances for years.
Rushdie, however, said the book was sold openly in stores throughout Iran for six months before the blasphemy controversy emerged.
Of his new book, Rushdie said, “I’m not a stranger to weird but this might be the weirdest one yet.” He said it took him about as long to write it as suggested in the title. The setting is “a real world in which extraordinary things happen.” It’s ending is optimistic, even cheerful, and suggests a world that might be, he said.
William H. Harmer, the Westport Library’s new executive director, said, “I speak for the Westport Library and the Westport community and proudly align ourselves in defense of all individuals who desire unfettered access to information, and protecting, caring for and defending anyone’s right to free speech and freedom of imagination.” Harmer said the free tickets for Rushdie’s lecture were in great demand. There were more than 800 people on the waiting list, and the library’s staff eventually stopped taking names, he said.
Before the lecture Rushdie met with about 30 Staples AP Literature students, who read Rushdie’s newest novel, and they wrote questions about that work and his life as a writer. “The student questions were thoughtful and derived from genuine student curiosity. I’ve never seen a group of students so excited to sit down and talk with an author about literature. Their energy, enthusiasm, and curiosity truly made this learning experience a positive and enlightening one I’m sure they will never forget,” said Julie Heller, 6-12 English/Language Arts Department chairwoman for the Westport public school system.
People lined up to enter the high school for the event under tight police monitoring, including two positioned on the roof. Only a handful of people were allowed to enter at the same time through the front doors and all had to check in. A uniformed officer sat just off stage as Rushdie spoke.
Many lined up again after Rushdie’s presentation to have him autograph books. Rather than books, Jack Grogins of Westport brought the title pages from four Rushdie novels. Rushdie said no one else has ever done that in his experience. Grogins said it was practical more than innovative. The books were too heavy to carry, “and they (organizers) wouldn’t let me come with a bag.”
“I loved it. I think he’s an interesting writer,” said Kris Forland of Wilton, who was first in line for the autographing.
“He’s an intellectual and a voice of our times,” sais a Norwalk woman who did not give her name.
The Malloy Lecture in the Arts is made possible by a contribution from the late Westport artist Susan Malloy, who died this year at age 91. Past programs have featured classical dancer Jacques d'Amboise, playwright Arthur Miller and actor Christopher Plummer.
Signed copies of Rushdie’s latest book are available for purchase at the Westport Library and the Barnes and Noble store in Westport.