Salman Rushdie and Marlon James Discuss Language, Reality, and Nostalgia at PEN Out Loud
In a wide-ranging conversation with author Marlon James, acclaimed writer and former PEN America President Salman Rushdie previewed his latest novel Quichotte, a modern take on Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th-century novel Don Quixote, at a PEN Out Loud evening in New York City. The two discussed the rise of nationalism, writing as improvisation, the opioid epidemic, and the scourge of reality television. What follows are edited excerpts of their conversation.
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WRITING LIKE JEEVES
MARLON JAMES: The first time I read your work, I was stunned by it, and I was actually a little appalled by it. Mostly because you know I grew up in a very sort of Victorian day of literature. A lot of which I still like, but the idea that you could actually sort of have fun with words, or twist words around, or do this sort of smack it, flip it, rub it down—I had to bring in Bell Biv DeVoe in this—with words, really stunned me and it made me wonder, what’s your relationship to the English language?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Intimate.
JAMES: Yeah, conflicted any?
RUSHDIE: Intimate, but you know, not my mother tongue. That’s to say. I grew up in a kind of environment in India where everybody’s kind of multilingual because you have to be. But basically the language we spoke at home was mostly not English, mostly Urdu. But I went to what they call an English medium school. So when I went to school, I was being taught in English. So I grew up more or less bilingual. One of the reasons that I never make a spelling mistake is because I had to learn the language. People who just have the language very often can’t spell.
JAMES: Yes, when you said that, I heard my high school teacher in the back of my head going “dot your i’s, cross your t’s, and leave a full stop by the end of every single sentence.”
RUSHDIE: Yes, exactly. We got taught that shit.
JAMES: Yes, but I remember for a long time my biggest struggle with writing in English is, I would put something down, or I’ll speak, and it took me a while to realize I sounded like the butler.
RUSHDIE: Like a butler?
JAMES: Yeah. Like it was a very colonial English.
RUSHDIE: Like Jeeves.
RUSHDIE: I can’t imagine you writing, the books you’ve written, as if you were Jeeves.
JAMES: I’m telling you, I used to use shit like “betwixt.”
RUSHDIE: No, I never had that, because one of the things that happened was, I was very lucky when I was at Cambridge that I met E. M. Forster. He was 90, I was 19. And he was a fellow of my college, King’s College.
JAMES: So not where I thought that sentence was gonna go but go on.
RUSHDIE: No. And he was very approachable to undergrads and so on. And when he heard that I was from India he became more interested because India had been so important to him. And I remember reading [his book] A Passage to India and loving it. But thinking, you know, this doesn’t sound like India.
Forster’s famous prose idea of cleanliness and so on, I thought, the one thing India isn’t, is kind of fastidious. It’s loud and messy and noisy and smelly and crowded. And I thought how do you write that? And so in a way, the way in which Midnight’s Children happened was like a reaction against A Passage to India, a book that I admired very much. Also I thought that book is 99 percent about the English experience of India. And I thought, what about the Indian experience of India? What about that 99.9 percent of what happens? And so Midnight’s Children has one white character, who leaves quite quickly.
NOISY, MESSY, LYRICAL
JAMES: My biggest criticism with a lot of post-colonial writers, who shall remain nameless, is there is this sort of astringency in their work. As if they don’t want to be noisy or messy or that dreaded word: “lyrical.”
RUSHDIE: Yes, well. To each his own, you know. There’s a way of writing which is very simple and clear which takes like one clear beautiful storyline and just tells it. And there’s the other way which is the way that I’ve always preferred and which this book is an example of, which is a kind of encyclopedic approach. Just trying to just scoop up a great big chunk of the world.
JAMES: Reading it was kind of like a traffic jam, in a way.
RUSHDIE: Well, I hope the traffic moves eventually.
JAMES: When did Don Quixote first appear on your radar?
RUSHDIE: I read it when I was at college. I must have been 20 or something. It was quite a dull translation. It was hard to understand why people revered this book as much as they did. And then I didn’t look at it again for a very long time, and then much later, actually around the time I wrote The Moor’s Last Sigh I had to look at it.
What I found is there was this Tobias Smollett, an 18th-century English novelist, did a translation of Don Quixote which is not entirely, not precisely accurate, but it’s kind of huge fun. It’s kind of rollicking. Smollett was not unlike Cervantes as a human being. He was quite a larger-than-life character. And so his translation, I thought, captured what I thought might have been the feeling of the novel. And then came the [Edith] Grossman translation, which I think is kind of just a brilliant translation. And that made me see the book in a completely different way, more contemporary way.
JAMES: Yes, but the other thing about Cervantes is also—and it’s in Quichotte as well—that the narrator isn’t shy to enter the novel. And one of the things about Quixote, and another novelists directly influenced by Quixote is Tom Jones, because the narrator has a huge presence but a narrator has such charm.
RUSHDIE: Yes, and Cervantes also fooled around with the idea of who’s telling the story. He invents somebody who’s apparently written the book which he is reporting on, except that person doesn’t exist, and the ostensible author is an Arab. Cide Hamete Benengeli apparently is the author of Don Quixote. And Cervantes just is telling us that he read that, and he’s telling us what that book says. So that also made me think about, it’s the first time ever I’ve written a book in which there’s a writer writing a book.
JAMES: How did that feel?
RUSHDIE: It felt kind of scandalous, because I’ve always kind of disapproved of that, that idea of I’m a writer writing about a writer writing about a writer in a book. I thought, “No, stop it.” And then I found myself doing it.
JAMES: Well when you start thinking it was a postmodern trick and realize it’s pretty old.
RUSHDIE: Well you see my happy fate is that I’ve never studied English literature. And as a result, I don’t know anything about all that shit.
JAMES: So that was my mistake. I studied English literature. So I had to relearn to like books.
RUSHDIE: Actually one of the moments when I almost agreed with V. S. Naipaul, I was present at the event he was doing at the Hay Festival in the U.K., and he suddenly pronounced, as he was prone to do, he said: “Literature is not for the young.” Without any explanation of why not. And he said because of this, all English departments of all universities should be closed down at once.
JAMES: I was trying to keep Naipaul out of this conversation, because I actually meant him before about all that astringent thing.
RUSHDIE: All right, of course you did. We could do five minutes on Naipaul, who I disagreed with completely about everything. And yet I was very sad when he died. We didn’t agree about politics, we didn’t agree about literature, we didn’t agree about anything, but there he was.
REALITY TELEVISION IS REALLY CRAP
JAMES: So reading this again, because it’s coming out of Don Quixote, of course it’s a picaresque. But the thing that struck me certainly in the beginning of the novel is how much inertia is happening with these characters out there. They’re really trapped.
RUSHDIE: Yes. All these characters. It’s got an unusually large cast that, for a long time, people are stuck in various things, and actually Quichotte’s journey is the means by which everything gets unstuck. Things start to move. It’s true.
JAMES: Yes, because he is also stuck—he is stuck in hotel rooms watching tons of TV.
RUSHDIE: Yes, he’s just . . . He’s just in. I mean he’s a traveling salesman. He’s lonely, he’s never married, he has no children. He sits in motel, Days Inns and other similar kind of Motel Sixes, and watches television. And he’s always happy when the room has basic cable. And he watches crap. He watches reality TV. And it drives him mad, as it would.
JAMES: As it would.
RUSHDIE: But I think there is a thing that happens for people who obsessively watch television is that sometimes they can begin to believe that they know the person on the other side of the screen. It’s happened to me that somebody comes up to me at an event and said: “You know the last time we met, you said such and such. And I really wanted to say that I don’t completely agree with you.” And I say, “No actually, sir, we’ve never met. That’s something I said on television.” They said, “No no no, it’s when we were last talking.” It’s somehow the intimacy of the television being actually in your living room can make some people believe that the people are in your living room and that you know them. Anyway, that’s what happens to him. He begins to be obsessed with this TV show and falls in love, as he would call it.
JAMES: So has he confused it with intimacy.
RUSHDIE: Yes. Exactly. Exactly. And then because he has this relentless optimism, he believes that love will find a way. There’s so much popular culture in the book. One or two of the people who, let’s say, have not liked it have said that the book is guilty of the thing it’s critiquing.
JAMES: See, I was saying it was kind of celebrating the things it was critiquing.
RUSHDIE: I’ve never really made a high-culture/low-culture distinction. And I don’t think like that. I just think it’s all culture and the novel, I mean par excellence. The novel is not an ivory tower form, was not about high culture. It’s about how people really are and what are they really thinking about, what is the music in their heads, and what is the slang they use. If you don’t know how people actually live and what is that stuff in their heads that they are thinking about, you can’t make them believable. I’ve never thought that one thing is good and the other thing is bad. But reality television is really crap.
IN THE GRIP OF DANGEROUS NOSTALGIA
RUSHDIE: If we enlarge the question from just reality TV, we live in an age in which we are constantly being asked to delude ourselves. And many of us do. And you know so Trump is president.
JAMES: Speaking of that, I’m glad you brought it up, because one of the lines that struck me in this is the nostalgic decision. Which of course leads us into the inevitable angle about Brexit. Is Brexit ultimately just dangerous nostalgia?
RUSHDIE: I think, you know these three countries that I’ve spent my life writing about, I think they’re all in the grip of dangerous nostalgia. The Brexit thing is imagining a fantasy England that allegedly used to exist before there were any inconvenient foreigners.
JAMES: Trying to figure out when that was, because even King Arthur is technically French.
RUSHDIE: The question is when was that? When was this? Could you give me a date?
JAMES: When there were the pigs and they were still living in shit tents.
RUSHDIE: You know, or were they all wearing straw boaters and riding around on rivers in punts. And of course, what they never talk about is that if there was such an age of golden prosperity, that it was based on the rape of a quarter of the planet. They never mentioned colonialism when they were talking about this golden age.
So these golden age myths are in all three countries. Here the red hat is the embodiment of the golden age myth. When was America great in the way that we’re supposed to believe it should be again? How long ago? Was it before the end of slavery, or after? Was it before the Civil Rights Movement, or after it? Did women have the vote? You know, when was America great in that way that is required?
And India now is propounding a golden age of Hindu culture, which was destroyed by the arrival of the Muslim conquerors. So again, let’s get back to that. So all these three places we’re being asked to accept a delusion about the past, in order for people, unscrupulous leaders, to manipulate the present.
When I was at college, I acted in a production of Ionesco’s [play] Rhinoceros, in which I was one of the people who had to turn into rhinoceroses. You kept having to run on and off stage and every time you came back on you were a bit more rhinoceros, until eventually you were all rhinoceros. And I remember, as I was 19 or something, I remember not understanding the play. I remember saying to the director, “What’s this about? Why do I have to wear a rhinoceros head?” And then he just patiently explained to me “Salman, it’s about fascism.” It’s about what can happen in a society when suddenly your next door neighbors, the people with whom your children, your children were playing with their children yesterday. Suddenly your neighbors become monstrous, and you can’t talk to them anymore. They’re alien. And when he wrote the play he was talking about, you know, Nazism and so on. But I suddenly, I felt that we may be living in a kind of version of that moment now.
JAMES: We kind of are.
RUSHDIE: You know where suddenly people we used to get along with perfectly well are absolutely alien strangers. And sometimes verging on the monstrous and we can’t interact with them anymore, and yet we used to. We remember when we used to. So in my novel it’s not rhinoceroses, but people in New Jersey turned into mastodons, which I just thought were funnier.
YOU CAN’T BUILD THE REALIST NOVEL ON A DISPUTED REALITY
JAMES: [Reading from Quichotte] “Yet so many of today’s stories are and must be of this plural, sprawling kind, because a kind of nuclear fission has taken place in human lives and relations. Families have been divided, millions upon millions of us have traveled to the four corners of the admittedly spherical, and therefore corner-less globe, whether by necessity or choice. Such broken families may be our best available lenses through which to view this broken world.” Why do you think that the stories after must be plural, they must be sprawling? What is the necessity to that?
RUSHDIE: I guess I’m just extrapolating from my own life experience. Because so much, so many families, so many communities are diasporic. Families are separated, sometimes by oceans, sometimes by continents. You know, you get in a cab in New York, and he’s sending money back to somebody on the other side of the family, on the other side of the world. And there’s that sense that we are stretched across the planet now.
In the history of the novel, the novel has ideally liked to be parochial. It liked to be about this woman in a small provincial town in France who’s unhappy with her husband and decides to have an affair. It’s about these girls in a small town, in the north of England, who are looking for husbands. The fact that those things turn into Madame Bovary and Pride and Prejudice is not accidental. It’s because the novel likes to be small and contained. And then what do we do in a world where life is not small and contained? Where it sprawls? I’ve wrestled with that for a lot of my life as a writer.
JAMES: Before I read you, I thought social realism was the novel defined. That social realism was now perfected. And now I am realizing, social realism is almost a fringe novel.
RUSHDIE: Yeah, because it doesn’t work.
JAMES: It really doesn’t. It’s like, how many sort of white middle-aged guys cheating on their wives with improbable mistresses. The women never work.
RUSHDIE: I know. We’ve had enough of them. Just hear my two-dollar theory, which is that the great age of the realist novel in, let’s say, the 19th century, is based on a general agreement in the society about the nature of the world. So that the writer—Stendhal, Zola, Balzac, Proust—can assume that his readers will understand the world broadly speaking in the same way that he does. And on that foundation you can build realism. Realism is about a consensus about the real. And then what happens when the consensus breaks down? And when reality instead of being something that we all agree on, becomes something that is highly contested? It is violently disputed that one man’s lie is another man’s truth? The foundation crumbles. You can’t build the realist novel on a disputed reality. You have to do something else.
A TOWN CALLED BEAUTIFUL
RUSHDIE: These characters of mine, Quichotte and his . . . maybe we should talk about his imaginary child.
JAMES: His imaginary child, Sancho.
RUSHDIE: Anyway, they are in this Chevy Cruze driving across America. And I thought if they’re driving across, you know Middle America, which they are for a lot of the novel, I can’t avoid the fact that two brown men or a brown man and his son driving across America in this moment are going to come across some kind of hostility. And I didn’t want the novel just to be about racial attacks, but I also thought I can’t pretend that doesn’t happen. So they do encounter that in three significant moments of the book. And that was tough to write about, actually, because it’s ugly.
JAMES: Yes, you think part of that, the fact that they end up on the road was almost inevitable in the kind of America we’re in.
RUSHDIE: Yes, actually the road is the first thing I had of this book, before I knew anything about the book. I thought I want—in fact there was a moment where I thought I might write a nonfiction book.
RUSHDIE: Yeah, but I thought I might just go on the road. Across and just see what happened. Just go.
JAMES: We could do that.
RUSHDIE: Yes, all right. It’s a date. And then I thought, you know, actually I think it’s going to be more interesting to make it up than just to rely on the happenstance of event. There are some places that I’ve made up. For example, there’s a bit of a novel that happens in a town in Kansas called Beautiful. There is no town in Kansas called Beautiful, but I was reading when I was sort of digging into things to write the book. I read about a racially motivated attack in Kansas, an attack on two Indian-American men, who were software engineers, I think. And one of them was killed and the other one survived. This is a random shooting in a bar. And the town in Kansas where it happened is a town called Olathe.
Then I was digging into that, and I discovered that Olathe is a Native American word meaning “beautiful,” in, I forget which language. But, anyway, so I thought I want my town to be not quite the real place, and the events in the novel are not quite as they happen in real life. So I just 15 percent fictionalized it. I kind of know the world that I’m writing about.
JAMES: One of the aspects of the world that sort of comes crashing in there is the opioid crisis. How did that come about?
RUSHDIE: Well there it is. I mean, the truthful thing is that my sister died of opioid use 12 years ago at the age of 45. My youngest sister. None of us knew the extent of her dependency. And then, when your sister’s dead, there’s a certain amount of blame that goes on where you think I should have known, and why didn’t I know? Et cetera. So anyway it became personal to me.
JAMES: Yes, because when I was reading, Salma [a character in Quichotte], it reminded me of actually Prince and Tom Petty. And all of them saying that they have an opioid problem, that they have a pain problem.
RUSHDIE: Yes exactly.
JAMES: And this is a battle we are trying to solve, we have a pain problem.
RUSHDIE: Well, Miss Salma R, who is the TV superstar that Quichotte decides he’s in love with, I mean, on the surface, she’s fantastically competent. She’s actually powerful. And she’s a very formidable figure. But then you lift the lid, and there’s an enormous amount of pain underneath. She has a history of sexual abuse in childhood, and she has bipolar condition, which has to be treated with electroconvulsive therapy. And then she begins to turn towards Vicodin and Percocet, these things for solace. One of the things I really felt about the opioid epidemic is that it’s somehow about loneliness. It’s somehow about how isolated we are from each other, and how we seek refuge in these things.
YOU HAVE TO BE YOUR OWN TOUGHEST CRITIC
JAMES: Your novels are never what they initially seemed to be. Even with this novel, how much of that was sort of planned out, and how much of this was like, I didn’t see that coming?
RUSHDIE: I would say 50/50, really. I used to have to plan very carefully. I used to have to have major architecture. And if I didn’t have the skeleton I couldn’t start putting flesh on it. As I’ve gone on, I’ve sort of changed my thoughts about that. Now I have some architecture but not everything. And I want to see what happens on the page. I want to go to work and think, okay, I’ve got a little thread to tug on. And I want to tug on it and see what is on the other end of it. And then you have to, I would say if you allow your imagination that kind of freedom, that’s fine. But then you have to be your own toughest critic. You have to say is this good or is it bad. Should it stay or should it go.
So I mean I’m more like that now. I remember I interviewed Toni Morrison just after she wrote Jazz. I did a television interview with her in England, and I asked her since her novel is called Jazz. I said, is that what you do? Because jazz is, a lot of it is about improvisation. And I said, “Is that what you do?” Her first answer was “That’s what I’d like to make people think I’m doing.”
But then we talked a bit more, and she said that yes, she did like the idea of making literature in that way, the way of Miles Davis or something, you know. And I remember being very struck by it, and because at that time I was still in that phase of mind where I thought I got to plan everything. Then I thought, well, you know good enough for Toni Morrison is good enough for me.
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