The Big Issue at MWF

10 September 2014 Katherine Smyrk

The Big Issue at MWF

The mood at the Dallas Brooks Centre was tense and excited. Throngs milled in the carpark outside. Others fluttered around the lobby, checking their tickets and buying plastic cups of wine at the bar. The presence of two stern security guards checking bags jolted me with the memory of who I was lining up to see.

The crowd, mostly middle-aged or above, were dressed nicely; it felt like a night at the theatre. But there was the odd character dotted about: a young punk-looking woman in a lacey slip-dress; a man with a Dalmatian-print flat cap and scarf of cartoon giraffes; an older Indian woman in a sparkling white sari. There were also a surprising number of young people, clutching copies of books that were written before they were born. Sir Salman Rushdie certainly hadn’t lost his appeal.

When Rushdie finally came onto the stage, he declared that being a knight could get you a table at a restaurant, but you didn’t get suits of armour and all that shit. We all laughed and smiled; he wasn’t up-himself, he even swore. And then he reminded us of why he – and we – were here, at this event. He had come to the Melbourne Writers Festival, and would later appear at Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas, to talk about the ‘Freedom to Write’.

“Human beings are the only creatures on earth that tell stories,” he said simply. “When you want to understand the human race, it’s to the story you have to look. That’s where the secrets of the human race are kept.”

Rushdie believes that attempting to limit the way we tell stories is something much deeper than simple censorship: it’s an attack on our nature as human beings. A grand statement, but delivered quietly, humbly. I looked down at my copy of The Satanic Verses, his most infamous novel, sitting on my lap.

Published in 1988, Rushdie’s fourth novel centred on two Indian Muslim migrants in England, but was also partly inspired by an imagined life of the prophet Muhammad. This latter conceit raised the ire of then Supreme leader of Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini – who issued the now infamous fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death.

The result was decades of fear and loss: multiple assassination attempts, bookshops attacked, publishers threatened and people murdered – including Rushdie’s Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi. Iran issued a conciliatory statement in 1998, but the fatwa was never rescinded. Only Khomeini can do that, and he has since passed away.

“There’s always been a conflict between words and power,” continued Rushdie. “Writers vs politicians. Both are trying to offer visions of how things are, and asking you to buy them… Writers want you to buy their books. Politicians…” he trailed off, the audience laughed.

But it is this conflict that shaped the subject of the evening. It is this conflict that comes up when one thinks of Peter Greste languishing in an Egyptian prison. It is this conflict that comes up when one thinks of the band Pussy Riot in Russia. It is this conflict that comes up when you think of the filmmaker Jafar Panahi who was imprisoned in Iran.  

It has been something that has occurred throughout history. But Rushdie still believes that art itself is incredibly strong. “The poetry of Ovid has outlasted the Roman Empire…Mandelstam outlasted the Soviet Union…Garcia Lorca has outlived the Falange,” he said. “Art doesn’t need a whole lot of defending. Writers on the other hand, do need a lot of defending.” 

My eye is drawn to a lone plastic white chair, sitting incongruously at the side of the stage. It was put there by PEN, an international organisation that fights for writer freedom, to represent a writer who could not be here because they are imprisoned, censored, or suppressed.

So why do people keep writing, making film, making art, when it’s so dangerous? Can it really change things?

Rushdie thinks it’s rare for books to have a direct social impact. “What does happen is the experience of loving a book has a deep impact on the person who reads it,” he said. “When you have that experience it becomes a part of how you see the world. That’s how they shift things… That,” he concluded, “is what great art tries to do.”

At the end of the evening, when time was up, he took a sip of water and stood up. With jet-lag rings under his eyes, clad in a baggy suit with a salmon coloured tie, Sir Salman Rushdie gave a small, simple bow of his head and walked off the stage.

Left behind was the empty white plastic chair.