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Salman Rushdie @ Colgate
December 3, 2012

It’s taken us a few days to clear our thoughts (and our desks!) enough to post about Salman Rushdie’s marvelous visit last week. He spoke to our students and about 30 LW Online participants from 2:45-3:45, then he gave a combination talk and reading before a standing-room-only crowd in the Memorial Chapel. (Among other things, he read the letter to religion and to God from the memoir.)

Here is a link to the story and photos that appeared in the Syracuse Post-Standard.

Afterward, he was the guest of honor at a fabulous Merrill House dinner attended by students, faculty, staff, and more LW Online participants and their guests. On Friday morning, he was whisked away to catch an early flight, while the two of us met for breakfast and conversation with a fairly large group of LW Online participants who’d come from places as far flung as India (!) and Kansas City, and as nearby as Manlius, New York.

Below, we’ve listed some highlights from the class session on Thursday. We’d love to hear impressions from those of you who were in the room as well. What was memorable for you? What, if any, questions still linger in your mind?

On Writing and Politics…
• “Writers are still alarming to the tyrannical bent of mind.”
• “The size of the apparatus sent to repress it reflects the value that a society places on literature.”
• “I thought the Satanic Verses was the least controversial book I’d written. Wrong.”
• “What happened to me was generated largely by people who didn’t read the book.”
• “You owe it to the art not to be chicken, to say what you have to say.”
• “One thing all persecuted writers have in common is they don’t want to be talked about as persecuted writers. They just want to be thought of as writers.”

On Joseph Anton
• The choice to write it in the third person was an afterthought, something he tried because it didn’t seem to him to be working in the first person.
• “I had to be tougher on myself than on anyone else, otherwise the memoir would be looked at as an exercise in self-justification or narcissism.”
• “It does feel a little bit like undressing in public.”
• “I was never interested in autobiography as a form. There’s not going to be a Volume 2.”
• The only thing he changed was some police officers’ names. “It’s a terrible thing. Everything in the book is true.”

Advice for Young Writers
• “Get to the end.” [He quoted Phillip Roth: “Writers are people who finish books.”] “Then you can look over what you’ve got with both a critical and creative intelligence.”
• He praised the “durable virtues” of literature: character, language, form.
• “Steal, steal, steal the good stuff.”
• “You have to set yourself the task of doing what does not come naturally.”

A student asked, “What was the worst thing about being forced into hiding for more than a decade?”

“I lost my 40s,” he replied, adding that, for a writer, the 40s may be the most crucial decade. “And I got to be very famous for the wrong reason.”

Rushdie’s Joseph Anton
November 27, 2012

Shortly before the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton this September, the Guardian collected commentary on the fatwa from some of Rushdie’s friends and fellow writers.  We include two voices here, because they put on the table issues that readers of the memoir have before them.  What confounded us, and indeed our civilization, on Valentine’s Day, 1989, what blackbird was circling in the air? What was at stake for a world community?  And then, of course, what was it like to be the one man at the center, to be Salman Rushdie, to be alone in his skin?

Rushdie has said of Joseph Anton that it is a story of friendship, and it is impossible to read this book without thinking of the generosity and wisdom of Andrew Wylie, Harold Pinter, Michael Foot, Nadine Gordimer, Bill Buford, Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens—and each of us reading will expand this list.

Here we give you two friends, two writers in their own voices.  First, Ian McEwan:

“People were fearful. The first impulse of many was to placate, to apologise on Rushdie’s behalf. There was much ideological confusion. A rump of the left thought (and thinks) that to criticise Islamic attitudes towards apostasy was innately racist. Sections of the right abandoned all principle and preferred ad hominem attacks; wasn’t Rushdie a Muslim, after all, one of theirs? He must have known what he was doing. He had it coming. And how much was his Special Branch protection costing? One had the impression that if it had been, say, Iris Murdoch’s neck on the line there would have been less ambivalence. . . .

The Rushdie affair was the opening chapter in a new unhappy book of modern history. The issues haven’t gone away. For some of us, one lesson is that the novel as a literary form is among the highest expressions of mental freedom and must be treasured and defended. But the difficult questions remain: how does an open, pluralistic society accommodate the differing certainties of various faiths? And how do the enthusiastically faithful accept the free-thinking of others?”

And then Michael Holroyd, on a more personal note:

“As soon as we heard of the fatwa, my wife Margaret Drabble and I agreed that we should offer Salman the use of her house on the Somerset coast as a bolthole. He was to stay there for several months, and I remember wondering whether I could have endured what he was enduring: the inevitable anxieties at night and the inescapable boredom by day – as well as a sense of being imprisoned by people who would never read The Satanic Verses but who wanted its author dead. We occasionally visited him at the house. He was eager for conversation, and I was astonished to see the extraordinary jungle of technology he had spread out across the floor, providing him with entertainment and news. The plainclothes policemen would stroll up and down the pebbled beach in the guise of innocent conchologists – fooling no one, I was later told.”

Resources: Salman Rushdie
November 26, 2012

Here are a few resources for Salman Rushdie:

Rushdie interview (The Paris Review)

Rushdie interview video (PBS Newshour)

Joseph Anton review (NY Times)

Salman Rushdie’s Official Website

Rushdie essay “In Defense of the Novel, Yet Again” in Step Across This Line

Joseph Anton review – Zoë Heller (NYRB)


Conversation with Pamuk’s editor
November 16, 2012

On Tuesday, when we learned that Orhan Pamuk had canceled his visit to Colgate, we called on those who could help, and, with wonderful generosity, they did. Jim Elrod not only came for the LWOnline broadcast Wednesday evening, he stayed and participated in our class on Thursday, as did George Andreou, Senior Editor and Vice President at Alfred A. Knopf, one of the foremost editors in the publishing world, who has worked with Pamuk on five books. George Andreou rearranged his own plans and took the train from NYC to be with us in Hamilton.
We had a wonderful session, where students asked questions, not only about Pamuk and Snow but also about the business of editing.

As regards Snow, Andreou asked what kind of a novel is this: breezy, a page turner? No, said one of our students: “it’s rich.” Like chocolate cake. And we went from there to how the reader of Pamuk’s novel has to aggregate, connect, move through a structure that is like the agglutinative language that is Turkish—“which means the root nouns often carry a string of 10 or more suffixes”—has to work with a structure, a meticulous lattice-like architecture that, unlike linear English, radiates.
This novel, Andreou suggested, is about the consequences of believing in things, and about how those consequences condition social relations: condition the ways we relate to others in a modern world that at its core, and for the first time in human history, puts people into constant contact with those with whom they don’t agree. The cast of characters in Snow show us the varieties of ways people believe and seek transcendence: through religion, or politics, or love, or art (even the art of staging one’s own death!), in a search that marks them as enemies to those with whom their beliefs collide, and even perhaps with their own doubting vacillating selves. Jim Elrod asked: what about comedy? Why is this such a funny book? And Andreou answered that irony is the life blood of the novel: the line between transcendence and doubt, an affliction that becomes Ka’s fatal disease.
We talked about the “brushstrokes” in this novel, the post-modern ways in which its structure makes you aware of itself, makes you engage with the making of this text, with its artifice. But we also talked about Snow’s link to a western canon, to the traditions that shape the novel over time, to predecessors with whom Pamuk is in constant conversation as he writes.

Video of discussion about Chimamanda Adichie
November 13, 2012

Pamuk’s Snow
November 12, 2012

We move in our reading from Purple Hibiscus, to Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, and to the pleasure of seeing and hearing—this week, on Thursday, November 15—the 2006 Nobel Prize winner, the author of My Name is Red, which won the 2003 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Pamuk’s other works include Istanbul: Memories and The City and Other Colors, a collection of essays, as well as eight novels including The White Castle, The Black Book, and, more recently, The Museum of Innocence. And he is known to people the world over as the writer who went on trial in Turkey for noting past atrocities to both Kurds and Armenians.

Snow is a novel that faces political atrocities directly and without hesitation, and ultimately explores the role of the writer, and of all citizens, in a modern, and compromised, world. It is filled with characters who debate constantly: for whom life may be the daily watching of the soaps on TV, but is also consumed by existential questioning. These are people who debate eastern and western perspectives; who are secularists, socialists, radical Islamicists, members of the military. They ask questions about the quality of life possible in a provincial city, and ultimately about what happens when a people democratically vote into power undemocratic forces. They are characters who want to make sure that when we read them, we hear their voices: “I’d like to tell your readers not to believe anything you say about me, anything you say about any of us. No one could understand us from so far away.” They don’t want to be patronized, not even by their author.

This is a political novel, and a playful one that is at once detective story and post-modern Brechtian play within a play: a novel of many doubles, including even Pamuk and Orhan, his narrator. And it is a novel in which place and space cover all as does the snow, exquisite in its blanketing and in the microcosm of its flakes.

This Sunday’s NYT Book Review includes a conversation with Pamuk in which he suggests that the visual artist he started out as has something to teach the novelist he became. He suggest five items to explore, and we ask you to perhaps put his grid on Snow as we explore together, here and this Wednesday night (November 14) when we broadcast with James Elrod, Jr. ’76, who will be with us in the studio at 8 p.m. We very much look forward to this session.

Don’t start to write before you have a strong sense of the whole composition, unless you are writing a lyrical text or a poem.
Don’t search for perfection and symmetry — it will kill the life in the work.
Obey the rules of point of view and perspective and see the world through your characters’ eyes — but it is permissible to break this rule with inventiveness.
Like van Gogh or the neo-Expressionist painters, show your brushstrokes! The reader will enjoy observing the making of the novel if it is made a minor part of the story.
Try to identify the accidental beauty where neither the mind conceived of nor the hand intended any. The writer in me and the painter in me are getting to be friendlier every day. That’s why I am now planning novels with pictures and picture books with texts and stories.

Resources: Orhan Pamuk
November 11, 2012

Here are a few resources for Orhan Pamuk:

Pamuk interview (The Paris Review)

Snow review (The New Yorker)

Orhan Pamuk’s Official Website

Maureen Freely translator essay (Washington Post)


After Chimamanda
November 9, 2012

What an exhilarating afternoon and evening we spent yesterday with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie! Those who watched the live stream of her 4:30 reading will already know that, instead of fiction, she read three short memoirs—of one of her sisters, of one of her uncles, and of the house where she grew up (and wrote her first novel, at age 10) in Nsukka. Also, her newest novel is due out next spring.

Earlier, in our class, she answered broad-ranging questions about Purple Hibiscus, about the writing life, about being at home in Nigeria as well as America. She broke the ice with our students by saying, right off, “Eugene is not my father.”

In response to a question about which character she liked the most, and which character she was most like, she replied that she was fascinated by Kambili, but she was more like Kambili’s cousin Amaka. Of Kambili, she said, “It’s hard to say this without sounding ridiculously fey, but her voice just came to me.”

Will Kambili ever heal? a student asked. “No,” said Chimamanda. Kambili will never fully recover from the trauma of her early years. But she’ll get better. “I’m very suspicious of too much hope,” she added. “But I’m a big believer in small steps to hope.”

When Purple Hibiscus first appeared, people accused her of attacking the Catholic church. She never intended to attack the church, she told us. Rather, she meant to point out that priests are human beings, not “junior Jesuses,” as they once were regarded in Nigeria, a country where Catholicism was, until recently, far more formal than the American version.

The Igbo traditional religion was very gentle, very accommodating, she said—“which is probably why it was so easy for the Catholics to take it over.”

When she first came to the United States, in the mid-’90s, she was grateful for the opportunity to see Nigeria as an outsider. Her birth country became like an old boyfriend, she said—someone you take for granted until the romance ends, and suddenly you can’t stop thinking about all of his good qualities. She said that she writes her best work about Nigeria when she’s in America, and her best work about America when she’s in Nigeria (where, by the way, she’s headed next week for a three-month sojourn).

Asked what, if anything, she’d change about Nigeria, she joked that she wants to bribe someone to let her become the education minister, so she can revamp the whole curriculum. (Incidentally, Purple Hibiscus is required reading for students taking their O Level exams in Nigeria.) Nigerian schoolchildren don’t learn enough of their history or language. When she was a schoolgirl, speaking Igbo—“It was called ‘speaking in the vernacular’ ”—was punishable. Even worse, they lack a national mythology. To illustrate, she used the example of Thanksgiving in America, a holiday founded on the myth of the Pilgrims and Indians sharing a meal. Mythology is crucial to a nation’s sense of itself, she said.

We asked if she was going to take a break, now that she’s finished a new novel. No way, she replied. She’s always writing, even if she’s got time for only a couple of sentences a day. On the drive from the Syracuse airport to Hamilton yesterday, she began drafting a story in her head. It’s about a Nigerian who flies to upstate New York and gets in a taxi with a driver who immediately begins telling stories.

Coming up: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
November 5, 2012

After a brief hiatus, we’re back for a two-week run of LW Online discussions and readings. This week, we welcome the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of the novels Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun, as well as the story collection, The Thing Around Your Neck.

Tune in on Wednesday evening at 8 for a live stream/live chat conversation between the two of us and Professor Kezia Page. Our subject will be Ms. Adichie’s acclaimed first novel, Purple Hibiscus. On Thursday at 4:30, Ms. Adichie will give a reading in Persson Auditorium, and there will be opportunities afterward to pose questions via live stream.

Like Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Purple Hibiscus is the story of a girl’s coming of age in a war-torn African country toward the end of the 20th century. The parallels end there, of course: Ms. Fuller’s work is a memoir, while Ms. Adichie’s is fiction. And “Bobo,” of course, is white, while Kambili is black. (We should note, by the way, that Ms. Adichie’s novel is emphatically not autobiographical. Her father was a professor and vice chancellor and her mother a registrar in the university town of Nsukka where, in the novel, Aunty Ifeoma lives. Ms. Adichie grew up in a house that formerly belonged to Chinua Achebe; she nods to him—and, through him, to Yeats, in the opening line of her novel: “Things started to fall apart at home….”)

Apart from the superficial similarities and deep differences, we wonder what resonances you detected in the course of reading these two African coming-of-age stories so close together. (Did you notice, for example, that the Fuller’s father and Kambili’s father both refuse, on principle, to bribe the guards at checkpoints?)

What do you think of the structure of Ms. Adichie’s novel, with its four sections, three of them referring to religious figures and/or holidays? Did the novel’s ending seem both surprising and inevitable?

What are Ms. Adichie’s gifts as a novelist, in your opinion? Does she do a good job of harnessing the contradictions of the place where the novel is set? We’re thinking here of a passage in Part II: “Dust-laden winds of harmattan came with December. They brought the scent of the Sahara and Christmas, and yanked the slender, ovate leaves down from the frangipani and the needlelike leaves from the whistling pines, covering everything in a film of brown.”

What about the use of color in this novel—particularly the purple hibiscus that gives it its title?

The main character is a teenage girl, yet much of the action is propelled by men. What do you think of Kambili’s real father (Papa) as well as the father figure (Father Amadi)? Do her feelings toward the one influence her actions toward the other? And what about the mother figures here—Mama and Aunty Ifeoma? Is one of them a “good” mother and one a “bad”? Or does Ms. Adichie’s writing resist such easy labels?

Finally, what are your thoughts on the role of religion in Purple Hibiscus? Is it inextricable from post-colonial politics? Papa’s Catholicism and Papa-Nnukwu’s animism seem at first glance to be utterly at odds, but are they really? What does Kambili mean at the end, when she says that she carries Father Amadi’s letters “because they give me grace”?

We’ve already posted some resources on Chimamanda Adichie’s life and writing. Our favorite is her TED talk: “The Danger of a Single Story.”

We look forward to reading your responses to any (or all!) of the questions we’ve posed here, and we particularly look forward to hearing your voices again on Wednesday and Thursday this week!

Resources: Chimamanda Adichie
November 4, 2012

Here are a few resources for Chimamanda Adichie:

Adichie interview (The Believer)

Purple Hibiscus review (London Review of Books)

Chimamanda Adichie’s Official Website

Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story”