"Here I am risking my life, maybe, but not for the first time," said Sir Salman Rushdie, apparently referring to his willingness to stand out in public, at his lecture presented by the Sun Valley Center for the Arts at the Sun Valley Pavilion on Friday, Sept. 10.
More than 900 people filed into the amphitheater to hear the iconic writer and speaker, whose life was threatened by the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran for his controversial book "The Satanic Verses."
Rushdie said writers risk their lives to tell stories, and we live in strange times for writers. About Khomeini, he said, "one of us is dead," receiving laughter and applause from the audience. Rushdie spent nearly a decade "underground" and seldom appeared in public because of Khomeini's death threat.
Rushdie opined on what he said were surreal events taking place in the world today. These events included the controversy of a mosque at the former site of the World Trade Center towers in New York City and a potential burning of holy Qurans by a pastor in Florida to occur the following day in response to the tragic 9/11 events.
"I am not in favor of burning books—I have some experience with this," he said. "I would burn the books of Dan Brown (author of the 'Da Vinci Code'). In any history of the world, the most objectionable act is the public burning of books. 'The Life of Brian' is the better way of dealing with religious grievances."
With a witty, funny and intelligent edge, Rushdie spoke on how authors of the past, including Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy, wrote about real people and events. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Rushdie said, the novel brought news to the people.
"A novel which changed people's lives was Harriet Beecher Stowe's 'Uncle Tom's Cabin,'" Rushdie said.
Rusdie continued to tell a story about Abraham Lincoln meeting Stowe, and how she was the little woman who started the Civil War.
He said today we have more ways of getting news, but we know less. He said the news is shallow and narrow and there is more gossip. Rushdie could not help taking a jab at socialite Paris Hilton—he said a second-rate hotel has become a third-rate human.
Rushdie also opined on the Tea Party's being a poor choice of titles for a political party because it does not conjure up an image of Boston, but more like the Lewis Carroll character the Mad Hatter.
"This is not an image we wanted to be associated with," he said.
As Rushdie spoke about his own writings, "The Satanic Verses" and "Midnight's Children," the latter of which won Great Britain's prestigious Booker Prize in 1981, he said literature has to play a role in our world, which journalism is not fully grasping.
He said "Midnight Children" was read in India like a history book, which was not the point of the work, but it is an example of how the space between public and private lives is shrinking.
"In Jane Austen's books there were soldiers, but the idea that they were fighting the Napoleonic Wars had zero effect on her characters," he said. "It was not necessary to tell. Today, it is different.
"We (writers) emerge ourselves in societies. (We) learn about Pakistan, not [just] the bombs in Pakistan. It is important for literature to engage in the business of what the world is like."
Rushdie said that at the moment the 9/11 attacks occurred, it brought the Arab world and its history to Americans. He said it was not the destiny of the people who died in the attacks to die in such a tragedy.
"Fate befell on them," he said. "It came from outside to determine their death. It is a very big problem. Any writer who is any good is wrestling with this."
Rushdie also commented on free speech. As a proponent of free speech, Rushdie was knighted by the British government in 2007 for "services to literature."
"The battle begins when someone says something you can't stand," he said. "When you find something offensive, you discover belief in free speech."
He said being a writer is a strange job that can be dangerous and difficult.
"God help us if the Taliban has a nuclear weapon," Rushdie said in response to an audience member's question about the Taliban. "If Pakistan decided to fight the Taliban and American troops are in Afghanistan, the Taliban can be destroyed."
He said Pakistan is a mess, and the response of the world to Pakistan's flood disaster was weak compared to that of Haiti.
"The real crisis in the Islamic world is internal," he said. "We are at the end of the American empire. We cannot go out and tell the world how to be with a big stick."
Sabina Dana Plasse: firstname.lastname@example.org