Friday, October 7, 2011

"Fall in love and have lots of sex"

This was Sir Salman Rushdie's advice for the freshman who had the nerve to get up during question and answer after Sir Rushdie's lecture Wednesday night and ask, "Um...I've been, like, sitting there, listening, and trying to come up with a question to ask you, and, um, like, I would be honored if you could give me some advice for my next four years and for, like, life."  After a (for me, anticipatory) moment, Sir Rushdie smiled and graciously responded, "Fall in love and have lots of sex." 

Rusdhie's lecture was nothing short of phenomenal.  Its title was "Public Events, Private Lives:  Literature and Politics in the Modern World."  He began by briefly examining America's obsession with "trivia" as opposed to the "news."  His humor in this examination; asking what Kim Kardashian actually does for a living, mentioning that Paris Hilton's 15 minutes, although over, greatly increased the name brand of her family's second-rate hotel business; set the tone for the evening.  Rushdie had the audience listening and laughing while examining very serious issues revolving around writers and their work in today's world. 

Rushdie raised the question of whether or not it is a writer's responsibility to address politics in his/her work.  He prefaced his argument with the statement that he would no sooner tell a writer that he/she should always include politics than Rushdie would tell the writer that he/she should never include politics.  However, he went on to point out that, in this information age, it is almost impossible to write a character who is not, in some way, directly affected by politics.  One of his examples was that Jane Austen was writing during the Napoleonic Wars, but she never mentions war at all.  Rushdie argues that the war did not affect her characters.  "One's character determined one's fate."  Rushdie argues that, today, one's fate is no longer determined by one's character.  For example, outside forces determine whether or not you will keep your job, regardless of how strong your work ethic is.  Therefore, modern writers almost cannot avoid writing "politically." 

He said it a lot better than I am relaying it here.  But the end result of Rushdie's lecture was, basically, telling writers, and everyone really, to speak up and speak out. 

I encourage you to read Rushdie if you haven't already.  When I read his novel The Moor's Last Sigh eleven years ago (!), it changed my life, literally.  Rushdie writes about being hybrid, or his word from his lecture "fragmented," in one's identity.  When we limit our definition of ourselves to "one thing," we narrow our vision and limit our capabilities.  Rushdie grew up in India, a society of caste and strict religious definitions, and his characters rebel against the small boxes their societies put them in.  In many cases, the characters are not successful in their rebellions.

Are we free, in today's America, to be who we are?  Every part of who we are?  Or are we forced to decide?  Do "identity politics" limit the scope of what we can do and how we are perceived?  Even worse, do identity politics limit how we perceive ourselves?  This concept of being plural in a society that wants me easily labeled and filed is something I have struggled with since I can remember. 

So, today, I am writing this blog not only to laud Sir Rushdie's lecture here at ECU, but also to speak out.  I am tired of boxes and limits and pigeonholes. As Rushdie said (quoting Saul Bellow), "For God's sake, open the universe a little more!"

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