Salman Rushdie Comes to Atlanta

On my way to work a couple of weeks ago, right as I pressed the button to change radio stations after my commune with NPR radio on my way to work, the words “Salman Rushdie speaking on memories at Emory University” snagged in my ears. Rihanna was moaning about whips and chains on the new radio station and I was in the mood to sing along, so I made a mental note to hit Google up with those words later since the Emory campus is down the road for yours truly.

It turns out that Salman Rushdie is a visiting professor at Emory University in Atlanta, GA this semester. I had already missed the first public dialogue he’d done with Deepa Mehta. (Midnlght’s Children is being turned into a movie with Deepa Mehta directing it. When I have my novel published, I’m going to hold out for Deepa Mehta to come knock on my door – or, the more likely reality, go bang on her door until she answers just to rid herself of the knocking.) So, amidst disappointment, I scanned on down on the press release and saw that Rushie was doing another public conversation on the role of memories in writing that coming Sunday.

Now, I’m not a super-fan of Rushdie. Magical realism just isn’t my thing, so after reading the first two pages of Midnight’s Children, I walked away from the book. In fact, as long as I’m playing confessions here, I haven’t read a single Rushdie novel. However, what does intrigue me as a creative non-fiction writer is the role and use of memories in writing; plus, there was the fact that Rushdie is a renowned South Asian writer and I want to be one, so I figured I should go be in his presence.

The event was held in a church auditorium on the Emory campus, on Sunday at 5 PM, free and ticketless. On the big day, I showed up at 3:30 PM and was fifth online. All 5 of us had plunked down onto the floor and buried our heads into a book as we waited for the doors to open, which I now find amusing. I snagged a seat front and center in the first row. Make no mistake: Salman Rushdie saw me. When I finally get my book published and he sees my photo on the back jacket, he’ll say, “She was the woman who kept fidgeting and texting while I spoke.” To clarify: I wasn’t texting. I was taking notes on my cell phone so that I can write this blog entry for the good of mankind and memoir writers everywhere.

There were a few highlights throughout the event. It was a conversation between Rushdie and a senior member of Emory’s upper echelon around the construction of memory, of how we believe the truth of our memory more than the actual facts themselves. Rushdies example elicited chuckles from the audience. He explained when the Indo-Chinese border wars were happening and China essentially beat the Indian army, conversation amongst the adults took place that he overheard about how, now that India was no longer part of the British empire, we might become part of the Chinese empire and how people might have to learn to speak Chinese. As he mused on this memory with his family, Rushdie’s mother interrupted him and essentially told him not to be daft because he was in boarding school in Britain when all of this went down. When Rushdie checked the actual records, he found that he really was in Britain at the time. Rushdie had literally reconstructed this memory through others’ and placed himself in that moment in time. This made him fascinated with the construction of memory.

Since I have every intention of writing a memoir, I’m quite fascinated with this idea of a construction of memory, especially since the only thing I have to compare the fallacy of my own memories is those of the family and friends. In that scenario, how does one determine whose truth is stronger? This is something I’ve struggled with in my writing – my perception of what I know happened versus others’. I felt marginally at ease when, as Rushdie discussed problems of truth in the novel, especially for things like verbatim dialog, he very bluntly dumped on our heads that “there’s no way people remember dialogue the way it is written in memoirs. It is partly–if not completely–made up, but they are making it up in service of the truth.” Memoir authors, including myself, are clearly making things up; the question is how much are we making up.

The conversation meandered its way through how we look at the past with the eyes of the present and the way we see the past is transformed by the times of the present, which is quite true. Three years ago, I might have ended my bestseller with the main character going on to live a morose, melancholic life, the sort of life heroines in Bollywood movies live when fate takes her down before her happy ending musical. Today, however, I know my main character, no matter what she does, will live, whole-heartedly, wildly. None of the facts of my past has changed; my perspective, however, has, so I shake my head in agreement with Rushdie.

Then we came on to one of my favorite subjects: on how to write a memoir, about the differences and similarities in writing fiction and non-fiction. Rushdie stressed that one must create “novelistic elements,” in non-fiction writing, where we must make the people come to life on the page, even the character baring our own name. “If you can’t make them live on the page,” he stated matter of factly, “then it doesn’t matter that they really live.” One point that struck home was that, in writing a memoir, we have to be particularly critical of the character representing ourselves. We cannot go easy on ourselves – and we cannot write out of revenge. Rushdie encouraged really looking into if something needs to be said or not. Of course, if it is vital to our story and truth, then it must be told, but if it’s not, he recommended rethinking it, to examine why we feel the need to recreate an event that didn’t add to our truth – which essentially is saying that if it doesn’t add to pushing your story forward, you don’t need it.
Rushdie was quite witty actually – there were a reference to how he’s quite tight with Jerry Springer after being on a talk-show together (long amusing story that involves poking fun at a leader of the gun rights group in the U.S.). When the topic of the abundance of memoirs in the market was brought up, he attributed it to Oprah Winfrey and the creation of the confessional culture.

Q&A took the conversation all over the place. Somewhere in there, it came up that Rushdie himself wrote the screenplay for Midnight”s Children, describing the experience “like cutting off both arms and limbs” since he had to cull the novel to exactly what needed to be in the movie and what could be abandoned. Someone piped up with the question of whether Rushdie regretted writing Satanic Verses; Rushdie shut that question down with a quick no and moved on. When asked for tidbits on how the progression of his own memoir was going, Rushdie was quite tight-lipped on the content but elaborated that he believes that if he keeps his mouth shut, then the words will come out through his fingers; he finds that projects often lose their steam because people talk about it too much. I wonder if that was a message specifically for me. When asked if he would choose to categorize himself as a writer or as his public speaking self, Rushdie ended with “I chose the life I chose to tell stories.”

The man is strangely charismatic in person. I have a feeling Padma might have had an effect on his fashion sense. Rushdie very charmingly was dressed in a quite dapper suit with red socks. His voice and accent, if I closed my eyes, I could quite attribute to a much younger, debonair man.

He’s going to be at Emory the entire semester. On my way out, I overheard a current Emory student casually toss of that Rushdie would be visiting his creative writing class. I wonder if he truly comprehends the depth of the privilege he has or if he will look back years later in amazement and thump himself on the head for the opportunity he let pass by.

Delusions of grandeur

The first time we were going back to India after moving to the States, in the summer of ’97, my father declared that I was allowed one pair of jeans, one pair of sneakers and a shirt to travel in. My attire after landing in India was to be salwar kameezes, lenghas and long skirts. As a fifteen year old and a part of the 1.5 immigrant generation growing up in NYC, I cracked a few smart ass comments at my father’s dictate, but didn’t fight it too much. See, this wasn’t worth beating my already sore hands on the drums of teenagedom caught in the middle of the immigrant experience. I could mouth off to mom and dad, insist on my independence, rail against the stereotypes they attempted to impose on me and generally be an Indian version of the bratty American teen (where, really, my parents got off quite easy) all in the safety of my life in Queens. Being on Indian soil, however, wasn’t reality; it was vacation, where what happened in India, stayed in India. For a month or so while we visited family, I could play pretend and be the Sati Savitri type if that’s what my family wanted.

While in India, I never made an attempt to explain my life in NYC to my family members. Maybe it was sheer selfishness on my part of wanting to avoid the lectures on how I’m still Indian even though I live in America that came with opening up with my conservative family about my life in NYC. Staying general usually worked best: yes, school was good; yes, I still remember how to speak Kannada; yes, I do have Indian friends. I smiled a lot, I ate a lot, I wore what they wanted me to wear and I wrote in my journal a lot. I was polite, respectful and most of all, just plain quiet. We never discussed anything deep and certainly nothing related to sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.

My writing, however, has never been quiet. I will break my personality into pieces for the various different compartments of my life, but my writing is one place where I live, whole and complete with total honesty. It never concerned me in the past that when I get published (yes, I said it – when, dammit, when), as a creative non-fiction writer, I would be laying my life out for public consumption. With my immediate family, I began to hang the family’s dirty laundry out to dry starting at 16, so it would be nothing new to them. Everything else, I justified. My parents are so closeted about their lives that it’s not like their friends and acquaintances would recognize me as the child of someone they know. My extended family in India – well, I’ll just make sure the book never gets translated into Kannada and besides, how are one brown woman’s words ever going to travel across the ocean anyway? It’s tough enough getting published and being known locally.

What I hadn’t counted on was technology shortening the distance between my lived reality and the person I pretended to be to keep the peace with my extended family. Before, there were phone calls between NYC and India where surface words lay like sweet, sickly icing on top of a cake. Now, there are emails and Facebook updates between my life and my cousins’ in India. With the internet came Google and Facebook and off they ran, snatching my delusions that my writing and my life could be kept separate from my extended family in India.

While working with Noor to edit a short piece of mine for volume 7 of Papercuts, towards the end of the process, I realized I hadn’t changed one of the characters’ name. That realization broad-sided me as I realized I was telling quite an intimate tale that involved people other than myself. With Papercuts accessible online and subject to Google’s tentacles, there’s a possibility that my cousins in India would now have access to that part of me that I hid from them. (Sidenote: I’ve seen the re-designed website for Papercuts and it rocks. It’s shaped up to be quite a strong representation of the talent at Desi Writers Lounge. You all should be uber-excited!)

There was a brief moment where I considered breathing into a paper bag, but then the writer in me, the one who has always had the backbone, snarked, “Well, then you either better hope they never find it; hope that if they find it, they’ll understand; or if they read it and don’t understand, then you better get ready to deal with the fall out – because this story is getting told.” After another dirty look thrown at the hyperventilating pansy, the writer strode off to start penning the continuation of her story.