News

Salman Rushdie enjoys life of a celebrity author, not a target

Troy Wolverton
San Jose Mercury News (MCT)

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Salman Rushdie is no longer in hiding and no longer facing a state-sponsored death threat.

That may not be news for some people, given that it's been 10 years since Iran's government backed away from the famous fatwa issued against Rushdie in 1989 by the late Ayatollah Khomeini. But to this day, the controversy over his novel "The Satanic Verses," which many Muslims saw as blasphemous, is what most people associate with Rushdie.

Wednesday, Rushdie will appear at San Jose State University for a public conversation with Revathi Krishnaswamy, an associate professor at the university who teaches Rushdie's works in her courses.

The echoes of the past still reverberate; witness the protests in Pakistan and other countries earlier this year when he was awarded a knighthood by Great Britain for his literary efforts.

Rushdie, though, has moved on, even if his fiercest critics haven't. Since "The Satanic Verses," he's written three novels, a collection of short stories, five non-fiction books and a children's book. He's just finished writing a new novel that links Renaissance Florence with the Indian Mughal Empire of the 16th century, and he's started an effort to edit a collection of the best American short stories.

"Other than when I'm talking to journalists, I never think about" the death sentence, Rushdie said in an interview with the San Jose Mercury News. "My life has been pretty much normal for a long time now."

Normal, that is, for a high-profile novelist. Aside from his writing and editing, Rushdie has kept himself in the public eye, making appearances on "Real Time with Bill Maher," taking a position as writer in residence at Atlanta's Emory University -- even waiting in line this summer with his son and other "Harry Potter" fans for the latest edition of the series to go on sale.

He may be best known for "The Satanic Verses" and its discussion of Islam. But India and South Asia is perhaps the central theme of his work as a whole.

Rushdie was born in Bombay. Though he lives in New York and has resided in the West since he was in boarding school, he returns frequently to India.

"I can't get it out of my head," he said. "When people try and pin me down, I always say that at bottom I'm a boy from Bombay who grew up there and was formed by that experience more than anything else."

Rushdie has come a long way since his childhood. He's an acclaimed author in the West, having won the U.K.'s prestigious Booker Prize for "Midnight Children," his second novel and the Whitbread Novel Award for "The Moor's Last Sigh," his first major novel after the fatwa was issued. And he looms as a giant in the Indian literary world, said Krishnaswamy.

"He's had enormous influence in putting Indian writers on the global stage," she said.

Though his lifework has been about producing a decidedly low-tech product -- books -- he's something of a technophile, if admittedly a late adopter of new gadgets. He's a self-described "manic" e-mail user, he recently got into text messaging -- and he's got his eye on Apple's new iPhone.

"It looks incredibly beautiful, and I probably will be suckered into it," he said.

In addition to his literary stature, Rushdie, thanks to his writing and experience with the fatwa, has become, as Krishnaswamy puts it, an "interpreter" of Islam, India and the East for Western readers.

Rushdie has spoken out against Islamic fundamentalism and in favor of a greater public discourse and dialogue in the Muslim world. But he was also an opponent of the Iraq war, and despite his past relations with the Islamic Republic, is wary of the recent talk about a potential military conflict with Iran.

"That's the worst possible thing that America could do," he said. "It would be bizarre to have made an enormous mess in Iraq and then set out to make a bigger mess next door."

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