In times when the politically powerful attempt to smother speech, renowned author Salman Rushdie said writers often ask themselves how to keep pushing forward.
The answer is to keep writing, he said.
“If we are not making the beauty, we have nothing to defend,” Rushdie said.
The keynote speaker of the second annual Unbound Book Festival, Rushdie spoke to a crowd packed inside Jesse Auditorium on the University of Missouri campus Friday about the “ancient conflict” between writers and politicians. While both tell stories, Rushdie said, writers are upfront about their fiction and politicians often don’t tell the truth while pretending that they are.
But before he could say a word upon standing at a podium, Rushdie received a standing ovation from the audience. He entered the stage following an introduction from Pat Okker, interim dean of the MU College of Arts and Sciences, who pointed out his many accomplishments, such as receiving the Booker Prize and his knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II, but said the audience was there for other reasons.
“We are here because he devoted his life to books and to freedom of expression,” she said. “We’re here because the books he has written invite us into worlds beyond our own imaginations.”
As the audience admired Rushdie, the author dedicated parts of his speech to praise other authors who have revealed truths of society and the human condition through their literature.
He called Charles Dickens “a man of great social conscience” who was vocal about slavery and brought readers news in his novel “Nicholas Nickleby” that exposed the harsh treatment poor children received in schools in England. The poet Ovid angered the Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar and was exiled for his words, but Ovid’s poems are still read and studied centuries after his death.
Though he never mentioned his name, Rushdie weaved in references to President Donald Trump and condemned Trump for calling the press the “enemy of the state.” The fourth estate is a pillar of democracy, Rushdie said. He said that as Trump capitalizes on people who didn’t trust the media before he came into power and “fake news” becomes a commonly used term, literature can offer the truth about the human experience.
Novels also show people what they fail to sometimes see themselves — that they are plural, or have multiple facets to their existence. In a time when political polarization is at an all-time high, Rushdie said novels can illustrate that people are defined more broadly than by their religious affiliations or nationalities. Conflict erupts when people define themselves narrowly, Rushdie said.
“The more pluralistically we see ourselves, the easier it is to find common ground with other people, even if they’re very different from us,” he said. “And this is what the novel has always told us; it has always told us that human beings are not one thing, they are many things at once.”
Great art “tries to open the universe” and “push back borders” of understanding to increase people’s capacity to know the world around them, Rushdie said. But he said artists are often met with the “unpleasant sensation of powerful forces pushing against” them from individuals who don’t want understanding to be increased. Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” is banned in India and his writing has been the subject of lawsuits and other threats.
“You don’t push out the frontiers by sitting safely in the middle of the room, to push out the front you have to go to the frontiers and push,” he said.