Reading Rushdie after September 11, 2001. (Introduction)

By Sawhney, Sabina; Sawhney, Simona | Twentieth Century Literature, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Reading Rushdie after September 11, 2001. (Introduction)


Sawhney, Sabina, Sawhney, Simona, Twentieth Century Literature


The appearance of yet another collection of essays on Rushdie's work will no doubt seem odd to many people. Isn't there too much already written about Rushdie, for Rushdie, against Rushdie? Can't postcolonial critics talk about someone else for a change? Perhaps it is the very fact of Rushdie's familiar presence on the contemporary literary scene that makes this collection seem both redundant and necessary. For it might be equally odd if a journal devoted to twentieth-century literature did not, at the end of that century, take a moment to dwell upon the work of this man. At least for one brief moment, he became, in a sense, the very symbol of the literary for many people across the globe. Of course writers have suffered persecution, exile, and even death for as long as anyone can remember, and we may be sure that among Rushdie's own contemporaries there are many--including those whose names we may never know--who have paid dearly for publishing their impressions and opinions. However, for various reasons (no doubt related more to the political dynamics of the 1980s than to Rushdie's own work) it was The Satanic Verses and the storm around it that provoked more discussions, in more countries, about the status of the literary than perhaps any other work of our time. The 1993 French publication Pour Rushdie: Cent intellectuels arabes et musulmans pour la liberte d'expression (For Rushdie: Essays by Arab and Muslim Writers in Defence of Free Speech, 1994) (Anouar) gives us a sense of the charge of such discussions. The polemical debates that ensued over The Satanic Verses forced many people--readers and writers of all kinds--to reflect seriously about the effects and scope of literature, its responsibility and freedom.

But it would be unfair to suggest that Rushdie's significance as a writer is entirely indebted to the accident of the fatwa. The appearance of Midnight's Children in 1981 was a remarkable event in its own right. For many English-speaking Indians, the book was tremendously exciting: a sprawling, clever, and delightful English novel in which the foreign words were not French or Italian but Hindustani, and in which they recognized familiar figures and events from their own history. The pleasures of reading the book were certainly different from the pleasures of reading R. K. Narayan or Anita Desai, and this had to do both with the immensity of the book's vision and with Rushdie's infectious enjoyment of the language. It was almost as though Sterne had suddenly appeared in the twentieth century as an expatriate Indian, for here was a narrator both firangi and desi (foreign and native)--a desi hidden in a firangi or vice versa. Two towering works about colonial India--Kipling's Kim and Tagore's Gora--had already dramatized for us this figure of the non-Indian Indian, of hidden ancestry and deceptive appearances. Rushdie's Saleem gave it a new and provocative spin by dramatizing this dual descent not just thematically but stylistically as well.

When Midnight's Children first appeared, we could not have foreseen how precisely this couple of the firangi-desi would emerge to dominate various trends of Rushdie criticism. It has done so, not only in the questions that have risen about Rushdie's relation to the diasporic South Asian community in Britain, about the relative appeal of his work in Asia and in "the West," but also in the debates about his "authenticity" as an Indian writer and about the precise ways in which Indian names and words appear in his work. (1) Indeed, an uneasy suspicion of the firangi-desi, of the nature of his alliances and the strength of his kinship, has put increasing pressure on the concept of "hybridity," which seeks to hold some of these tensions at bay.

Like the criticism of all canonical works, that of Rushdie's also reveals changing currents in the academic world. While the initial response to his work was more concerned with questions of literary representation and the critique of metaphysical categories, recent criticism has been more attentive to Rushdie's own location within diasporic culture, to his class affiliations, and to the explicit political ends of his work. …

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