The award-winning novelist recounts his experience in hiding due to a death threat, as detailed in his memoir, Joseph Anton.
Author Salman Rushdie
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Salman Rushdie back to this program. The iconic author has just released a much-talked-about new book detailing his time hiding and the fatwa placed on him following release of the seminal text, “The Satanic Verses.”
The new book is called “Joseph Anton: A Memoir.” Salman Rushdie, good to have you back on his program.
Salman Rushdie: Very nice to be here, thank you.
Tavis: You all right?
Rushdie: Yeah, I’m good, thanks.
Tavis: I want to start with a quote from this book that I’ve typed up here. The book, I should mention, is written in third person.
Tavis: And we’ll talk about why you chose to do that in a moment. But this is from the book. “To hide in this way was to be stripped of all self-respect. To be told to hide was a humiliation. Maybe, he thought, to live like this would be worse than death. In his novel ‘Shame’ he had written about the workings of Muslim honor culture at the poles of whose moral axis were honor and shame, very different from the Christian narrative of guilt and redemption.
“He came from that culture even though he was not religious and had been raised to care deeply about questions of pride. To skulk and hide was to lead a dishonorable life. He felt very often in those years profoundly ashamed – both shamed and ashamed.” That’s you writing in “Joseph Anton.”
Tavis: Which leads me to start our conversation by asking why even write this book? You and I have only met a few times. I’ve been honored to have you on this program on occasion. But this is the one thing I thought you would not do. I didn’t think you want any part of going back to this. I was surprised when I heard you were doing this.
Rushdie: Yeah, and for a long time I did not want to do it. People were telling me to do it for the last 10 years, and I thought, really, it’s the last thing I want to do. I want to get back to my real life as a writer. I want to write novels and stories and things like that, the things that I became a writer to do.
But there was always this thing in my head. I knew that at some point I had to tell the story. I used to joke to my friends that it would be my old age pension; when I run out of other stuff to do, this will look after me when I’m old. But in the end, I thought I would just leave it to instinct. I thought, if there’s a day when a little voice in the head says it’s time to do it, then I’m going to pay attention to that, and that’s more or less what happened.
Tavis: What part of the story, or what story did you think needed to be told or did you want to tell?
Rushdie: Well, truthfully, had it not been for the attack on “The Satanic Verses” and what happened in the 10 years that followed, I would not have written it. Because I really, otherwise, I’m not that much interested in autobiography. It wasn’t why I became a writer. I didn’t become a writer to write about me.
What happened is that my life kind of unfortunately became interesting, and there was clearly a story there which was oddly exciting. It was like being suddenly dumped into a thriller or a spy novel or something, and writers are crazy people. Even when you’re in the middle of this terrible thing you’ve got a little version of yourself sitting on your shoulder, whispering in your ear, saying “Good story.”
I knew that, which is why I kept a journal all those years, and I hoped – I wasn’t even sure that there would be a time when I’d be able to tell the story. There’s a bit of me that worried that something terrible would happen and I wouldn’t be the person telling the story.
So in one way it feels good to have got to the point where life went back to normal. I’ve had 10 years of distance from this material, I could reflect on it kind of in tranquility, and now tell it like it is an exciting story, I think, and there it is to tell.
Tavis: You’ve used the word “exciting” and “thrilling.” Let me ask a strange question, perhaps – strange, because when one’s life is under threat of death or assassination, and I don’t know that this fits, but since you went there, was there anything thrilling or exciting, exhilarating, about -
Rushdie: At the time?
Tavis: – living through that period?
Rushdie: No. At the time, not at all.
Rushdie: At the time it was scary and bewildering and threw me off-balance a lot. I had to worry about my family and my friends and my business colleagues, booksellers and publishers and so on. So it was, at the time, no, no fun to live through. But in retrospect, there’s a hell of a story there. I think the other thing is not just that it’s a hell of a story, it’s also that I felt that the thing that happened to me came to feel to me like a prologue to a much larger story, to the story that we’re all in, even this week.
I thought that I wanted to show that connection. I wanted to show that this was an early moment of what became a much bigger, much more inclusive narrative.
Tavis: Since you raised it, let me detour and I’ll come right back to “Joseph Anton.”
Rushdie: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: You referenced a moment ago the story that we are in right now. What do you make of what we’re dealing with right now?
Rushdie: Well, one of the things I think that connects what happened to me to what’s happening now is the way in which anger, outrage, violence, is manufactured. This is not spontaneous. I felt that what happened to me and what’s happening now was not primarily motivated by religion, it was motivated by politics.
There were people who felt they had things to gain by engendering this kind of anger and the violence that goes with it, and that’s why I think you can connect the things.
In other respects, it is my view that my book, “The Satanic Verses,” is a rather different thing from this crappy little video, but the response is rather similar, and what it shows is that people in the Islamic world, the leaders, political leaders and politically motivated religious leaders, have become very good at this business of manufacturing this response.
Tavis: So you think it’s entirely manufactured, that none of it is a buildup of offenses that those persons in that part of the world have taken year after year after year on the part of the U.S., wittingly or unwittingly?
Rushdie: There’s some of that. There’s some of that. There’s some long-term resentment of American foreign policy, there’s some resentment of the various wars that have been waged in Iraq, for example, and partly also in Afghanistan. Resentment of drone killings, all that kind of stuff.
But I think the anger comes from more profound sources than that. These are people who are usually in countries which are economic basket cases. They’re young men, almost all of them, who have really no prospects. They have no jobs, they have very little chance of making a good life for themselves and getting married, raising a family. They can’t do any of that.
So there’s a frustration, and that frustration is easily channeled by political leaders and moved into a direction. They can be aimed, and then it becomes like the letting off of steam, this kind of violence.
Tavis: One last question about this, Salman. We’re headed toward these presidential debates. One of these debates, Mr. Schieffer from CBS, is moderating in that debate, specifically about foreign policy, so I suspect this is going to come up, obviously.
We’ve already seen the way Mr. Obama has responded and Mr. Romney has responded, and roundly criticized for the way he’s responded, specifically to Libya and other parts in the world. What’s your sense of how the U.S. is or needs to calibrate this situation going forward?
Rushdie: Well, it is a very difficult thing, I think, for America, because on the one hand I think it’s very important to hold the line. It’s very important to say we have certain fundamental freedoms in this country that we cherish and that we’re not going to back down from that.
It’s very important to say that, while at the same time not slamming the door to conversations with people. I think that’s the kind of line they have to negotiate, and I think President Obama is much closer to getting it right. Mr. Romney has said a number of pretty dumb things.
Tavis: Yeah. Let me circle back to “Joseph Anton.” You, as you mentioned earlier, lived, have lived, to write this book and to tell this story in your own voice. There were those around you, though, who were not as fortunate.
Rushdie: That’s correct.
Tavis: How do you process, how do you feel about the death that came to those around you, although not you?
Rushdie: No, it was horrifying, and of course there were attacks on two of my translators in Italy and Japan, and my Japanese translator, Professor Igarashi, actually died. He was a college professor, he was killed one night on campus near an elevator shaft, and it was clear from the investigation that this was not some random killing, this was a professional hit.
These were paid assassins sent to do this, and my Norwegian publisher was shot in the back three times, again a professional hit, and he, by a miracle, survived. So yes, this was a very – I sometimes felt that because I wasn’t killed there was a public feeling that maybe nobody was trying to kill me and that this was being exaggerated and so on.
But this was a shooting war. There were people in real danger, people who were very badly hurt, and of course I felt very responsible for that, because I felt that in a way they were the softer targets, that they would be hit because it was easier to hit them than me.
I remember having this conversation with my Norwegian publisher, William Nygaard, after he recovered from his near-death experience, and I began to apologize to him, and he, in a rather wonderful way, he stopped me and he said, “Look, you’ve got nothing to apologize about.” He said, “I’m a publisher. I know exactly what I’m doing. I published your book, I’m proud to publish your book. The blame for this doesn’t rest with you. It rests with the assassins.”
Then he said a kind of publishing thing. He said, “By the way, I’ve just ordered a big reprint.” (Laughter)
Tavis: So I assume the folk at Random House didn’t know what they were getting into.
Rushdie: I don’t think anybody, I don’t think any of us knew what we were getting into, because obviously, books have been attacked before and writers have been persecuted before and so on. That’s not new. What was new about this was the international dimension, the idea that the head of one state would point across the world to citizens of another country who were living in their own country, having done nothing wrong in that country, and say, “Let’s kill them.
“And by the way, if you don’t do it, I’m going to send some death squads to do it.” That hadn’t happened before, and that was a new thing in the world and it took people a long time to know how to deal with it.
Tavis: One of the things that’s striking about this book that comes up pretty early on is the degree to which you were ignorant – and I say that not pejoratively – but the degree to which you were ignorant about what you had said and how offensive it was.
You saw yourself as a friend of Islam, so that you didn’t even know what you had said that got you into so much trouble.
Rushdie: I don’t even believe that it was offensive. I think that 99 percent of the people who acted against the book didn’t bother to read it, and I remember one of the Indian Muslim politicians who was vocal against the book actually took pride in not reading it.
He said, “I don’t need to -” what did he say? “I don’t need to wade in the gutter to know it contains filth,” which I thought, good point, but it’s a good point about gutters. (Laughter) As far as books are concerned, it’s a little different.
But that “I don’t like it because I haven’t read it and I haven’t read it because I don’t like it,” there was a lot of that.
Tavis: How did you first learn that you had this fatwa placed on you?
Rushdie: Well, I was just at home that morning, Valentine’s Day, sunny Tuesday in London, and I got called by a journalist for the BBC on my home phone. And she said, “How does it feel to know that you’ve just been condemned to death by the Ayatollah Khomeini,” which was a hell of a question.
I said some dumb thing like, “It doesn’t feel that good” and put down the phone and ran around locking doors and closing shutters, as if that would make everything all right.
It was difficult in that first moment to know how to take it. Was this just rhetorical or was it real? I remember after that I had to go, because I promised to go and do an interview, sort of live in a feed across to CBS television, and I went, and even the journalists there weren’t certain how to take it, whether it was real or rhetorical.
But within the day it really became clear that this was not a joke and the British police became involved at that point.
Tavis: What made it clear that it was not a joke?
Rushdie: I don’t know whatever intelligence information the British were being given that said – I mean, within 24 hours I was being told that the British believed that there was, as they put it rather chillingly, a high probability that I would be the target of an attack by the Iranian state.
The reason why I was offered protection by the British state was that it was not just – there were people who didn’t like me, it was that the attack was coming from another state. It was state-sponsored terrorism, and within 24 hours, we were pretty clear about that.
Tavis: How did you and others process the extreme amounts of money that was being spent by the British government to protect you?
Rushdie: Well, first of all, it wasn’t as extreme as people make out, because I had to shoulder quite a lot of the costs. For instance, there was this view around this that all these government safe houses would be – I was never offered a government safe house, and it was very much up to me to find the places to stay, and these were places – there were all kinds of requirements about what they should be like, the configurations, and that made them very expensive.
I was paying for that. I remember once saying to one of the police officers, I said, “Supposing that ‘The Satanic Verses’ was not a best-selling novel that’s generating the kind of funds that I can use to do this? Supposing it was a poem. Supposing you were protecting here a poet with the kind of funds that poets normally have?”
I said, “What would you do? What would you do if I wasn’t able to do this?” He said, “Well, as it happens, sir, we don’t have to answer that question, do we?” Which meant they didn’t know what they would have done. But it was expensive all round, but the point is I would hope that anyone in Britain who was being threatened with a terrorist attack from a foreign power would receive the protection of the state.
It’s not about the cost. There’s a big issue there about sovereignty, apart from anything else.
Tavis: Let me circle back to this quote that we started this conversation with, where you talked about what it felt like to be in hiding and it brought upon you a feeling of shame and ashamed. Unpack that for me.
Rushdie: Well, I just think it is humiliating to be sort of put in a corner and essentially locked up and told, “Don’t talk because you’ll just make things worse,” so you can’t even argue your corner. I felt it as a humiliation, and it took me a while to somewhat break those chains and begin to fight back, begin to argue back and slowly, with the help of friends, to put together a political campaign to try and reach out to various governments in the world to try and get their support. The moment I started doing that, I actually felt better.
It felt more dignified. I felt like I’m not just a target, I’m actually in the argument and arguing my side of it. That felt more – that had – there was more self-respect in that, I felt. Gradually, that political campaign became more successful. One of the great moments of it was when we were able to persuade President Clinton to meet with me not long after he became president, and that was one of the turning points.
Because to have the president of the United States say okay, I’m going to be on this guy’s side, it stiffened the spine, frankly, of quite a lot of other European governments who had been kind of resistant. Suddenly they thought oh, well, if Bill Clinton’s doing it then we can do it too, and a kind of momentum began to build up from that.
Then when the Blair government was elected in England – now, a lot of – the world shouldn’t work like this, but it does. I knew a lot of them personally, because I’d been a Labor Party guy most of my life and some of these people were old acquaintances of mine and I was on friendly terms with them.
Robin Cook, who became foreign secretary, was someone who I had been involved with. We’d been both involved in a campaign for electoral reform in England and so on, so we knew each other from way back. He became really passionate to get this thing fixed.
When he came to the Foreign Office he said to me, “Look, it’s disgraceful. We’re going to go for this; we’re going to get it fixed. Leave it to me,” and he had real energy for it. The combination of that and the support of the U.S. administration is what in the end brought the Iranians to the negotiating table and got the thing solved.
Tavis: How do you fix a fatwa, to use your word, “fix?”
Rushdie: Well, because again, it’s a question of the difference between the reality and the perception. I think a lot of people out there thought that this was, like, some broad thing where anybody could get outraged and try and carry it out. Actually, in all those years the only threat, the only threat to me and to everyone else was the threat from the Iranian state. That’s to say the – and it was a dangerous threat. But other than persons being dispatched by the Iranian state, there was never any sense of any other danger. Nobody else ever got involved.
So at the point at which we were able to persuade the Iranians to stand down those people and stop doing that, essentially the threat dropped very, very, very low.
Tavis: Since this is so clearly about first-person Salman Rushdie, it’s about you, why write in third person?
Rushdie: Well, a couple of reasons. One is that I started trying to write it in the first person and I didn’t like it much. There was so much me, me, me; I sort of didn’t like it. There was too much of that sort of self-regarding stuff.
I felt by putting it in the third person, it just put it one step away from me and it was easier for me to be objective, including about my own behavior, because I thought one of the things, as a going-in position, I knew, is that you’ve got to be rougher on yourself than anyone else.
Because otherwise, it looks like you’re making excuses. Nobody wants to read hundreds of pages about somebody saying “Everything I did was right, everybody else, not so much. That’s not interesting. So I thought you’ve got to be very self-critical. You’ve got to be able to be – the reader must know that this is a guy who really understands himself. He knows what he did wrong; he knows what he wished he’d done better. He knows his weaknesses as well as his strengths.
You have to make that in-the-round portrait, and for some reason I found that easier to do when I had taken this one sideways step away from myself to talk about it in the third person.
Tavis: Speaking of being objective about yourself, which I think is the most difficult thing for we humans to do, to be objective about ourselves, did at any time during this ordeal you develop any sort of – I’m reaching for the right word here – empathy, any empathy whatsoever for persons who might have misunderstood or taken offense at what you said, although not intended by you?
Rushdie: Yeah, I mean, look, books are things that people have strong opinions about. Even in normal circumstances. It’s perfectly legitimate for people to read a book of mine and find that they don’t like it, that it annoys them, it upsets them, whatever. That’s fair enough. That happens.
I think it’s been often the case with some of the best books ever written that they divide readers. Some people love them, some people hate them. That’s fair enough. But to go from that towards violence is what’s not acceptable. Actually, for the many months – the book came out in England, though not in America; in America it came out after the fatwa.
In England it came out six months before that, and in that six months, yes, there was an argument about it, and I was part of that argument. I was arguing with people who disliked the book on radio and television and in print, and I thought that was okay, really. I thought it’s one of the things I think that books have often done, is to start arguments, and those actually can be fruitful, those arguments, and I thought that was fine. I was prepared to have that argument.
Of course I didn’t expect everyone to be on my side. But once the subject of murder and all that entered the story, it’s like the subject changes. Then it’s not about whether you like the book or not. Then it’s about what do you do about a death threat. That completely, in a way, stopped the argument.
Tavis: What’d you learn about yourself?
Rushdie: You know, a number of things. First of all I learned about a lot of weaknesses and things I wish I’d done better and not done and so on and so on. I’ve tried to chronicle those, but I think in the end I also learned that I was tougher than I thought.
If you had told me on February 14, 1989, if you had told me here’s what’s going to happen to you and it’s going to go on for 12 years and it’s going to be like this, and how do you think you’re going to be 12 years from now, I would not have bet on myself to come out the other end reasonably in one piece.
But I think I’m reasonably in one piece, so I think it’s one of those things about life – sometimes the most difficult questions of life, you don’t know the answer until you’re asked. Until you’re put in the situation, you don’t know how you’re going to deal with it, and I discovered that somehow I was able to, I was resilient enough to deal with it.
Tavis: I could have started our conversation here, but I’ll close it here. It’s pretty obvious for those of us who are avid readers, but why “Joseph Anton?”
Rushdie: Well, it’s because I was asked by the police to come up with a fake name that they could use, and I invented this name from the names of Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov, just A because I liked them, but B because I thought both of them had something to do with what was happening to me.
Chekov is a great poet of melancholy and alienation and people trapped in one place but longing to be somewhere else, and I felt a little bit in that position. Then Conrad, there’s a great line in Conrad’s now improperly titled novel “The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus,’” in which there’s this sailor, James Wait, who’s dying of tuberculosis on the ship.
One of his shipmates says to him, “What’d you get on the ship for? You knew you were sick. Why didn’t you stay home? Why’d you get on the ship?” He has this famous line, a rather profound line. He says, “I must live until I die.”
That became for me like a motto. Go on being who you are. Work, argue, be. You must live until you die.
Tavis: I like that. The new book from Salman Rushdie, it’s a memoir, it’s called, “Joseph Anton,” about his years in hiding. Everybody’s talking about it, on “The New York Times” best-seller list already. So congratulations, good to have you back on the program.
Rushdie: Thank you.
Tavis: Good to see you. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. Until next time, keep the faith
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