Salman Rushdie and the PEN World Voices Festival

Jeremy Lehrer

Salman Rushdie's stories and essays reveal the human spirit as poetic and devoted, joyous and confused. He portrays people's aspirations and missteps with equal deft and their narratives as interwoven with that of the society in which they live. Displaying this same depth of vision off the page, he founded the PEN World Voices Festival(PEN stands for "poets, playwrights, essayists, editors, and novelists") four years after the 9/11 terror attacks to address the lack of dialogue between the United States and the rest of the world. The annual event has quickly become an unparalleled showcase of writers and writing.

Rushdie, who remains a tireless advocate of international dialogue, is keenly aware of writers and artists who are under threat because of their political views or artistic oeuvre, whether in India, Zimbabwe, China or Iran. His impassioned eloquence—complemented by his down-to-earth warmth—is evident not only in his lush, epic stories, but also in his ability to articulate the importance of writing and storytelling and the necessity of challenging the continuing threats to freedom of expression.

Can you discuss the festival's origins? Salman Rushdie: This festival came into being five years ago, at a time when I was president of PEN. [Founded in 1921, PEN is the world's oldest literary and human rights organization; Rushdie served as president of its US branch from 2004 to 2006.] Like many other members of the board and the staff, we were very worried that a situation seemed to have grown up in the relationship between this country and the rest of the world. A kind of dialogue of the deaf seemed to have begun, in which Americans were either not able to or not prepared to listen to voices from outside. In some cases, they were prevented from doing so, because it was hard for people to enter the country. And vice versa: the rest of the world seemed suddenly to be shutting its ears to American voices and to American perspectives. This seemed to us to be a bad thing for America, but also, frankly, to be a bad thing for the rest of the world.

We thought that—at the level of culture, the level of literature—we could do what we could to restart that conversation. As a sort of subtext to that, there was the issue of translation, and how little work from languages other than English is available to readers in this country.

Can you describe an event that you felt fulfilled the festival's goals? SR: A couple of years ago, we had the Vietnamese writer Duong Thu Huong. She is without any question the leading Vietnamese novelist, who in her time has been in trouble with the authorities in Vietnam. She had never come to America. And she has written eloquently about the time of the war, after the war and so on. For her to be in New York, you can see what impact it had on her, and for American audiences to hear a Vietnamese writer talking about the Vietnam experience was very moving.

What's your sense of the situation relating to writers' freedom of expression and human rights? SR: Well, truthfully, I think it's a very bad time. You now have, all over the world, very severe restrictions on these freedoms. China, to name only a gigantic country, is a place where there are increasing and colossal restrictions, and now—as we're seeing with the recent fuss with Google—deliberate attempts to penetrate the private material of writers and journalists in order to build cases against them. So that's a new kind of problem, and China is very intransigent.

Across the Islamic world, it's well-known that there are all kinds of assaults on literary freedoms. But it's not even just that. If you look at Africa now, there are many regimes in Africa that are extremely dangerous places for writers to ply their trade. Zimbabwe, for example. And other places where things have not gotten better, like Cuba.

When you're not helping to organize the festival, what have you been working on? SR: I've got a book coming out in the fall that is not exactly a sequel but a companion to Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a book that I wrote for my older son 20 years ago. He has a younger brother who's been saying, "Where's my book?" So this book, called Luka and the Fire of Life, is the answer to that question. The other thing I'm doing right now is, we're trying to make a film of Midnight's Children. [The director] Deepa Mehta and I have been working on it, and we've already begun casting.

Can you talk about your approach to writing about New York in your own work? SR: When I wrote Fury, which is very contemporary, I thought, I can't write about New York in the way that a born and raised New Yorker would write about it, and it would be embarrassing to try to do so. So I tried to write about "arrival" in the way that V.S. Naipaul wrote The Enigma of Arrival about England, because this is a city that has been shaped by arrivals—by people coming over and over and over again, and within moments of being here, becoming New Yorkers. By showing up in New York, your story also becomes a New York story.

In contrast to previous years, this year's festival doesn't have a theme. Why not? SR: We came to the conclusion that, "OK, the festival is established now." People know that it's here, and they know why it's here. Actually, the concept of the festival is itself the theme, which is to bring the world's voices to enter into conversation with American audiences and American voices. That's the theme. And that's the theme every year. Writers are such a disparate bunch, it's going to become a different festival every year, just because of the people you invite.