Salman Rushdie discusses magical realism and storytelling

by Haley Gordon | 10/26/15 7:01pm

On Monday afternoon, the line to the Spaulding Auditorium stretched nearly to the Hopkins Center doors as droves of people waited to enter. After the auditorium filled and the audience members took their seats, College President Phil Hanlon took the stage to introduce and welcome acclaimed author Salman Rushdie. This was Rushdie’s first time speaking at the College, and the writer presented a lecture titled “Wonder Tales,” which dealt with the origin of literature in oral traditions and story-telling and traced the linear progression of stories in terms of authorial presentations and changes in reader preferences. The presentation engaged with fables and folktales from around the globe and their relevance to a modern world.

Born in then-Bombay, now Mumbai, Rushdie began by regaling the audience with examples of the stories that populated his earliest years, stories with roots in India and in England. Some of the stories were religious in certain contexts but secular in his understanding, while others included moral and amoral stories, animal fables and fairytales. Rushdie delved into the magic of stories told in childhood and how they become like possessions owned and cared for by a child.

Rushdie spent much of the time discussing modern readers’ obsession with non-fiction and what he called the false equation of finding inherent truths in the genre, rather than the potential of uncovering truths within the guise of fiction.

This idea attracted audience member Veri di Suvero ‘16.

“What struck me most was the idea of truth from lies in magical realism and in the everyday, and the idea of ordinary magic and how the opposites of those two different things really create this beautiful prose and way of reading that is both enjoyable and makes you learn,” di Suvero said.

English professor Catherine Tudish noticed that the students were drawn to Rushdie’s emphasis on imagination.

“I think [the students] were particularly interested in his concept of magic realism, which he very much clarified… emphasizing that it’s two things — it’s both magic and realism, and if you don’t have realism to base it on the magic [won’t] work so well.”

To conclude the event, Rushdie stayed for a moderated discussion with microphones set up in the aisles. Queues formed with audience members eager to participate.

Tudish said that Rushdie’s careful attention to each question impressed her greatly.

“There were opportunities for him to be sort of funny and to give a short funny answer, and sometimes he did that initially but then he really grew into the question,” Tudish said. “You could see that he was taking an interest in every question and had a great respect for the question, both in this larger venue and also in the smaller.”

English professor Thomas O’Malley was also impressed with Rushdie’s demeanor on stage.

“It was so refreshing to see someone who took on all the questions by student and adult alike with such generosity and attentiveness,” O’Malley said.

Earlier in the afternoon, Rushdie met with creative writing students in a more intimate setting. Rushdie entertained questions from students, discussing the practicalities of writing as well as his own experiences, Tudish said.

During both lectures and the discussion, Rushdie touched on his methods of writing and gave advice similar to that which professors often try to impart on their students, she said.

“I think it was very good for them to hear it from somebody who is as accomplished and distinguished a person as Rushdie,” Tudish said.

O’Malley also touched on the similarities between what Rushdie said and what writing professors will often tell their students, noting how hearing the words come straight from Rishdie might have been an eye-opening experience for some.

Professors, he said, will frequently work with students for an extended period of time, often collaborating multiple times as a student goes from an introductory to an intermediate level. Professors and students can develop strong relationships that become “if not maternal or paternal, then therapeutic sometimes,” O’Malley said.

“They see us a certain way, so… when we say something there’s a certain combativeness, which is healthy, too, to writing and teaching,” he said. “But then when you have an accomplished author who says the exact same thing, suddenly it’s ‘Oh okay, it is valid now,’ and that means something.”

Rushdie, for example, criticized the maxim “Write what you know,” saying that an author should write what he knows if, and only if, what he knows is actually interesting. Rushdie called for younger writers to make use of their imaginations, to pull from the stories that enthralled them in childhood and to write first and foremost for themselves.

In one of his earlier meetings with students, Tudish described how Rushdie touched on the tradition of oral storytelling and its discursive nature, which she thought he carried nicely into his own lecture.

“In the oral tradition it was very important for the storyteller to find a way to keep people in their seats, and people responded well to that,” she said. “So not just telling a single story with a beginning, middle and end, but playing off that discursive nature going from one topic to another and weaving back in. And I felt he did exactly that in the talk.”