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"Zadie Smith: Artist and Citizen" (Lecture)

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Dec 18, 2013


Source: The Black Scholar, Vol. 20, No. 2, BLACK CULTURE (MARCH/APRIL 1989), pp. 17-18

Edward W· Said

In 1984, Salman Rushdie published a superb essay in Granta entitled Outside the Whale," in which he showed that today's writer could not be inside the whale, insulated from history and politics. "The modern world," Rushdie writes, "lacks not only hiding places, but certainties." These words have an ominously prophetic applicability to Rushdie's situation today, not only because he has to be in hiding in order to save his life, but because he wrote a book that made "a very devil of a racket" in challenging certainties and provoking anger and amazement.

An Outside the Whale" Rushdie says: If writers leave the business of making pictures of the world to politicians, it will be one of history's great and most abject abdications. Outside the whale is the unceasing storm, the continual quarrel, the dialectic of history. Out- side the whale there is a genuine need for political fiction, for books that draw new and better maps of reality, and make new languages with which we can understand the world. Outside the whale we see that we are all irradiated by history, we are radioactive with history and politics; we see that it can be as false to create a politics free fictional universe as to create one in which nobody needs to work or eat or hate or love or sleep. Outside the whale it becomes necessary, and even exhilarating, to grapple with the special problems created by the incorporation of political material because politics is by turns farce and tragedy, sometimes... both at once. Outside the whale the writer is obliged to accept that he (or she) is part of the crowd, part of the ocean, part of the storm....

Satanic Verses is an astonishing and prodigiously inventive work of fiction. Yet it is, like its author, in history, the world, the crowd and the storm. It is, in all sorts of ways, a deliberately transgressive work. It parallels and mimics the central Islamic narratives with bold, nose-thumbing, post-modern daring. In so doing, it demonstrates another side of its author's unbroken engagement with the politics and history of the contemporary scene. Rushdie is the same distinguished writer and intellectual who has spoken out for immigrant, black and Palestinian rights, against imperialism, racism and censorship. He has always unhesitatingly expressed willingness to take active political positions whenever his voice has been needed. What shocks Moslems is Satanic Verses' knowing intimacy with the religious and cultural material with which it so comically and resourcefully plays. There is also the further shock of seeing Islam portrayed irreverently and - although as a secularist I have difficulty in using this word - blasphemously by a Moslem who writes both in and for the West. The cultural context is horrifically and even ludicrously inhospitable to such transgressions.

Moslems think of the current situation between their umma and Western civilization in singularly unhappy terms. How many Islamic writers, Moslems say, from Egypt, Iraq, Palestine, Pakistan or Senegal are published, much less known or read in the West? Why is that ignorance there, if not for the disregard, indifference and fear with which things Islamic are considered here? Israel bans hundreds of books in occupied Palestinian territories, and Palestinian writers are jailed without trial. Where are the protesting voices of Western writers and intellectuals?

Islam has been reduced to terrorism and fundamentalism and now is seen to be acting accordingly, in the ghastly violence pre- scribed by the late Ayatollah Khomeini. The fury increases as do the pieties and the vindictive righteousness. Above all, people from the Islamic world ask: Why must a Moslem, who could be de- fending and sympathetically interpreting us, now represent us so roughly, so expertly and so disrespectfully to an audience already primed to excoriate our traditions, reality, history, religious language and origins? Why must a member of our culture join the legions of Orientalists in Orientalizing Islam so radically and unfairly?

 To try to answer these questions is by no means to deny the anguish and serious- ness of the questions. But it is, as a beginning, to say that although it contains many spheres, the contemporary world of men and women is one world. Human history has many divisions, many particularities, but it too is one. In this world, Rushdie, from the community of Islam, has written for the West about Is- lam. The Satanic Verses thus is a self- representation. But everyone should be able to read the novel, interpret, understand, accept or finally reject it. More to the point, it should be possible both to accept the brilliance of Rushdie's work and also to note its transgressive apostasy. If this peculiar paradox is also an emblem of the fate of hybrids and immigrants, that fate too is part of this contemporary world. For the point is that there is no pure, unsullied, unmixed essence to which some of us can return, whether that essence is pure Is- lam, pure Christianity, pure Judaism or Easternism, Americanism or Westernism. Rushdie's work is not just about the mixture; it is that mixture itself.

To stir Islamic narratives into a stream of heterogeneous narratives about actors, tricksters, prophets, devils, whores, heroes and heroines is therefore inevitable. Most of us are still unprepared to deal with such complicated mixtures, but as Rushdie says in Outside the Whale": "In this world without quiet corners, there can be no easy escapes from history, from hullabaloo, from terrible, unquiet fuss." What those of us from the Moslem part of this world need to add is that we cannot accept the notion that democratic freedoms should be abrogated to protect Islam. No world culture or religion is really about such violence or such curtailments of fundamental rights. If we have accepted Rushdie's help in the past, we should now be ensuring his safety and his right to say what he has to say. To dispute with him, to engage with his work does not, cannot, be the same thing as banning it or threatening Rushdie with violence and physical punishment.

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