In person and on the page, Salman Rushdie connects with students

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | March 7, 2012

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Emory alum Michelle Miles and Levin Arnsperger, a doctoral student in English, visit with University Distinguished Professor Salman Rushdie during a marathon reading of "Haroun and the Sea of Stories" in the Dobbs University Center. 

Standing before a microphone, Rebecca Kumar savors the words of Salman Rushdie, her voice lifting them among the crowd of passing students like a literary vesper.

From her perch within the Dobbs University Center, Kumar knew that the hours she and her classmates were devoting to a public reading of "Haroun and the Sea of Stories," the acclaimed author's children's book, might well be lost on those ambling past. Only a few pause to listen.

But understanding that Rushdie wrote this lively tale for his young son while in seclusion after a death sentence was placed upon him in 1989 by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini for penning "The Satanic Verses" — a fatwa that wasn't lifted until 1998 — made this an act of quiet defiance.

And Kumar, a graduate student in English who has worked with Rushdie at Emory, felt deep symbolism in the public reading — among a series of events during his time on campus until March 8 as University Distinguished Professor.

"To know that stories could be a matter of life or death, then to stand here and read them out loud … I just think it's something universities should be doing," says Kumar, who recalls that during a trip to India, her mother had once smuggled a copy of "The Satanic Verses" to an uncle by wrapping it in a baby blanket and setting young Kumar atop it.

Rushdie in the classroom

Since 2007, Rushdie has been a frequent and engaging presence on the Emory campus, turning heads as he strolls the Quad, earning impromptu cellphone photo ops from students and faculty alike.

From international summits and intellectual symposiums to roundtable discussions, his visits — first as a Distinguished Writer in Residence and now in his new role as University Distinguished Professor — Rushdie keeps an active schedule.

But it is in the down-to-earth role as a teacher that students have come to know him best. And this spring, his visit has created new opportunities for Emory scholars to interact with the author on subjects ranging from literature, art and film to geopolitics, digital scholarship and neuroscience.

Recently, he led a post-colonial literature class discussion of his novel, "The Moor's Last Sigh," a conversation Rushdie opened with a story about spending the previous weekend presenting songwriter Leonard Cohen with the PEN New England inaugural award for Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence amid a star-studded crowd.

"There was this moment we were all in the green room where we looked up and it was like a ridiculous joke: 'So Elvis Costello, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Chuck Berry, Keith Richards, Salman Rushdie and Caroline Kennedy walk into a bar…' " Rushdie muses.

The anecdote brings laughter and ease. And for nearly two hours, Rushdie fields pointed questions about his writing in a relaxed, intimate style that defies, he acknowledges, the impression some may have of him.

"It's always interesting to be in touch with young minds," Rushdie explains. "It's a very relaxed, informal way of being here — I'm not just a stuffed shirt."

Alyssa Stalsberg Canelli, a graduate student in English who has taught Rushdie's books to undergraduates, appreciates the breadth of experience the author offers.

"When he talks about literature, you realize that he has lived through a lot of literary history — telling anecdotes about hanging out with Ian McEwan or Harold Pinter. I know that in 100 years, this is a writer who will still be part of history," she says of Rushdie.

Students polish skills

Deepika Bahri, the associate professor of English who teaches the post-colonial literature class, praises Rushdie's accessibility. "I always encourage students to ask him real questions, and he's terribly obliging," she says. "He loves that kind of interaction, where there is a genuine exchange. He lights up when he's with students."

Not only do her students have access to a world-class writer, they polish their own skills in framing questions and critical thinking. "Almost every time I have him in class, it's quite something to see students watch him talk about the tradition that informs his work," says Bahri, who is curator of the Salman Rushdie archive at Emory.

"I want (students) to think as readers and writers," she adds. "And he's so incredibly generous with his time, his stories, his attention to students and what they're doing. The fact that he's approachable is part of a very generous package. He understands, I think, that people can be shy and gives them multiple avenues of entry into a conversation. He won't stand for discomfort."

Indeed, Rushdie acknowledges that beyond the classroom, he enjoys informal interactions on campus. "I'm just happy to be here," he says. "I meet new people for different kinds of conversations and it's fun."  

The center of history

During the marathon reading of Rushdie's work, students take turns reading aloud from his book over five hours — an act which proves a lesson in itself.

"When you are reading (the book) in your head, I don't think you appreciate how lyrical the language is," says Kumar, who is comparing the writing of Rushdie and Shakespeare as part of her dissertation.

Late in the afternoon, Rushdie enters the DUC, approaches the microphone, chooses a favorite spot and begins to read the final pages. Books open, a cluster of students follow along. In time, his words draw in even a passing campus tour, bringing prospective students to a standstill. There are whispers, camera phones.

Rushdie concludes the marathon reading with three words: "Peace broke out."

For Stalsberg Canelli there remains something deeply moving about the moment.  "You know, that fatwa was a historic world event and Rushdie was at the center of it," she says.

"I believe very strongly in what literature can do in the world, the power it has. Taking an afternoon to share it is an act of standing up against censorship."