Rushdie celebrated for enriching classroom discussions across Emory

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | March 5, 2015

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Visiting an undergraduate Shakespeare class, Salman Rushdie joined a discussion with students before playing the role of Hermia in their reading of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Emory Photo/Video

Long before he was an award-winning novelist, Salman Rushdie was a small boy in Bombay who fed his imagination by going to the movies.

Sitting in a darkened theater, Rushdie would absorb the Technicolor pageantry of “The Wizard of Oz,” an American movie standard, so like a fantastical Bollywood film, that would become “my very first literary influence,” he says.

In fact, the movie would inspire the 10-year-old to write his first work of fiction, Rushdie revealed in a classroom discussion during his final teaching visit as a University Distinguished Professor in Emory College.

Now lost to the ages, “Over the Rainbow” told the story of a “a boy like me in a city like Bombay walking down the sidewalk and finding not the end of the rainbow, but the beginning of the rainbow,” arcing up like a staircase and leading to grand adventure, he said.

Although Rushdie’s father would eventually misplace his son’s earliest work, the experience of writing it would secure the nascent roots of his own tradition of telling stories woven with strong elements of the fantastic.

“My father got his secretary to type (the story) up and then said, ‘I’ll keep it, because if you keep it you’re going to lose it,’” Rushdie told a group of Emory students in Amy Aidman’s “Children and Media” class during his recent campus visit.

“So he kept it and he lost it,” Rushdie says, adding, “Never trust your parents.”

For students, the lesson is met with laughter — in fact, many are surprised to find that a literary luminary who made history for what he endured in the name of free speech can also be engaging, accessible and downright funny.

“You wouldn’t necessarily think of Salman Rushdie as being a ‘Children and Media’ person,” says Amy Aidman, interim chair of Emory’s Department of Film and Media Studies. “But the truth is that he’s written children’s books for his own sons.”

According to Aidman, the classroom experience was made richer by the fact that Rushdie is “amazingly knowledgeable about a vast number of topics and is willing to hypothesize and engage in a very interactive environment with students — to just see where the conversation goes.”

Following where the conversation leads

That intellectual dexterity — and a willingness to see where a classroom conversation takes him — has made Rushdie a popular speaker during his visits to Emory over the past decade.

And like following the proverbial Yellow Brick Road, students have been eager to see where the acclaimed author will lead them in the classroom.

From discussing the roots of his own writing through “The Wizard of Oz” to a somber discourse on the slums of Bombay, from exploring the intersection of disability rights and human rights, to joining students for an impromptu read-through of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Rushdie’s annual campus visits have contributed to a legacy of unique learning opportunities.

Rushdie’s relationship with Emory stretches to 2004, when the award-winning author was invited to present an address for the Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature series.

That visit would lead Rushdie to find a permanent home for his papers in Emory’s Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library (MARBL), a decision which he credits for helping him complete his autobiography, “Joseph Anton.”

As a University Distinguished Professor working out of the Department of English, Rushdie would embrace the role of visiting scholar, lecturer and colleague, engaging the campus community on a wide orbit of topics.

This year’s visit began with a Feb. 15 public lecture on "The Liberty Instinct" and ended Feb. 26.

As he concludes his professorial role at Emory, it is Rushdie’s congenial  and generous classroom presence that many will remember most fondly.

The joy of sharing ideas

“One of the most remarkable things about a conversation with Salman Rushdie, whether one-on-one or in a large group, is the sense of the personal,” says Coalition of the Liberal Arts (CoLA) Chair Robyn Fivush, associate vice provost of academic innovation and Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology.

Observing Rushdie speak with faculty and staff at a CoLA conversation storytelling event last week, Fivush says she saw in him the embodiment of a true liberal arts scholar, both erudite and informed with “an ability to speak across issues and disciplines in plain words that carry great meaning.”

“He is able to create an intellectual space that includes all of those in his presence, that has his full engagement,” she says. “His great joy in sharing ideas is palpable.”

For students, the CoLA event offered a rare glimpse at the man behind the book jacket. “I knew he was a great writer and about the political stir that ‘The Satanic Verses’ caused, but I didn’t know much about his life beyond that,” admits Hayley Silverstein, an Emory freshman.

She found Rushdie’s account of conflict with his father over choosing a college major both humanizing and encouraging.

“A lot of college students think about choosing a major as a way to make money, not choosing the major that you love,” Silverstein explains. “It was nice to hear that you can choose a major that you love and still be successful in life.”

During his annual two-week teaching visits to Emory, Rushdie earned a reputation as something of an intellectual chameleon.

One afternoon, he might be found discussing contemporary India with students in an advanced Hindi class or exploring writing craft with select faculty members.

Another day, he is chatting with undergraduates about the books that have been his greatest influences, or joining a roundtable discussion about human rights and human disabilities within a panel discussion that includes Eva Kittay, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Stony Brook University and Senior Fellow of the Stony Brook Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics, English professor Benjamin Reiss, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, a professor of English and Bioethics, who co-direct Emory’s Disability Studies Initiative.

“If there are such a thing as rights, they must derive from human nature — those things which are in our nature to do as human beings,” Rushdie explained at the Feb. 24 human rights forum.

“You start with human nature, proceed through an idea of natural justice to human rights. I think that is true whether one is a disabled person or not,” he says. “Start with the understanding of what we are as human beings.”

In each appearance, Rushdie glides into each new conversation as easily as slipping on a fresh pair of reading glasses.

A gift for student engagement

As a global citizen who has lived at the intersection of multiple cultures, Rushdie will be remembered for the accessible perspective he brought to a vast range of classes and disciplines, says Gordon Newby, Goodrich C. White Professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies.

“Students could talk with him not only about how he deals with those intersections, not only in terms of his literature, but in terms of his life,” Newby recalls.

“He always offered a great intellectual flexibility and is very open about himself,” he says. “And so it becomes a conversation, as opposed to a kind of traditional show-and-tell lecture — not everybody is able to pull that off, not all students are able to pull that off. But here, it worked.”

Looking back on Rushdie’s tenure at Emory, “we can be pleased that he was a professor with us and that our students were up to the challenge of working with an educator of his caliber,” Newby adds.

In English Professor Sheila Cavanagh’s Shakespeare class, Rushdie could be counted on to contribute beyond the role of a traditional guest lecturer, often joining students for informal read-throughs of the Bard’s famed plays.

This year was no different, much to the delight of Emory College students Clara Guyton and Madeleine Metz, who joined Rushdie in walking through a scene from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“I was definitely intimidated, pretty much prepared to come to class and just listen,” says Metz, a senior majoring in biology and classics.

“But once he said, ‘Let’s do this, I’ll be Hermia (a female role)’ I found myself volunteering to play Lysander (a male role),” she says. “I mean, how often do you get to do a scene with Salman Rushdie?”

Quite often, according to Cavanagh. In fact, Rushdie’s unwavering willingness to engage students, both intellectually and personally, is a quality she has long admired.

“Every year we focus on a different play together and he’s arrived prepared to speak on that text, but also ready to follow conversations wherever they may lead,” she says.

Last week, Rushdie also met with students in Holli Semetko’s upper-level social science course "India Today: Economics, Politics, Innovation & Sustainability," inviting questions on any topic, from his writing process to his views on current Indian politics.

As always, Rushdie “was witty, erudite and thoroughly engaging,” reflects Semetko, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Media and International Affairs — even indulging a good-natured request from students to pose for a photo with the entire class.

Reflecting on his classroom contributions, Semetko says students will recall Rushdie as an educator who was both “inspirational and intriguing.”

“To learn firsthand, for example, about the point in the writing process when the characters will and do take on lives of their own, a point when the author's dreams become the next day's reality on the page — students gain new insights on what it means to have found one's calling.”