The song goes on, despite the world at its worst
In 2018, I attended one of his appearances at the Writers Institute of New York State, a year-round series of events promoting literacy and the writer’s craft, primarily from the campus of the State University of New York at Albany. Years ago, Rushdie was scheduled in 1989 to speak at the Institute, but the threats of violence against him paused that event from happening until April 2018.
When he was unable to attend in 1989, the Writers Institute went ahead with defending Rushdie and his work along with a public reading of his writing. The then director of the Writers Institute Tom Smith said, “Fiction is what we’ve done at the Writers Institute for the past five years and that’s what we will continue to do.”[i]
Flash forward to 2018. Rushdie was greeted with a standing ovation, then he read from his latest work and then spoke of commitments to literature and freedom. Afterwards, with minimal security, Rushdie greeted well-wishers and signed his books.
Likewise, the Chautauqua Institution (a tranquil place that reminds this American Baptist writer of the Green Lake Conference Center while everybody binges the PBS app or NPR podcasts) offered Rushdie the opportunity to share again with the public with the same good intention and support of literature and the freedom of thought and speech. He was to be interviewed by R. Henry Reese, co-founder of the City of Asylum program in Pittsburgh, PA, an organization helping resettle exiled writers in the United States with support, housing, and other assistance. Reese shared in an interview after the attack that Rushdie had agreed just before going on stage to travel around the United States to promote the City of Asylum model to expand to more cities. Rushdie was said to be “in effervescent spirits” and Reese shared, Rushdie “was very upbeat in the green room, the way he is.”
Reese observed, “Here was Rushdie who had lived this already, who was speaking so courageously for many years, who was about to talk about his experiences and the value of protecting writers, and now we have this extraordinary materialization happening right on stage. It was so resonant of why we need to defend precisely those values.”
Shortly after Rushdie’s emergency care and surgery, his literary agent shared that the author was able to speak a few words and with a touch of humor, despite grave injuries that will require long recovery.
Later that weekend, I picked up a recent issue of Harper’s Magazine, which included a reflection from Rushdie given at the United Nations in May 2022. He appeared alongside many other writers as part of the PEN America Emergency World Voices Congress of Writers. PEN is a century-old organization that identifies its work as standing “at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect free expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.”
In his contribution, Rushdie observed the current tumult in Ukraine and Russia as well as some domestic challenges he sees playing out in the United States, particularly as competing narratives or frequent manipulation of truth happen on an international scale. Rushdie said,
“This is the ugly dailiness of the world. How should we respond? It has been said, I have said it myself, that the powerful may own the present but writers own the future, for it is through our work—or the best of it, at least, the work that endures—that the present misdeeds of the powerful will be judged. But how can we think of the future when the present screams for our attention, and if we turn away from posterity and pay attention to this dreadful moment, what can we usefully or effectively do? A poem cannot stop a bullet. A novel cannot defuse a bomb. Not all satirists are heroes.
But we are not helpless. Even after Orpheus was torn to pieces, his severed head, floating down the river Hebrus, went on singing, reminding us that song is stronger than death. We can sing the truth and name the liars. We can stand in solidarity with our fellows on the front lines and magnify their voices by adding our own.”[ii]
When I read Rushdie, yes, there are times when I feel discomforted by his perspectives, particularly on religion. Yet as a lifelong Baptist and American citizen, I believe in the right to dissent and to speak one’s mind. I see the work of PEN America and the City of Asylum movement as profoundly good examples of convictions about freedom come to life, values Rushdie symbolizes. The attack on Rushdie is a sobering reminder of the support such organizations need financially as well as politically.
I continue to pray for Rushdie’s recovery and return to whatever public life he can in the future. His song will go on long after his death, which I hope will be by natural causes long into the future.
And I will appreciate when a church service selects a certain old hymn and its profound question even further: “How can I keep from singing?” For Christians, the hymn speaks of the long haul that our faith provides and how it enables us not to lose hope. Such belief nurtures empathy for “the other” as well, seeing our common humanity as part of a greater good that we know is hard won, yet well worth defending.
Life has its challenges, and humanity (and its civic and religious lives) have our issues with exclusion, violence, and intolerance, yet I agree that the song of the human spirit in its fullness cannot be quashed or quelled. As a Christian, I believe the Spirit of God is in midst of all persons, and to attempt to stop the right of any one person’s spirit from its expression is not remotely divine.
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.
[i] A retrospective of the cancelled 1989 event and the Writers Institute response:
[ii] Harper’s Magazine, Readings: Pen Vs. Sword, Vol. 345, No. 2067 (August 2022), pp. 13-14.