September 4, 2014

A week after attending an evening with Salman Rushdie, the master of magical realism left an aspirational and unforgettable stain on my memory.

In Melbourne’s Dallas Brooks auditorium, the mood was a meld of adoration and intrigue, as literary lovers gathered to hear one of the world’s most verbose, yet distinct authors address freedom of expression – a theme prevalent in society, and a theme that personally runs deep with the author.

Salman Rushdie spoke passionately about this idea of freedom of expression, or lack of in society, and his first hand experience of the subject. He spoke about the power of the written word, the symbolic power of the nature of truth that all artists possess, and the roles these artists have played throughout history – and continue to play today.

A single white chair was illuminated on stage, symbolising all writers who are victims of suppressed expression and could not be there. Writers who have struggled against the power of man.

The Melbourne Writers Festival and Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas made an evening with Sir Salman Rushdie possible, introducing his session with “Freedom of expression can be a dangerous idea”.

Here are 8 dangerous ideas I took away from last Thursday in the words, and phrasing, of Salman Rushdie:

1. “There are two narratives of history. And those narratives are at war”

There have been countless instances in the past of the powerful few burying truths and rewriting history to suit an agenda. When artists have spoken against a false vision, they have often been condemned by the powerful.

2. Literature is a target.

And because these narratives are eternally at war, artists have inevitably defied this prescribed vision and in turn, made enemies. Rushdie explained that because of the political upset that some of his content caused, he writes the words “A Novel” underneath the title of all of his books, so the distinction between historical fact and fiction is clear.

3. “History is the science of trying to understand the world”

As a History Major, Salman Rushdie strengthened his writing by tying it to history, and in weaving history with fiction, Rushdie has contextualised and romanticised historical events for western audiences, as a means of trying to understand the world.

4. Writing is eternal.

Having personally outlived dictators who have threatened his existence, Rushdie talked about writers throughout history who have stood the test of time for what they wrote. The Roman poet Ovid, exiled from Rome for his stories, lived a poor life and begged to return, but was never granted his wish. Although his tale was a torturous one, the poems of Ovid outlived the Roman Empire.

5. “We are what we read”

Rushdie emphasised how vital reading was to being wary of untruths and approaching the world with a critical mind. The old saying goes, “knowledge is power”, and those in power don’t always convey the knowledge we seek.

6. Timing can change everything.

Salman Rushdie has experienced misfortune with book release dates that have changed his life and his words. One in particular, was a book about New York life that was released on September 11, 2001. At a book reading, he was told it evoked nostalgia of the times before the attack, which had not been his intent. The book has since been referred to as September 10 – life, the day before September 11

7. “Writers are a collective memory”

People have been telling stores for centuries, and the power of language is large. Each story is another contribution to the collective memory that stores the exploration of ideas and highlights our history.

8. Open the universe a little.

Rushdie ended with a message to all artists, expressing that open-mindedness, freedom of expression and awareness of the truth is the sibling of peace, and key to developing thought and progress.

And as creative thinkers, we shouldn’t be afraid to push the boundaries set by society.

It was this final thought that reminded me again of the single white chair, sitting serenely on stage, representing those who tried to open the universe just a little. People with power have always tried to restrict people. Maybe if we try and open the universe a little, the possibilities, the knowledge, the acquisition of something new, will truly amaze us.