Salman Rushdie has never really been able to escape politics. Midnight’s Children, the 1981 novel that earned him the Man Booker Prize, tackled partition. The Satanic Verses, the work that he is perhaps best known for, sparked a fatwa and drove him into hiding for a decade. The Golden House, Rushdie’s 13th novel, which is on shelves this month, is set in a political time, and reflects the author’s correct prediction of the outcome of the 2016 American election.
The book tells the story of Nero Golden, an absurdly wealthy man who has transplanted his three adult sons from India to Greenwich Village to escape a shady past that their nosy young neighbour René (the book’s narrator) tries to uncover. The backdrop is the Obama years, ending with the election of “the Joker” (as Trump is referred to in the book), and in the foreground is a family navigating struggles that include the eldest son’s agoraphobia and the youngest questioning his gender identity.
Rushdie spoke with Chatelaine over the phone from New York about what’s fracturing the political left in America, what it’s like living under Trump and what he reaches for on his bookshelf when looking for inspiration.
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Identity politics — movements like Black Lives Matters for instance — have come under fire as divisive not only by the right but also by liberals. Columbia professor Mark Lilla argued in the New York Times that identity politics was why Hillary Clinton lost, that “a kind of moral panic about racial, gender, and sexual identity… has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force.” You tackle identity politics in the book through looking at gender identity in particular. How do you think identity politics have shaped our current political discourse?
There are three countries in my life that I’ve thought a lot of about, and in each of them identity politics has become very important, and in each of them it’s defined completely differently.
In India, identity politics has basically become a way of talking about religion and sectarian politics, so that identity there is described as Hindu or Muslim or whatever it might be.
In England, what Brexit revealed was that there was a crisis in British identity in which many people were nostalgically looking backwards to some imagined golden age of British identity which excluded Europe. So that became a nationalist issue there.
And here in New York City in the last decade, when people talk about identity, they’re most often talking about the complexities of gender identity. So I wanted to somehow take on the whole thing, and of course the area where I had to do the most learning was the area of gender identity because it’s become so complex and I wanted to do it justice.
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You make a sharp observation about the consequences of using the “wrong” word, or taking the “wrong” position through one of the characters in the book, Riya, when she decides to leave her job at the Museum of Identity. “My field. It should be a soft place for understanding,” she says.”Instead it’s a war zone.”
One of the things you encounter is very vehement arguments between people who should essentially be on the same side. Very delicate nuances become the reason for very powerful disagreements. I thought that was worth thinking about and writing about.
Do you think it has fractured American politics?
Well, obviously this particular week [following the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia] we are all thinking about racial politics. I do think that the last six months have enormously muddied the water. How you describe people and how you say what’s happening is being deliberately muddied, right down to the appalling press conference [on Aug. 15] in which it [became] clear the President of United States is unable to condemn neo-Nazi fascism without at the same time making false equivalencies about the behaviour on the left. And this kind of dog-whistle politics has going on for the last six months and has greatly energized the right.
You’ve been a staunch supporter of free speech. I’m curious about what you think the limits of free speech are, especially in relation to the rally in Charlottesville and white nationalist propaganda like Breitbart and the Daily Stormer.
This wasn’t a free speech issue.
But people make it a free speech issue.
This was a physical violent assault in which at least one person was murdered and others were placed in critical condition. This was a murderous assault. I don’t think the First Amendment has to say anything about that. I’m kind of interested in the fact that the people who marched were so confident. Twenty years ago they were wearing hoods. The fact that they were willing to march showing their faces — on the one hand, [this is] is an indication of the confidence they’ve been given in the current political climate. On the other, it of course makes them vulnerable [with the] exposure of their names and their jobs that is now going on. I think that’s useful, that they’re being named and shamed. Let them be judged as they try to impose their hateful ideology on the world. Let them learn the consequences of that.
You’ve talked about the last six months since Trump took office. How has that personally affected you?
It just makes every day quite unpleasant. The problem with the last six months is that the quantity of news has increased exponentially — every day there’s some new low being plumbed.
One of the things I feel strange about this novel is that obviously one of the things I did is to guess right, to see it coming. I would have much rather have guessed wrong.
Who do you read when you need a pick-me-up or some inspiration?
I read a lot of poetry. I have quite a large shelf of poetry books and most days I just pick up something and open it and read three poems. I do think for anyone who loves language the depth of attention that great poetry pays to language is incredibly exhilarating and nourishing.