Hundreds Gathered To Wine, Dine and Mingle
By Grant MacMurray
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) kicked off the 10th year of its popular, "Eat, Drink & Be Literary" lecture series on Wednesday night at the BAMcafé with acclaimed and controversial author, Salman Rushdie. The program, which stretches until May 28, is organized in partnership with the National Book Awards and will feature eight accomplished novelists; next appearing, on Feb. 12, is Alice McDermott. Around 250 patrons gathered to enjoy a buffet dinner and wine, after which Rushdie took the stage. "Eat, Drink" is sponsored by Bloomberg and Pine Ridge Vineyards.
After dinner, Rushdie read from his works “The Moor's Last Sigh” (1995) and "The Ground Beneath her Feet” (1999). “So this is Brooklyn,” he began, drawing applause. The seldom-bashful Rushdie then launched into a love scene from “The Moor’s Last Sigh,” in which the union of the narrator’s parents takes place atop a sack of pepper in a warehouse in India. “It is easy to write badly about sex,” he told the audience. “The antidote is humor — just remember that under the humor there is feeling.”
Currently working on his 9th novel, Rushdie doesn’t stray too far from his familiar themes of the marginalization and estrangement he has experienced both as an exile from his native India and as a non-believer. “It’s nice to read from old works,” he said, his Cambridge-educated speaking voice flowing seamlessly from addressing the audience to reading.
“The Moor’s Last Sigh” was influenced by what the author deems the rise of Hindu nationalism. “Only Hindu experiences of India were authentic,” he said. “This annoyed me. I felt authentic.” Of the book’s narrator, the unlikely offspring of an Indian Jewish father and Christian mother, Rushdie explained, “I wanted to make him a minority of one person.”
Though his works have flourished in exile, Rushdie said on Wednesday that he did not want to write “an outsider novel about India.” Still, he most closely approaches awe when addressing the subject of his native land. “Can this really be India?” he asked, quoting from his work.
At the end of the reading, moderator Deborah Treisman, fiction editor at The New Yorker, quickly tackled another of Rushdie’s major themes. “Something you write about over and over again that is difficult is religion.”
“It would be difficult to leave it out,” replied Rushdie, who, after once claiming to have rediscovered his Muslim faith, has returned to steadfast atheism. The author, who famously had a fatwa declared against him for provocative passages from his 1984 book “The Satanic Verses,” has since admitted that his re-conversion was merely an attempt to try and lessen the danger to himself and family. He explained that he now has “less religion than you can fit in a chewed-off fingernail. My mother used to write to me and say she prayed for me; I asked her would she stop, please?”
Lesser known than his eight novels are the two children’s books that Rushdie has authored. On Wednesday, he drew laughs recounting the criticism he received, quoting his then-8-year-old son, who told him, “Some people might find it boring. It needs more jump.”
When asked whether writing children’s books was less challenging, Rushdie pointed to the works Hans Christian Andersen, and quoted E.B. White, who said, “You don’t write down to children; you write up to them.”
After the discussion, Rushdie signed autographs and discussed Philip Roth’s works with a member of the Brooklyn College Seniors’ Book Club. When asked about the perils of success on the creative process, Rushdie explained that the job itself is an excellent counter-balance. “It’s too difficult while you’re engaged in writing to entertain worldly concerns. I am fortunate,” he said, “to have people around me who tell me the truth.”