Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Rushdie @ Google

Last week I was in New York for just a few hours, accompanying some family members who had a chore at the Canadian Consulate. My three hour visit to the city happened to coincide with Salman Rushdie's reading at the New York corporate office of Google, on 8th Ave, so I left my family members to fend for themselves for an hour, and hopped on the A/C/E. I'm related to someone who works in the office, so even though I am a bearded English professor, I was able to enter the Googleplex for lunch (at their legendary cafeteria), and see the reading at this unusual venue.

First of all, the turnout was striking, considering that this is an office comprised mainly of software engineers and sales/marketing people working for an internet search/advertising giant. The auditorium within the office was full, with about 200 people -- about what you might expect to see at a college or university with an English department. Quite a number of people had copies of Rushdie's new novel with them. In short, Googlers read.

Second, the reading was being teleconferenced live with three other Google offices, which you could see on a screen projected behind Rushdie's head. (By contrast, when we have readings at Lehigh, we have enough trouble just getting the microphones to work...)

Third, in keeping with Google's "do your thing" office environment, there was a bright red exercise ball just hanging out on the floor of the auditorium, about 10 feet from the podium. It was unclear to me whether it was there as a seating option, or simply as decoration (the bright red goes well with the Google office's bright, "primary colors" palette).

Rushdie himself tailored his comments to his environment quite nicely, reinforcing my impression of Rushdie as a demi-God of public speaking engagements.

First and foremost, Rushdie acknowledged the role that search engines and the internet in general have come to play for him as he researches and writes his books. The new book, The Enchantress of Florence, is a historical novel set in the Early Modern period (the time of Akbar the Great in India). The idea of the book is to link the cultural and historical milieu of Akbar's India to Europe in the Renaissance, using an abducted Indian princess who ends up in Florence.

While earlier, the internet "had a lot of breadth, but not a lot of depth," Rushdie said, now there are major resources available for serious scholars, who earlier might have had to travel to several research libraries to gain access to rare historical documents.

Rushdie did a fair amount of research online for the project, and for the first time, he decided he needed to include a bibliography of web sites along with the extensive bibliography of books he consulted while writing the new novel.

Some of the websites he mentioned are: Persian Literature in Translation (where you can find the Akbar-Nama, Akbar's Regulations, and Muntakhab ut-tawarikh), Gardens of the Mughal Empire, and Richard Von Garbe's Akbar, Emperor of India.

Rushdie also talked a bit about the way in which the growing availability of information about world history in the internet might transform how we think about history. Again he was in some sense talking to the employees at Google: "though you are all people interested in the future," the kind of work being done by companies like Google has a significant potential to transform contemporary understandings of the past.

An audience member asked the question, along the lines of, "what could we at Google do to make your job easier?" and in response Rushdie mentioned his reservations about the digitization of in-copyright literary works that has been part of the Books.Google.com project. He wasn't opposed to digitizing current books in principle, but argued that it has to be done in a way so as to make sure that authors are fairly compensated for their works. (Otherwise, he stated, rather direly, "it could destroy the publishing industry.") In my experience using Books.Google.com, the "snippets" view seems to work quite well to limit access to in-copyright texts, so perhaps Rushdie was being overly alarmist here.

As for the novel itself, Rushdie managed to convey a lot about what he's up to in The Enchantress of Florence without actually reading an excerpt. The anecdotes about "Angelica" in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, Akbar's sacrificed sister, and the gay culture of Renaissance Florence, all piqued my curiosity, anyway.

At the end of the reading, I dutifully took my copy of The Enchantress of Florence up to the author for signing, and was pleased that, for once, I wouldn't have to spell out my name.

(As for my thoughts about the new book -- wait just a bit. I'm about 60 pages into the novel, and enjoying what I'm reading thus far. The story he published in the New Yorker a few weeks ago, The Shelter of the World, is part of the new book, so if you liked that you might enjoy the new novel as a whole.)

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Monday, June 18, 2007

Salman Rushdie, from Outsider to "Knight Bachelor"

Salman Rushdie got knighted over the weekend: he's now Sir Ahmed Salman Rushdie.

Predictably, government officials in Pakistan and Iran have come out against honouring the "blaspheming" "apostate" Rushdie. It's a brand of foaming at the mouth that we're all too familiar with at this point; in a sense, the hostile fundamentalist reaction validates the strong secularist stance that Rushdie has taken since his reemergence from Fatwa-induced semi-seclusion in 1998. (If these people are burning your effigy, you must be doing something right.)

But actually, there's another issue I wanted to mention that isn't getting talked about much in the coverage of Rushdie's knighthood, which is the fact that Rushdie wasn't always a "safe" figure for British government officials. In the early 1980s in particular, and throughout the Margaret Thatcher era, Rushdie was known mainly as a critic of the British establishment, not a member. The main issue for Rushdie then was British racism, and he did not mince words in condemning it as well as the people who tolerated it.

This morning I was briefly looking over some of Rushdie's essays from the 1980s. Some of the strongest work excoriated the policies of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and indicted the pervasiveness of "institutionalized racism" in British society. Two essays in particular stand out, "The New Empire Within Britain," and "Home Front." Both are published in Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991. (Another great essay from that collection is "Outside the Whale" -- required reading, though on a slightly different topic. And see this NYT review of the collection as a whole from 1991.)

Here is a long quote from "The New Empire Within Britain" (1982):

[L]et me quote from Margaret Thatcher's speech at Cheltneham on the third of July, her famous victory address: 'We have learned something about ourselves, a lesson we desperately need to learn. When we started out, there were the waverers and the fainthears . . . The people who thought we could no longer do the great things which we once did . . . that we could never again be what we were. Ther were those who would not admit it . . . but--in their heart of hearts--they too had their secret fears that it was true: that Britain was no longer the nation that had built an Empire and ruled a quarter of the world. Well, they were wrong.'

There are several interesting aspects to this speech. Remember that it was made by a triumphant Prime Minister at the peak of her popuolarity; a Prime Minister who could claim with complete credibility to be speaking for an overwhelming majority of the elctorate, and who, as even her detractors must admit, has a considerable gift for assessing the national mood. Now if such a leader at such a time felt able to invoke the spirit of imperialism, it was because she knew how central that spirit is to the self-image of white Britons of all classes. I say white Britons because it's clear that Mrs Thatcher wasn't addressing the two million or so blacks, who don't feel quite like that about the Empire. So even her use of the word 'we' was an act of racial exclusion, like her other well-known speech about the fear of being 'swamped' by immigrants. With such leaders, it's not surprising that the British are slow to learn the real lessons of their past.

Let me repeat what I said at the beginning: Britain isn't Nazi Germany. The British Empire isn't the Third Reich. But in Germany, after the fall of Hitler, heroic attempts were made by many people to purify German though and the German language of the pollution of Nazism. Such acts of cleansing are occasionally necessary in every society. But British thought, British society, has never been cleansed of the filth of imperialism. It's still there, breeding lice and vermin, waiting for unscrupulous people to exploit it for their own ends. (Read the whole thing)

That was Rushdie in 1982: "British society has never been cleansed of the filth of imperialism." And it's by no means the only strong statement he makes about racism and imperialism in "The New Empire Within Britain"; he also goes after the legal system, the police, and the clearly racist quotas the British had enacted in the immigration policy to reduce the number of black and brown immigrants coming to Britain from former colonies.

If we compare Rushdie in 1982 to Rushdie today, it's clear that the man has changed quite a bit -- but it also has to be acknowledged that British society has itself been transformed, perhaps even more radically. Organizations like the National Front are nowhere near as influential as they were in the early 1980s, and a decade of the Labour Party and Tony Blair have changed the political picture for good. But more than anything, what seems different is the way racialized difference (Blacks and Asians vs. the white majority) has been displaced by the religious difference as the most contentious issue of the day. One you move the debate from race to religion, the parameters for who gets seen as an "outsider" and who becomes an "insider" look quite different.

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Magic Realism on TV: "Heroes" vs. "Midnight's Children"

Am I the first person to think of shows like Lost and Heroes as the television equivalent of "magic realism" in the novel? These shows have elements of science fiction and fantasy, but remain grounded in realistic narration and human relationships. As a result, they can achieve mainstream respectability and broad popularity, while true Sci-Fi remains somewhat of a smaller, niche market.

This is going to sound blasphemous, but Heroes in particular actually reminds me a little of Midnight's Children in some ways. Remember this passage from Rushdie's novel:

From Kerala, a boy who had the ability of stepping into mirrors and re-emerging through any surface in the land--through lakes, and (with greater difficulty), the polished bodies of automobiles . . . and a Goanese girl with the gift of multiplying fish . . . and children with powers of transformation: a werewolf from the Nilgiri hills, and from the great watershed of the Vindhvas, a boy who could increase or reduce his size at will, and had already (mischievously) been the cause of wild panic and rumors of the return of Giants . . . from Kashmir, there was a blue-eyed child of whose sex I was never certain, since by immersing herself in water he (or she) could alter it as she (or he) pleased. Some of us called this child Narada, others Markandaya, depending on which old fairy story of sexual change we had heard . . . near Jalna in the heart of the parched Deccan I found a water-divining youth, and at Budge-Budge outside of Calcutta a sharp-tongued girl whose words already had the power of inflicting physical wounds, so that after a few adults had found themselves bleeding freely as a result from some barb flung casually from her lips, they decided to lock her up in a bamboo cage and float her off down the Ganges to the Sunderbans jungles (which are the rightful home of monsters and phantasms); but nobody dared approach her, and she moved through the town surrounded by a vacuum of fear; nobody had the courage to deny her food. There was a boy who could eat metal and a girl whose fingers were so green that she could grow prize aubergines in the Thar desert; and more and more...

Ah, Rushdie: the old passages don't disappoint. Of course, the different magical powers don't map precisely to the characters in Heroes, but there are certain overlaps:

Claire Bennet (Hayden Panettiere), Mr. Bennet's adopted daughter, who lives in Odessa, Texas, and has a healing factor.

Simone Deveaux (Tawny Cypress), an art dealer and gallery owner whose skepticism and complicated romantic life are tested. She was killed by Isaac, who was trying to kill Peter and hit the wrong target.

D.L. Hawkins (Leonard Roberts), Once an escaped criminal, he has the power to alter his physical tangibility and phase through solid objects, both inanimate and organic.

Isaac Mendez (Santiago Cabrera), An artist living in New York who can paint future events during precognitive trances. He also writes and draws a comic book called 9th Wonders! which has also been shown to depict the future.

Hiro Nakamura (Masi Oka), A programmer[7] from Tokyo with the ability to manipulate the space-time continuum.

Matt Parkman (Greg Grunberg), A Los Angeles police officer with the ability to hear other people's thoughts.

Nathan Petrelli (Adrian Pasdar), a New York Congressional candidate with the ability of self-propelled flight. He is Claire Bennet's biological father.

Peter Petrelli (Milo Ventimiglia), A former hospice nurse and Nathan's younger brother. He is an empath with the ability to absorb the powers of others he has been near and can recall any ability he has used in the past by focusing on his feelings for those from whom the abilities originate. He has shown that he is capable of manifesting multiple abilities simultaneously.

Micah Sanders (Noah Gray-Cabey), D.L. and Niki's son and a child prodigy, Micah is a technopath, allowing him control of electrical signals, which gives him control of machines and electronic devices.

Niki Sanders (Ali Larter), The wife of D.L. and mother of Micah. A former internet stripper from Las Vegas who exhibits superhuman strength when her alternate personality, Jessica, surfaces.

Mohinder Suresh (Sendhil Ramamurthy), A genetics professor from India who travels to New York to investigate the death of his father, Chandra. Through his investigations, he comes into contact with people his father listed as possessing superhuman abilities. link

Mohinder Suresh, oddly enough, resembles Saleem Sinai, in that he is the person who ties it all together. And Cihlar, as the villain, resembles Rushdie's Siva. Perhaps Clair Bennett as Parvati-the-Witch? Niki Sanders as a less villainous "Widow"?

I'm not saying the quality of the show could be compared, even remotely, to Rushdie's novel. It's more the idea of a large group of people who have supernatural gifts whose broader function isn't entirely clear. In Rushdie's novel, it becomes clear that the disintegration of the M.C.C. is a metaphor for the challenges to Indian nationalism -- and Saleem Sinai's special humiliation might be the humiliation of the first generation of India's ruling elite. But what social or political message is Heroes trying to convey? It hasn't become clear yet.

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