Words by ACTWC Blogger in Residence, Camilla Patini.
Recently, I have seen a few things which have tickled my literary fancy. One of these being Salman Rushdie, speaking at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney earlier this month. Rushdie spoke eloquently on the freedom to write and the novel as a dangerous medium.
I must say that it was thrilling to see the man in the flesh. As far as contemporary literary figures go, he is one of my idols. I probably spent most of my time at the Festival fawning over him from a distance while inanely pointing him out to my friend Tanya (‘Look, it’s Salman Rushdie!’, as if she couldn’t see him). However, amidst my fangirling, I did manage to extract some shiny nuggets of truth.
Rushdie started by asking why it is that the novel has long been thought of as dangerous? Why is it that the curious, small-scale act of writing is often seen as dangerous by states? He offered up the idea that the novel is dangerous because, really, nobody owns it. Anyone can take it and adapt it to their own purpose. It doesn’t speak on behalf of anyone; it is, as Rushdie said, a single voice ‘saying what it damn well pleases’.
His second point was also brilliant. And it’s not just because it made me feel more confident about answering the dreaded question: ‘What are you going to do with a degree in English Literature? What’s the point of it?’ It’s because it addresses something far more important and something which we often fail to recognise, which is that we are naturally hardwired for stories. The desire to tell our lives through fiction is, as Rushdie says, fundamental to human nature. It is thus of the utmost importance that we defend our right to tell stories as we choose.
Rushdie also pointed out that novels are important because they can represent the unofficial memories of their society in the face of official attempts to falsify it. He said that, in an age in which reality is highly contested, where writers don’t necessarily share the same world as readers, the act of memory and of writing is a necessary act of rebellion. Writers are noble when they attempt to speak in a language of peace and reconciliation during times which seem to have no room for either of these things.
Another reason that the novel is dangerous, he said, is because it insists that human nature is not narrow but broad. We are not one thing but many things. In an age in which we are encouraged to call ourselves by one single thing, the novel knows that we are not like that.
The significance of this final point didn’t hit me until quite recently. Indeed, if we have broad identities then surely it is this breadth of experience that allows us to find points of identification with other people. This is such a seemingly simple idea but it’s deliciously and seductively, dangerous. It is enough to anger all the bigots and fundamentalists of the world because it implies that we have more in common than we do not.
The festival was a blast and an overall inspiring affair. My suspicion of Rushdie’s traditional liberal humanist assumptions about the saving power of art aside, I loved his speech. It was moving and entertaining. If I needed any further reason to justify spending countless hours poring over books in the ANU Chifley Library, or the hours spent slaving away at writing my own stories with little to no prospect of financial reward in sight, then I wouldn’t need to go much further than this.
Camilla Patini is an undergraduate student at the Australian National University where she studies History and English Literature. She writes book reviews and until recently, a column on love and relationships for Lip Magazine . Her writing has also appeared in Woroni and rippublishing.