One writer’s personal report from the conversation that followed Salman Rushdie’s reading at the Inprint Margarett Root Brown Series on November 9, 2015
“If you look at the soles of your feet,” he said, “there are no roots.” With those words, Salman Rushdie began to resuscitate the writer that has been asphyxiating inside me of late. We writers, we doubt our right to write. Who am I to tell this story? For a myriad of feeble reasons, we don’t permit ourselves to give voice to the worlds gestating inside us.
I often feel handicapped by the wanderer I have been since birth. Do I have deep enough roots to tell this or that story? Am I Pakistani? Are my formative years in Dubai the ones that define me? Is my identity more tied to my American citizenship? Rushdie showed me a possible path out of these conundrums. He said about history: "you can never write it until you can hear the people speak." It occurs to me that this applies to writing fiction in almost any context. If I can really hear the voices I am writing, then yes, I should trust that I know these characters, their days and their nights, their public lives and their private moments. (This also becomes a litmus test for the reverse case—if I can’t hear my character, am I forcing something inauthentic on my story?)
Authenticity—another queer hurdle to consider for those of us who write in the spaces of weird fiction, fabulism, magic realism and their sister forms. As Rushdie talked of jinn and men floating just so off the ground, reading from his new novel “Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights,” the truths that made us laugh or break out in goosebumps were indisputably, humanly authentic. I write weird because the truths I sense in my world cannot be tied down to a neat perspective, an orderly lifestyle of a recognizable person. The more I am able to know others, the less I am able to neatly pigeonhole humanity. The truest stories for me are those that have more questions than answers, and non-realist writing enables me to create worlds that reflect this reality. But I worry about writing non-realist. Yes, I wonder whether it is publishable, too niche, too unapproachable. But Rushdie, the king-and-jester-in-one of non-realist fiction, once more helped me regain my composure (obsolete pun intended). “When consensus breaks down,” he earnestly proclaimed, “realist fiction is on shaky ground.”
I was 15 when Rushdie first became famous (or infamous, depending on the part of the world you were in then). “Satanic Verses” was banned within a 1000-mile radius of me. So of course I reacted as any independent-minded 15-year old would—I promptly developed a crush on his chutzpah and was deeply envious that he pulled this off. I didn’t know then that I would write fiction one day, especially fiction in the same realm as Rushdie. But with each story that comes out of me, I wonder whether someone somewhere is going to stand up and say that I am defiling something that they have a right to protect. The final permission Rushdie gave me that night was this: “Who has power over sacred stories and how we tell them - I say everybody does!”
Maya Kanwal is a writer, lizard-lover and absconded mathematician. Her fiction appears or is forthcoming in journals including Quarterly West, Kalyani and Bahamut Journal. Her essays appear in The Nervous Breakdown and in The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review 2105 Anthology. By day, Kanwal is the Managing Director of Next Iteration Theater Company. By night, she takes her strange for a walk. Find her on twitter @mayakanwal