Salman Rushdie is sometimes asked why, in this age of lies, he chooses to write fiction, adding more untruths to this disjointed world. Rushdie and poet Srikanth Reddy’s Chicago Humanities Festival conversation is almost a polemic in response, a defense not only of fiction and of the arts in general but of human impulse to narrative—and the incredible, truth-telling power of art in a mendacious world.
Reddy notes that Rushdie’s just-published Languages of Truth: Essays 2003–2020 sometimes reads like a polemic, a defense of imagination, of story and the plural languages of truth. We are, in Rushdie’s words, “these creatures who are narrative,” ourselves “story-telling animals,” and we are as drawn to the Scheherazades of the world as the man to whom Scheherazade told her stories. Netflix, Rushdie argues, is one of the great Scheherazades of our age—and yes, he spent just as much time watching it as we all did during this time of COVID.
Indeed, Netflix—and cinema more broadly—figure prominently in Rushdie and Reddy’s conversation, and in Languages of Truth. In the beginning of the COVID pandemic, as Rushdie found himself unable to focus on reading and struggling to write (he started two different works of fiction and quickly discarded them because, he assures the listener, they were very bad), he turned back to cinema. He rewatched old art house favorites—some held up, some (like the ones with blackface scenes) didn’t—and then turned to newer material. (He really likes WandaVision!)
Perhaps all the movies helped feed into Rushdie’s first full-fledged creative project of the pandemic era: he wrote a play, a new Greek tragedy in verse about Helen of Troy. As he tells Reddy, we all know Helen of Troy’s name. We know she had the worst in-laws of all time—even worse than the Windsors, Rushdie says. And, of course, we know that when she fled, leaving all that behind, there was that whole war fought over her. But we don’t know Helen herself. That itself—a famous name, and nothing else—fascinates Rushdie, continuing on his tradition of seeking out and telling untold stories.
Rushdie notes that as someone not originally from the so-called “First World,” he has long been drawn to the question of who has the power to tell stories, whose stories matter, and how and by whom they are told. There are stories that, in his words, “fall through the cracks,” and throughout his work—from Midnight’s Children to The Enchantress of Florence and now to Helen of Troy and Languages of Truth—he hopes to tell stories that have gone untold. He was, he tells Reddy, gifted a vast storehouse of stories by being born and raised in India. These stories are often unknown in the West, or known in bowdlerized children’s versions, yet another marker of the ways in which power and story—our human drive toward narration—intersect. (He notes that he first heard different versions of those stories, too: his parents told them as bedtime stories, taming them down from the originals.)
The power of those stories, which Rushdie heard first from his parents and then found in their original (and philosophical) language, runs throughout the conversation. People who accuse fiction of being so many lies do not, Rushdie implies, understand story at all. Through story—and through cinema, music, art, and more—we as humanity seek and move toward the truth. The arts are all different languages of truth, some of which, like music, require no words at all. Thus, Rushdie says, though fiction and lies may be superficially similar, they are opposite, for fiction tells the truth. Rushdie points to collaborative works such as the Hamzanama canvases commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Akbar and created by multiple artists working together as examples of the ways in which art can become a composite representation of the people, reaching out toward the truth.
Sometimes, to truly see the world as it is, we need to be willing to look past the borders of what we might know as reality. Rushdie reminds us that the world is more than we can perceive just by walking out our door, and while carpets might not fly (which most of us know already), flying carpets can still help lead us to the truth of our world. Fantasy, and artistic endeavors which step away from our perceived reality, are not escapes. Instead, Rushdie argues, they are a more beautiful way of expressing the truth. Kafka’s Metamorphosis is about a man turning into a bug, sure—but it’s also about the ways in which humans respond to the strange when it intrudes on their lives.
From tales of the collaborative canvases of the Hamzanama to contemporary artists, from WandaVision and Loki to Helen of Troy and flying carpets, from despots to untold stories, Rushdie and Reddy’s conversation flows through continents and worlds. It’s a vibrant defense of the ways in which art in all its languages helps draw us ever closer to the truth, and a reminder to look past what we perceive as reality to see the world as it is.
It’s worth noting that YouTube’s captioning, usually decent, fell apart at many of the names and words used throughout the conversation, though both Rushdie and Reddy spoke clearly. (Hamzanama wasn’t indecipherable in the least, but that’s what the captioning said.) I would like to believe that, in the future, Google’s algorithms will get better at understanding names outside the Western tradition. YouTube’s captioning makes things a lot more accessible, after all, and the Western World is but a small fraction of the world as a whole.