Friday

Jun. 19, 2009

Questions

by Stephen Dunn

If on a summer afternoon a man should find himself
in love with only one woman
in a sea of women, all the others mere half-naked
swimmers and floaters, and if that one woman
therefore is clad in radiance
while the mere others are burdened by their bikinis,
then what does he do with a world
suddenly so small, the once unbiased sun
shining solely on her? And if that afternoon
turns dark, fat clouds like critics dampening
the already wet sea, does the man run—
he normally would—for cover, or does he dive
deeper in, get so wet he is beyond wetness
in all underworld utterly hers? And when
he comes up for air, as he must,
when he dries off and dresses up, as he must,
how will the pedestrian streets feel?
What will the street lamps illuminate? How exactly
will he hold her so that everyone can see
she doesn't belong to him, and he won't let go?

"Questions" by Stephen Dunn, from Local Visitations. © W.W. Norton & company, 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of novelist Salman Rushdie, (books by this author) born in Bombay (now Mumbai), India (1947). He was born just two months before India gained independence from Great Britain. The Indian subcontinent got divided up into two countries: India, which was mostly Hindu, and Pakistan, which was mostly Muslim. Rushdie's family was Muslim.

His family loved literature and oral storytelling. His grandfather was an esteemed poet who wrote in Urdu, the language of Pakistan. His father had studied world literature at Cambridge in England, and his mother, Rushdie says, was "the keeper of the family stories. She has a genius for family trees; forests of family trees grow in her head, and nobody else can possibly understand their complexity."

He went to English-style schools in Bombay, and then at the age of 14 his parents sent him to England to an elite boarding school. Rushdie was miserable there: His classmates made fun of his Indian accent, and he was no good at sports and so an outcast in that realm, too. When he was away at high school, his parents left India and moved to Pakistan, along with millions of other Muslims. Rushdie came home to his parents on school holidays. But he didn't feel at home in Islamic Pakistan, and he hated school in England and told his parents he refused to return there for college at Cambridge. He wished he could return to his native Bombay, but India and Pakistan were now at war, and his parents viewed India as the enemy. He got in a big fight with his parents, and they shooed him onto a plane back to England for college.

He found that he actually really liked Cambridge, that it was not at all like his English high school, and that he shared similar interests with a lot of students. He majored in history and joined the Footlights drama club. After graduating, he tried for a year to pursue a career in theater, but decided he couldn't make it as an actor and he got a job as a copywriter at an ad agency. He began writing fiction.

He's never published the first novel he wrote, and calls it a failure. The first to be published was Grimus, in 1975, and though he got a nice advance for it, the book didn't sell well. He decided to use the money from the advance to travel in India, he said, "as cheaply as possible for as long as I could make the money last, and on that journey of fifteen-hour bus rides and humble hostelries [his next novel] Midnight's Children was born."

He resurrected a minor character from a novel that he had abandoned, a character born at the midnight moment of India's independence. He placed this character, Saleem Sinai, at the center of his new work. He said, "Then Saleem, ever a striver for meaning, suggested to me that the whole of modern Indian history happened as it did because of him; that history, the life of his nation-twin, was somehow all his fault."

Rushdie returned to England out of money. He got his copywriting job back on a part-time basis, working two or three days a week, splitting the job with another aspiring writer, Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, now author of The Rise and Fall of the British Nanny.

After he completed the manuscript for Midnight's Children in 1979 and sent it to his editor, he learned that the first reader had reported after reading the thick manuscript: "The author should concentrate on short stories until he has mastered the novel form." But the second reader was more enthusiastic, and the book was published in 1981 to great acclaim. It won the Booker Prize and marked Rushdie as one of the most important fiction writers of his generation.

Rushdie is the author of a travelogue, The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey (1987), as well as the novel The Satanic Verses (1988), which caused an enormous amount of controversy and forced Rushdie into hiding after Islamic extremists issued a fatwa death sentence upon him. Other novels include The Moor's Last Sigh (1995), The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999), and most recently The Enchantress of Florence (2008).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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