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Lecture Series
March 9, 2009

Author Salman Rushdie: Telling a Story Is the Greatest Weapon

Overflow Crowd Attends 2009 Volpe Lecture

In a globe spanning lecture that included everything from literary to pop culture references and took a hard look at the role of the writer, author Sir Salman Rushdie held rapt an overflowing crowd of more than 300 people for the 2009 Thomas J. Volpe Lecture Series in Global Business and Finance on Monday, March 9 at St. Francis College.

Watch a short interview with Sir Rushdie by St. Francis College student and Entertainment Editor for The Voice student newspaper, Rob Adams.

Sir Rushdie began with a brief history of the novel and the fairly recent trend of the public wanting to hear from authors in a public forum. He said that Charles Dickens may have been the first author to popularize lecture tours for writers. Dickens also exemplified an important role of the novel at that time as a key way that people got their news. Rushdie said that with Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens had a major impact on improving the situation of poor children in England while in the United States, Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin was instrumental in galvanizing forces to end slavery in the U.S.

Now with countless additional sources of information that function of the novel has changed. Sir Rushdie, however, points out that there are still important books like Reading Lolita in Tehran and The Kite Runner, which bring stories to the world that we otherwise would not know about.

One aspect of writing that can bring trouble for a novelist, and did for Rushdie, is the tug of war that develops over who controls how a story is told. He pointed to two scenes in his first novel and Booker Prize winner, Midnight's Children. In the first scene, Rushdie talks about the end of the 1971 war which led to the creation of Bangladesh when Pakistani troops massacred Bangalee intellectuals and leaders. Rushdie said that Pakistan has never admitted to these atrocities despite much evidence.

"You find yourself in the strange position of remembering something and discovering that the simple act of remembering something becomes a political act because official truth denies the truth of your memory," said Rushdie.

In the second scene he describes how India's former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi spent two days burning evidence in 1977 so that when she turned over power to her successor, she would not be able to be prosecuted. When Rushdie's novel came out, Gandhi was again Prime Minister, and Rushdie found himself placed in the role of political activist, attacking a sitting Prime Minister when he had only his memory to defend himself and no documentary evidence.

Rushdie said that control of telling the story was so important because, "The story is the greatest weapon that all human beings have." He said that is why dictators try to control mass media at all costs and Rushdie couched the trouble that sprang from his novel, The Satanic Verses, as a battle over who would tell the story of Islam.

Rushdie addresses the fatwa against his life head-on, saying that, "Had it been not funny at all, it would've been quite funny." He used two anecdotes to make his point. One about a "rather sweet grandfatherly British Muslim figure from the north of England" who was on TV talking about the protests and book burnings he had led against Rushdie. When asked if he had read the book, the man said he had not. When pushed further, the man admitted with a passive gesture, "Books are not my thing." In a second incident, many years later Rushdie recounted the story of a man approaching him in the street who had also led protests and admitted that he had now become an atheist and after reading Satanic Verses he "couldn't see what the trouble was."

"Sir Rushdie treated all of us at St. Francis College to a thought provoking lecture about the importance of an open and honest debate of ideas," said series founder and Chairman Emeritus of the St. Francis College Board of Trustees Thomas J. Volpe. "His first person battle for the freedom of expression gives him a unique insight and perspective and we are fortunate to have learned from him."

On a lighter, closing note, when asked for any advice for young authors, Sir Rushdie bluntly stated that, "Frankly, there are already enough books and plays. If all of us who write were to stop today there would be too many books and plays and none of us ... would ever manage to read or watch all the great stuff that already exists. So there is really no need to add to that mountain. If you're going to have the temerity to add to that it has to be because you can't help it. It has to be because the thing you're doing is essential not to the world, but to you."

Salman Rushdie was born in Bombay (now Mumbai), India and educated in England. He is known for award winning novels like Midnight's Children, Shalimar the Clown and The Satanic Verses as well as his latest novel The Enchantress of Florence.

Guest speakers of the Volpe Lecture Series offer an international perspective in a variety of fields to the St. Francis College community; from business leaders to world leaders. Past speakers include Mariane Pearl (wife of slain reporter Daniel Pearl), Paul Rusesabagina (the real Hotel Rwanda), Lech Walesa (former President of Poland, Nobel Prize winner) and George Mitchell (former U.S. Senator, Nobel Peace Prize nominee, baseball steroids report).

The lecture series is funded by a generous gift from Thomas J. Volpe, a former Senior Vice President of Financial Operations for The Interpublic Group of Companies, Inc. Currently he is Senior Advisor at Babcock & Brown, a global financial services firm. Volpe serves as Chairman Emeritus of the St. Francis College Board of Trustees.

St. Francis College, founded in 1859 by the Franciscan Brothers of Brooklyn, is located in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y. Since its founding, the College has pursued its Franciscan mission to provide an affordable, high-quality education to students from New York City's five boroughs and beyond.
St. Francis College, 180 Remsen Street, Brooklyn Heights, NY 11201

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