From 7 to 9 November 2013, the Faculty of Letters of the University of Lisbon (Portugal) was home to a major literary and cultural event in the form of the international conference ‘Salman Rushdie in the 21st Century: Swallowing A World’. Some half a hundred Rushdie specialists and experts in Indian and postcolonial literature from all over the world gathered to exchange views on a writer whose multifaceted work raises head-on many of the most pressing cultural, intellectual and political issues of our day.
Portugal is a country whose history is indelibly marked by encounters with other cultures, be it as a part of Al-Andalus during the apogee of Arabic culture, as the seat of an empire extending across four continents and six centuries (an imperial experience immortalised in Luís de Camões’ great epic Os Lusíadas, published in 1572), as the birthplace of a language spoken in eight countries worldwide which now ranks as the fifth most-used on the Internet, or, most recently, as the country of birth of the globally acclaimed novelist and Nobel laureate José Saramago (1922-2010). Lisbon was thus an appropriate location for a conference on a writer whose work has constantly raised key intercultural issues and energised acute global debate.
The event began on the evening of 6 November with a curtain-raiser in the form of the documentary film from 2012, ‘The Fatwa – Salman’s Story’. The film, introduced by Christopher Rollason (photo by Ludmila Volna), was followed by an animated debate which set the tone for the days to come.
The two-and-a-half days of the conference proper took in: three keynote lectures; a round table with the keynote speakers; some threee dozen papers; and a closing session with two of the event’s key organisers, leading Rushdeians Ana Mendes from Portugal and Joel Kuortti from Finland.
The keynote speakers were: Abdulrazak Gurnah (University of Kent, UK) – ‘He had crossed the ocean to separate his life from life’; Vijay Mishra (Murdoch University, Australia) –‘Manuscripts in an archive: unpublished Rushdie novels and a TV Script’; and Priyamvada Gopal (University of Cambridge, UK) – ‘Reimagining the Whale: Rushdie’s Non-Fiction and the Politics of Universalism’. The papers were organised into panels on a very wide range of aspects of Rushdie’s work, with sessions devoted both to key individual works (Midnight’s Children, The Satanic Verses, Shalimar the Clown, Joseph Anton) and to more general aspects such as ‘Memory and history’, ‘Visual culture’, ‘Identity politics’, ‘Gender issues’ or ‘Intertextualities, lineages and influences’.
The full programme, as well as a detailed Book of Abstracts, can be found on the official conference site at: http://salmanrushdie21stcentury.wordpress.com/.
It is not possible to mention every paper here, but the author of this post hopes he may be forgiven for mentioning his own contribution, ‘Rushdie as Public Intellectual’, delivered on the morning of the Friday (see also note at end of this post).
A varied social and cultural programme included a guided visit to the Museu do Oriente followed by dinner at the museum, a concert of Eastern-inspired piano music by Portuguese composer-performer Tiago Sousa, and a reading of selected pages from Rushdie by Jorge Silva Melo.
Salman Rushdie’s work is by its nature controversial, and excites varied passions and an intensive clash of ideas. The lectures and papers and the discussions they stimulated shed light on the ongoing debates surrounding such issues as: ‘later versus earlier’ in Rushdie’s work; fiction and non-fiction in his œuvre; representations of India in his writings; his later turn towards globalisation; his links to popular media; the ‘continuity or rupture’ question concerning his broader political stance; and much more. Notwithstanding this multiplicity of sometimes conflicting perspectives, the atmosphere of the event was convivial and open-ended, reflecting the commitment expressed by so many scholars worldwide to the study of this major writer of the 20th and 21st centuries.
The conference was followed by the constituent meeting of a new scholarly entity, the Rushdie International Society (RIS), whose objective will be to promote the academic study of Salman Rushdie’s writings. It is early days as yet for the new Society, but its web address (site under construction) is in place at: http://rushdieinternationalsociety.wordpress.com/, and it may already be affirmed that it represents an exciting venture which will make it possible to build on the success of this excellent conference and provide fresh impetus for the study of Salman Rushdie’s work, further and deeper into the twenty-first century.
Note added 3 March 2015:
My paper from this conference has now been published in India. Details:
‘Salman Rushdie as Public Intellectual’, Journal of The Odisha Association For English Studies (Baleswar, India), Volume 5, Issue 1, 2015, pp. 63-77. It is also on-line – see entry on this blog for 1 December 2013 – at: http://yatrarollason.info/files/Rushdieasintellectual.pdf.