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Exclusive: Brooklyn Eagle interviews Salman Rushdie and Laurie Anderson

December 16, 2015 By Samuel Anderson Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Salman Rushdie (right), this year’s recipient of the Mailer Prize for lifetime achievement, speaks to writer Randy Boyagoda at a ceremony at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn on Thursday. Eagle photo by Sam Anderson

Before Rushdie and Anderson took to the stage Thursday night as honorees at Pratt Institute, including Rushdie receiving the Norman Mailer Center Lifetime Achievement Prize, they gave the Eagle a few words on topics close to their bodies of work.

Rushdie, whose fiction often explores post-colonial issues and the threat of radical ideology, spoke about his defense of free speech and gave his opinion on the heightened fear of terrorist attacks. Throughout the evening, he remained completely at ease, despite the camera flashes bursting around him. He has a wry smile and a voice laced with subtle detachment, enhanced by his British-Indian accent.

 

Sam A. On your Wikipedia page it says you have won 31 awards.

Rushdie Really? Does it say that? I have no idea.

Sam A.Tonight makes it 32. What is the importance of a literary award today?

RushdieWell, lifetime achievement is lifetime achievement. It’s nice to know that people recognize a long body of work. This year makes it 40 years since I published my first book, so if somebody wants to say “well done,” I’m for it. And I really admire the work of the Norman Mailer Foundation. It’s nice to be able to contribute to what they’re doing.

Sam A.Your work has been called politically polarizing. Do you have a political agenda, or does that come by happenstance?

RushdieI really don’t. In fact, less and less these days. I think that some of my earlier books were more directly political, like “Shame.” But nowadays, I don’t think my books are political anymore. There was just one book that was.

Sam A.After the Charlie Hebdo attacks last year, you were very outspoken in your defense of free speech and your support of those journalists. Given the attacks in Paris recently, have you continued your position?

RushdieYes, and I think it’s even more important now. And it wasn’t just me.  But there were a lot of writers who were disappointed with the protests. [Some members of the prestigious literary group protested PEN granting its Freedom of Expression award to Charlie Hedbo, which they viewed as a culturally intolerant publication]. People like Ian McEwan and Don DeLillo, who’s here tonight, Paul Auster and Adam Gopnik. A lot of writers were as disappointed as I was, and wrote and spoke about it. On the whole, that protest was a very small part of the PEN membership. It was disappointing, you know?

Sam A.As a supporter of free speech, would you support Donald Trump’s right to propose a ban on Muslims?

RushdieNo, don’t be silly. I defend his right to say it, but I also defend my own right to call him a jerk [chuckles].

Sam A.And you’ve dealt a lot with Muslim extremism in your works. Currently, we are dealing with what people are calling “home-grown radicalization” here in this country. Do you have any comments on that, given your understanding of these issues?

RushdieWell I think it exists, though it’s small. To my mind, the real radicals in this country are white Christians. Just look at all the terrorist attacks that people are afraid of. Terrorist attack on a school — already happened; terrorist attack on a campus — already happened; terrorist attack on government buildings — already happened. None of them were perpetrated by Muslims. They were done by crazy white people with guns. It seems to me that if you were to look for a terrorist organization in this country, you should look at the NRA.  Let’s look at the right problem.

Sam A.Last year, you mentioned, in reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, that a divide had occurred between ordinary Muslims and extremists. Do you think that is the case today?

Rushdie I think ordinary Muslims are as terrified of ISIS as anyone else. And in many ways, more disappointed, because it tars them with that brush.

* * * 

Laurie Anderson, pre-eminent musician and avant-garde performing artist, spoke on the importance of art and the role of experimentation in its creation. During the interview, Anderson was quick to show excitement, and her eyes shone with a bright, winking humor. She was the only woman among the guests of honor when they posed for press photos.

 

Sam A.You’ve been at the forefront of experimental art for quite some time now. Can you tell me why experimental art is important?

Anderson It’s not more important than any other art. Why is art important? Because it’s about freedom. Although experimental art does tend to cut more of the bonds than other forms. You use less of the rules, break more of them, be more free in form.

Sam A. Can you tell me about this new installation/performance piece you’ve been working on, which involves a detainee from Guantanamo Bay, and confronts issues of identity and security among other things? [Anderson describes her new piece in The New Yorker].

AndersonMaking this piece, I learned to never underestimate the audience. Mohammed el Gharani was captured when he was 14. He was a prisoner until 21.  He was tortured, but never charged, and finally, just kind of dumped. So, I’m interested in stories, and his story versus the U.S. government’s story is just fascinating to me.

Sam A.Do you consider yourself to be a political artist?

AndersonNot particularly. I think all art can be considered in that light, if you want to look at it that way. I don’t think there’s anything more engaged about being specifically political. I could look at a giant blue painting and it would give me more of a sense freedom than some long, polemical work of art that’s about, like, being free. You know what I’m saying? Art works on your eyes, and your ears, and it just makes you feel a certain way.  I don’t have anything against polemical art either. I like all art. Except [smiles] musical comedy. You’d have to kill me to get me to go to one.

Sam A.Do you ever worry that because of how experimental or avant-garde your work is, it might not have access to as wide of an audience as more mainstream artists?

AndersonI’m a snob! [ Laughs] I don’t care about getting my message to the millions. I’m enough of a snob to say that the more people that like it, maybe the less daring it actually is. I’m from the art world, and accidentally, once in a while, I might drift into the pop world or some other world, but that’s not my goal at all.

Sam A.Who are you looking at right now, who are you favorite artists of 2015?

AndersonYou know what, my favorite artist is usually the one I just saw. So I’d have to say, Christian McBride [virtuosic jazz bassist], because I saw his show last night at the Vanguard.

Sam A.How was it?

AndersonBeyond awesome! It was so great, I mean this guy is a killer player.  And he had a band, it was the second night he worked with the band, and it was deeply musical and deeply inventive. I was just jumping up and down every other phrase going “yes!”

Sam A.You’ve been in New York for a very long time, tell me what you still love about this city and what you hate about it.

AndersonWhat do I love? Russ and Daughters whitefish chowder. It’s the best restaurant in New York. What do I hate? It’s a little too crowded. But you could say that about the world.