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From the archives: Salman Rushdie’s letter to his younger self

From the archives, our interview with the acclaimed author Salman Rushdie.

A version of this interview with Salman Rushdie was first published in The Big Issue in May 2016. In the wake of the shocking attack on the author in Chautauqua,New York, we decided to revisit his words and carry some that appeared in our Letter To My Younger Self book.

Rushdie explained how proud he is of his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. Its publication, famously, led to the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issuing a fatwa, putting a bounty on his head and forcing him into years of hiding. Only in recent times had Rushdie finally been enjoying a level of freedom. And then the New York state attack happened…

I came from India to (boarding school) Rugby in England when I was 13.  I had no idea that I would be judged as someone who was different to the others because I wasn’t English white. It really was a harsh awakening. It gave me a difficult time in this early years, I was quite unhappy. I was a pretty conventional public school conservative.  That reflected my experience; I came from a fairly conservative, well off Indian family. and I’d been put into a school with boys from similar families from other places. I was a conformist at school, a good boy. I guess I did my rebelling later on.

I was very worried when I went to university in England that it would be a continuation of the same racist treatment. But my father convinced me it was a very good thing to go to Cambridge. Now I’m glad he did – it turned out to be a very happy time and undid a lot of the damage of school. I went to Cambridge in the mid 60s, when it was at the epicentre of that decade’s social change. It was a very good time to be 18 to 21. They were very political years, the period of protest against the Vietnam war. That was a political awakening for me. It was also the age of the counterculture. Someone called it the youthquake – young people were having an influence on society for the first time. Being part of that made me see everything – myself, my generation, the sexes, society – in a different way.

My family wasn’t religious at all – my father was always a non-believer and the level of religion my mother had stretched as far as not wanting us to eat pig. It seems strange now that religion has returned to the centre of the stage. In those days, in both England and Bombay, it just didn’t come up, it wasn’t a big thing. I did like the stories though – Islam has some good ones, though I think the Old Testament has the best. And it has more stories. At Cambridge I did a paper on the life of the prophet Mohammad and the early history of Islam. It was when I was studying for that that I came across the story about the so-called Satanic Verses. I remember thinking, hey; good story. Twenty years later I found out how good a story it was.

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I didn’t see it then but now I recognise how much of the way I see the world came from my father. His interests have become my interests. If I could get back some of the time when my father was still alive I’d like to talk to him about now much his ideas came to influence mine, and express my gratitude.  I was very close to both my parents when I was growing up. But my father developed a bad drinking problem and that created a difficulty in our family. And I was the eldest and felt it very keenly, so our relationship became quite estranged during my school years. It went on being quite difficult for many many years until we mended fences when I was much older.

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I might point out to my teenage self what a huge sacrifice my parents made for me. One of the things about becoming a parent yourself is that you understand suddenly, very clearly, all the things your parents did for you and you took for granted. I can see now that for me to go so far away to school was very painful; certainly for my mother it was a great sadness. They did the best thing for me, but it certainly wasn’t the best thing for them. My father offered me the choice to go away, and for reasons I now don’t completely understand I said yes, even though I was really very happy going to school in Bombay. Some kind of spirit of adventure made me want to go. They went to great trouble to send me and support me. And then afterwards, when their great expectation was that I would come home, I said I wanted to stay in England and become a writer. Both parts of that sentence were horrifying for them.

I’m actually rather proud of my younger self. He had guts and enormous will-power. I left university in 1968. Midnight’s Children was published in 1981.  It took me almost 13 years to find my way as a writer. I’d go back and tell my younger self, well done for sticking at it. The idea you have twelve years of your life trying to do something without any guarantee you’ll be any good or have any success, that takes tremendous desire and will. Even then, at best, I thought I might be able to write books a few readers would like. I never expected to sell  millions of copies and be translated into 45 languages. You don’t write books to become rich and famous, you do it because you think of yourself as an artist and you want to make good work. On the whole I’ve been very lucky.

Obviously if I could go back and talk to the teenage Salman I’d have to tell him there’s big trouble ahead. Prepare for ten years of… not the best time of your life. But I have no regrets about writing and publishing The Satanic Verses. I’m very proud of it, I think it’s one of the very best things I ever did. Of course I didn’t expect what happened –it wasn’t a great moment in my life, but I’ve never wished I hadn’t written the book. And I’m glad we were successful fighting to defend it. And now that the fuss has died down, that book is being read a lot, it’s on a lot of university courses. And most people like it. So the book has survived the attack of those who didn’t like it and is now left in the hands of those who do It’s finally able to be a novel again.

I have great regret about the end of my first marriage to the mother of my oldest son Zafar. She sadly passed away when he was 19 years old and actually, by then we had managed to rebuild a good friendship. On the last day of her life I was in the hospital holding her hand. The marriage ended, but the relationship didn’t. We were incredibly young when we got together and we grew into different people. But we managed a very amicable break up. I think generally I’m a thoughtful husband but my wives might not agree.

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If I could go back in time and wanted to impress the teenage me, I’d show him the 17 books I’ve written. Martin Amis has this wonderful phrase – he once said what he wanted to leave behind was a shelf of books. You want to be able to say, from here to here on this shelf, they’re all by me. A writer’s life is long and you don’t see yourself as being contained in any one book. The books are like reports from the journey you’re taking.

It’s very important to me to be a good father to my sons. I think they would both tell you we’re very close. On the case of Zafar it was particularly important, first of all because his mother died when he was so young, and secondly because he had to grow up during the years of the attack on his father. He was nine years old when (the fatwa) began and his whole childhood was shaped and marked by it. I tried to explain what was happening because I thought the worst thing would be him just hearing about it and being terrified. Of course I was afraid for his security – his mother and I tried our best to make sure he had a vaguely normal childhood, but it was a very tough time for him. He could have become a very messed up person, but he has great strength and grace and is very calm and good-natured.

If I could go back and re-live any time in my life I’d start in 1979. I was just finishing Midnight’s Children and my first son was about to be born. I fact I remember telling his mother to just sit still and cross her legs while I finished writing. I think that time, when I was 32, 33 years old, between becoming a father and two years later, when the book was published to great success… that was probably the best time of my life.

You can buy Letter to My Younger Self from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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