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Salman Rushdie Defends Free Speech at UVM Talk

Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie on writing: "Going to the frontier and pushing outwards: that's the job." (Photo: Sally McCay)

Acclaimed author Salman Rushdie visited the University of Vermont for a sold-out talk on the power of storytelling Jan. 14.

The event was one of Rushdie’s first public appearances since he condemned of the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris, which left more than 12 people dead.

Rushdie told the crowd he was angered that, in the aftermath of the shootings, some people from both the political left and the right began to blame the victims.

“The French satirical tradition has always been very pointed and very harsh,” Rushdie said to audience of 1,000 people at UVM’s Ira Allen Chapel. “The thing that I really resent is the way in which these, our dead comrades ... who died using the same implement that I use, which is a pen or pencil, have been almost immediately vilified.”

Rushdie, whose statements were live-streamed online, gave a powerful defence of free speech: "Freedom is indivisible," he said, quoting John F. Kennedy and Nelson Mandela. “You can't slice it up, otherwise it ceases to be freedom. You can dislike Charlie Hebdo. But the fact that you dislike them has nothing to do with their right to speak.”

The event was presented by UVM and the Vermont Humanities Council (VHC), which recently picked Rushdie’s 1990 children’s book, Haroun and The Sea of Stories, for its statewide Vermont Reads program.

“Mr. Rushdie is one of the great writers of our time,” said Major Jackson, UVM professor and VHC board chairperson, who emceed the event. The lecture was a culmination of a conversation between the two authors, which started at a writers’ festival last summer in Jamaica.

“When I told him Haroun was on the Vermont Reads shortlist, he accepted our invitation without hesitation,” said Jackson. “We are very fortunate to be able to bring him to Burlington to share his career and inspire our students, faculty, staff and the citizens of Vermont.”

Haroun and the Sea of Stories was written as a bedtime story for Rushdie’s son. It contains veiled allusions to the controversy that followed his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, including a death fatwa issued by Iran’s ayatollah. Rushdie was forced into hiding for nine years in Great Britain, and has lived in New York since 2000.

Rushdie didn’t address his years living under the threat of death at UVM, but he spoke of how the writings of authors who offend powerful people frequently outlive the criticism — even if the artists themselves don't survive. The role of art is to "open the universe and expand minds," he said.

“Artists who go to that edge and push outwards often find very powerful forces pushing back. They find the forces of silence opposing the forces of speech,” said Rushdie, whose comments at UVM appeared in the New York Times, Associated Press, The Guardian, and other top media. “That push and pull can be very dangerous to the artist. And many artists have suffered.”

The talk, titled “What’s The Use Of Stories That Aren't Even True?,” ended with questions submitted by UVM students, and a book signing by the author.

Rushdie is the best-selling author of 12 books, including the Booker Prize-winning Midnight’s Children. His most recent book is Joseph Anton: A Memoir, an account of his life following the controversy over The Satanic Verses.