Rushdie stresses cultural importance of literature in Coe appearance

'The Satanic Verses' author notes that 'man is the storytelling animal'

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One of literature’s greatest roles through the ages has been to open the doors to greater global understanding, Sir Salman Rushdie said Tuesday night during the 10th annual Coe College Contemporary Issues Forum.

A capacity crowd gathered in Sinclair Auditorium to hear the literary giant who stirred up a firestorm of violence, criticism and controversy nearly 25 years ago with his novel, “The Satanic Verses.”

Stories are how we connect, he said.

“We may have very different politics, but we may support the same football team,” he said. “ ... The more broadly we understand ourselves as human beings, the easier it is to find common ground.”

And that’s what breaks down barriers. So it’s imperative our ability to tell our stories not be squelched by censorship, he said.

“One of the things literature can do is to encourage a world view, which in turn encourages tolerance and civilization, and sets us up against this other view, an identity defined by hostility, which leads to extremism and bigotry.”

Storytelling is the answer to that, he added.

“Man is the storytelling animal. We are the only animal in the world that does this strange thing, of telling itself stories to understand what kind of animal it is. Some of the stories are true, some are made-up, but we live with and by stories,” he said,

“ ... Stories are how we tell ourselves who we are. We live in what are commonly called grand narratives — big stories. History is a grand narrative. Religion is a grand narrative. Civilization is a grand narrative. These are all stories that we all have and we all have inside.

“The question is, what can we do with those stories? Are we allowed to change them? Can we argue about them? Can we discard the ones we don’t like anymore? It seems to me, that one of the definitions of living in a free society, in an open society, is that all of us have the ability and freedom to take those stories of our lives and to remake them, argue them, discard them, to satirize them, or to revere them and stand by them, defend them — or both, at different times.”

That is why long after he emerged from living underground in London, Rushdie, 65, now of New York City, continues to fight for freedom of speech.

“Art goes to the boundaries and pushes outward, even when forces push back.”

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