Monday, July 17, 2006

Reading. Rushdie.

I vaguely remember reading Salman Rushdie in the early 1990’s, when he was still mostly underground due to a fatwa issued for his execution after the publication of The Satanic Verses, which I had read but not understood. I would also read and not understand Midnight’s Children and Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Perhaps I was too young then. Later I would see his photographs in British fashion magazines, standing around at glamorous parties with beautiful women. He looked like an owl clad in bespoke suits, fathomless, heavy-lidded eyes gazing at the camera. I would think of him almost as a caricature, an icon perhaps; so recognizable (in spite of being 'in hiding' during the fatwa years) that he would have a cameo role as himself in some romantic comedy movie, the punchline to a joke (I think it was Bridget Jones' Diary). But I was not ready to return to his writing. Until now.

I was drawn to Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002 by the title, which seemed to beckon me across a line into something new. It was a dare. What else could I do except give in? The essays span a decade of non-fiction writing, 1992-2002, and covers subjects ranging from his Bombay childhood, his identity as an Indian writer, life in Swinging 60's and 70's London, and post-9/11 America. Unlike his fiction (or perhaps like his fiction; I cannot remember), Rushdie's nonfiction is incredibly funny and sharp and hit me in a way that I had been unable to comprehend all those years ago.

And here I began to understand what it is I love so much about nonfiction writing. Fiction is someone else's imagination, their creation of another world. There is a barrier you have to cross, the magic mirror that is the gateway from our world to the world of another time, another place. There is a sense of a suspension of disbelief. But nonfiction is something else entirely. It is sliding into someone else's skin, into their mind, their memory, their soul, to see the world as they see it, as it exists for them. There is an immediacy to it, an intimacy that I can't describe, that doesn't happen with fiction. And it sets my brain on fire.

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