ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, NY — There's a curious mix of respect, awe, and compassion in the faces of the college students in this packed auditorium as they lean forward to catch the words of the critically acclaimed author who has been sentenced to death.
"People trying to shut me up don't shut me up," the writer tells his highly intent audience. "They only make me try to make my voice louder and better."
In the mouth of another man, such words might have the ring of braggadocio. But coming from Salman Rushdie they invite applause. And should anyone for a moment begin to forget the unusual circumstances of Mr. Rushdie's life, the two security guards flanking him and constantly scanning the audience as he speaks serve as grim reminders.
It's been more than 11 years since the government of Iran sentenced Rushdie to death for his authorship of "The Satanic Verses," a book judged disrespectful to Islam.
In September last year, that death sentence - also known as a fatwa - was lifted, but Iranian hard-liners continue to insist that the sentence cannot be reversed, and a private group has now offered a $2.5 million reward for Rushdie's death.
And yet, as he kicked off a two-month trip throughout the United States to promote his new novel here at Bard College (a site chosen to express Rushdie's gratitude to Bard President Leon Botstein, who was among the first to offer him asylum after the fatwa), Rushdie's voice seems poised to win a larger and perhaps somewhat younger audience - notwithstanding some early negative critical reaction.
New book is a departure
His new book, "The Ground Beneath Her Feet," marks a departure for him in several respects. "It's a love story, and it's about rock 'n' roll," is the way Rushdie describes the novel. It's a love story, he says, simply because that's something he wanted to try, and it's about rock 'n' roll because, he says with a smile, "Rock is as old as I am."
But despite Rushdie's insistence that the book is about "dinosaur rock" and has little to do with contemporary music, his words have already been embraced by a younger generation. The novel contains lyrics to rock songs penned by Rushdie, and Irish singer Bono of U2, who saw an advance copy of the book, has already snapped up one of the songs and plans to release a track titled "The Ground Beneath Her Feet" in September. Other rock groups, Rushdie, says, have been in touch, asking to record other of the book's lyrics.
This kind of creative interchange with the outside world is exactly what Rushdie has been longing for, says Bradford Morrow, a novelist, Bard professor, and friend of Rushdie's. "He wants to reenter the world as a writer," says Professor Morrow. "That's what he really is."
Certainly, Rushdie seemed to relish his visit at Bard. He had been at the liberal arts college over the weekend meeting with international journalists to promote his book, but he devoted Monday to the students. After addressing a crowded noontime assembly and reading from his book, he spent two hours with a small group of Morrow's students, answering questions about his new book and the creative process of writing.
The students, several of them aspiring writers themselves, were eager to learn how Rushdie chooses the topics he writes about. "In the end it chooses you," he told them. "It's the things you can't stop thinking about. But you have to wait. You can't rush it."
He seemed relaxed and engaged as he respectfully replied to students' remarks about his book, laughing occasionally and casually pushing the sleeves of an expensive gray jacket up over his elbows. He also fielded questions about the fatwa, touching on it with a kind of grim humor as he insisted that all books arouse some negative reactions and that the death sentence slapped on him was just "a particularly extreme form of not liking the book."
But at the same time, he was candid about the extent to which his new novel - the central event of which is an earthquake - is also an attempt to come to terms with the way his life was pulled out from under him by the fatwa. Sections of the novel that he read aloud to the Bard students included descriptions of the earthquake survivors "trying to pluck the everyday out of the ruins," and emphasized that once an event of this magnitude occurs, "the thought of it reverberates for the rest of your life."
There is no minimizing the impact of the fatwa on Rushdie's daily experience. There have been 20 attempts on his life since the Iranian government called for his death, and the Japanese translator of the Satanic verses became a tragic early victim of that imperative.
The new novel is many things, he insists: a love story, a reworking of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, an examination of the cult of celebrity, a reference to the death of Diana Princess of Wales.
But at the same time, he points out, there's nothing subtle about the fact that the book begins with the date Feb. 14, 1989, the day on which the Iranian government first spelled out his death sentence.
"It's a dark date for me," he says. "I don't deny that it's been painful. I've had to give up a lot for a while."
But if anything, he insists, the experience has made him even more courageous as a writer. "If you're going to start being careful, you can't write," he says. "Self-censorship is the death of literature."
Rushdie is hardly the first celebrated author to visit the Bard campus. Morrow has been teaching his class on innovative contemporary fiction here for nine years and has invited such literary lights as William Gass, Joyce Carol Oates, and Susan Sontag to meet his students.
But a visit from Rushdie was something special, say some of these students. "We've had other people here, but today there was a different buzz on campus," says Katie Cesario, a junior at the school. (Rushdie's visit was kept secret from most of the student body until a few hours before he was scheduled to speak.) "You can't walk away from it without wanting to call your mom and say, 'I met Salman Rushdie,' " says classmate Lauren Kilian.
Rushdie is ironic about the degree to which the death sentence has enhanced his reputation. "It's a form of celebrity with all the downside and none of the upside," he tells the college students.
But there's a development he confesses he finds quite heartening. The Indian government recently announced that he had again been granted a visa, after 10 years of refusing to allow him in the country.
Of course, he intends to go, he says, although England is now his home and he doesn't know when a trip to India will fit in his life. Much of human experience, Rushdie tells his audience, is made of two constant, yet contradictory, urges. "One is the desire to go home, and the other is the desire to leave. In our dream life, our imaginary life, we're much concerned with leaving. But in our daily life, we live inside the other - the urge for home."
Choosing to leave one's home
"Midnight's Children," Rushdie's earlier, highly acclaimed novel set in India and Pakistan, is a book more about the home urge, he says, while the new novel set in Mexico and New York, "is more about the people who choose to leave."
Rushdie sees himself as a person who chose to leave. "My life took a left turn when I left India and went to live in England," he says. "I didn't become what I might have become if I'd stayed. Life is a series of constantly bifurcating paths. I've always had that sense of the road not taken."