Salman Rushdie: The trouble with first person

Bestselling author Salman Rushdie shares his thoughts on writing, living in hiding, and the subjectivity of freedom.

Andrew Winning/Reuters/File
Author Salman Rushdie poses for a photograph after an interview with Reuters in central London.

The problem with memoirs written in first person is that “the character called ‘I’ feels different than all the ‘He’s’ and ‘She’s,’ ” Salman Rushdie told a packed house at Old South Church in Boston’s Copley Square during his keynote address for the 2013 Boston Book Festival this weekend.

At least that’s the conclusion he came to after wrestling with his first draft of his new book "Joseph Anton: A Memoir," released in paperback in September. 

Frustrated, he approached his agent and explained that the book just wasn’t coming along. “He told me what any good agent will tell you, 'Shut up and keep writing.' "

So Mr. Rushdie returned to his keyboard with a new tack. He said that as soon as he swapped out his I’s for he’s, the book began to unfold naturally. He felt that the perspective shift helped him to tell his story more “novelistically,” and made the character more fallible than an omniscient first person ever could.

“Nobody wants to read a 600 page book in which the author is fabulous throughout,” he said.

Perhaps there is another reason that the third person felt so appropriate for this book. In a way, Rushdie lived several years of his life in the third person.

In 1989, Rushdie learned from a BBC journalist that the Ayatolla Khomeni had sentenced him to death. His crime: publishing a novel that the Ayatolla deemed “against Islam, the Prophet, and the Quran.”

Rushdie explained to the rapt crowd that he had never intended to insult the Ayatolla and had never considered that he would ever even read the book.

From that moment, Rushdie’s – and his family’s – life completely changed. He abandoned his home, his name (while in hiding Rushdie published under the pseudonym Joseph Anton), and his independence in exchange for protection from the City of London Police.

While Rushdie said that he appreciated the security that his guards offered him, he felt imprisoned. The home they gave him was not his home. His choices were no longer his alone, as he now had to run his daily itinerary by Scotland Yard.

In many ways that life was not his own, but that of Joseph Anton.

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