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Crossing paths with Salman Rushdie: renowned author to address IABC's International Conference in Los Angeles.

To cross a frontier is to be transformed.... The frontier is a wake-up call. At the frontier, we can't avoid the truth; the comforting layers of the quotidian, which insulate us against the world's harsher realities, are stripped away and, wide-eyed in the harsh fluorescent light of the frontier's windowless halls, we see things as they are."

--Excerpt from "Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002"

Salman Rushdie ushered in a new genre of 20th century literature with his clever mingling of magic realism and historical events to create the classic modern epic. Rushdie's ability to evoke an age by transforming historical facts into an imaginative, multicultural tapestry has been likened to F. Scott Fitzgerald's swirling pictorials of the 1920s.

Rushdie's novels capture the past in such a way that the reader unwittingly steps into history. "To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world," Rushdie explains. It's this philosophy that gives his work enduring value.

As keynote speaker at IABC's international conference, 6-9 June in Los Angeles, Rushdie will offer a rare view into his life and an invitation to communicators to "step across this line" by exploring borders and crossing frontiers.

Born in Mumbai (Bombay), India, and educated in Britain at Rugby School and the University of Cambridge, Rushdie started his career in communication. He was working as an advertising copywriter when he wrote his first novel, "Grimus" (1975). Rushdie has penned five works of nonfiction and eight novels, including the Booker Prize-winning "Midnight's Children," a brilliant and intoxicating satire on the history of modern India.

He is possibly best known for "The Satanic Verses," a fantasy published in 1988, which led to accusations of blasphemy against Islam and demonstrations by Islamist groups in India and Pakistan. Iran's orthodox leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a religious decree, or fatwa, against Rushdie, offering a multimillion-dollar award for his assassination. The notorious fatwa captured international attention and cast Rushdie on the world stage as a political figure and champion of free speech.


Rushdie spent almost 10 years in hiding until 1998, when the Iranian government officially disassociated itself from the fatwa after the Ayatollah's death. While living under threat of violence, Rushdie campaigned vigorously for the right of freedom of expression and produced a body of fiction unrivaled by contemporary authors. His collection of children's tales, "Haroun and the Sea of Stories," warns about the perils of storytelling and won the Writers Guild Award.

After many years working and living in England under the protection of the British government and police, Rushdie now lives in New York. He was recently elected president of the PEN American Center, an association of literary writers and editors with a mission to advance literature, promote a culture of reading and defend free expression.

Outgoing PEN President Joel Conarroe hailed Rushdie as an "internationally celebrated artist whose life and work embody, in spectacular ways, the institution's very reasons for being: enhancing the importance of the written word; supporting freedom of expression throughout the world; and working with sister associations to defend the rights of readers, writers and editors. A productive novelist of seemingly endless imaginative gifts, Salman Rushdie has also shown himself to be a fair-minded and rigorous thinker."

A gifted lecturer as well as writer, Rushdie has spoken at Yale, Harvard and Oxford universities. He is an Honorary Professor in the Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a Distinguished Fellow in Literature at the University of East Anglia and recipient of eight honorary doctorates.

His recent work, "Step Across This Line," is a book of collected nonfiction based on essays and articles written between 1992 and 2002. The title itself is provocative, daring the reader to embrace challenges, cross lines of control and explore new territories in the context of culture, region, race and religion. It is written with the same sharp intelligence, comic and serious commentary and irreverent style that set Rushdie's fiction apart. Offering readers a dazzling array of topics, Rushdie explores "The Wizard of Oz," soccer, reality television, the aging Rolling Stones rock band, "the plague years" and the terrorist attacks on the United States. The finale is "Step Across This Line," a previously unpublished lecture that Rushdie delivered at Yale University in 2002, in which he examines moral, metaphorical and physical frontiers.

"We must agree on what matters," Rushdie writes in one of his essays, "kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, literature, generosity, water, a more equitable distribution of the world's resources, movies, music, freedom of thought, beauty, love."


IABC asked Rushdie for his musings on some topics of interest to communication professionals: his reasons for writing, commitment to values, fairness in reporting, and leaders and role models. His answers provide insight into the charismatic voice, confident purpose and playful charm that define Rushdie as an individual and a writer.

Chris Grossgart: Your recent collection of nonfiction, "Step Across This Line," has been described as your most personal work and an effort to put the fatwa behind you. Was this your goal in publishing the book?

Salman Rushdie: The collection came together over a decade, and the fatwa issue was only one of my concerns. But I do think that people can now discover, from the section titled "Messages from the Plague Years," whatever they want to know about my perspective on those years; and I can move on.

CO: What is the line you're inviting the reader to step across in the title?

SR: I've always been interested in the theme of frontiers--frontiers both metaphorical and literal. We live in an age of migration, and those trans-borderline movements of humanity have transformed world civilisation in our time. As a migrant myself, that is an obvious theme for me. But I'm also interested in stepping across lines people draw in the sand, in challenging taboos or embargoes of all sorts. This is essential for the health of a culture, I argue in the book; and it's the job of the artist, by pushing against and breaking through boundaries, to increase the sum of what it's possible to think.

CG: In your work, you've demonstrated strong commitment to personal convictions, despite pressure from the media, governments and hostile publics. In this age when companies are scrutinized for questionable ethical practices, what advice can you give communication professionals whose values may be at odds with their organization's business practices?

SR: Well, I've had the good fortune to work for myself for almost 25 years, so I haven't faced those conflicts in my own working life since the days when I worked in advertising agencies as a young man. In those days I did try to argue for what I believed was right, and came close to being fired a few times. But in the end I didn't get fired ... and a few times my points were even accepted ... so, argue your corner.

CG: IABC members are responsible for internal and external communication, which can include hostile employees, shareholders, community groups and the media. What advice can you offer on dealing with hostile audiences?

SR: I actually haven't faced many hostile audiences, but the best techniques I've found for dealing with hecklers are a) good humour, b) trying to answer their points fairly and c) more jokes.

CG: In addition to your extraordinary accomplishments as a novelist, you're also an expert on news writing and editorials. How do you approach a topic with fairness and objectivity?

SR: When I'm writing a column, I try to pick subjects with which I feel some sense of personal or intellectual connection. The most difficult part of writing a column is to express a strong opinion which is what you're being paid for, after all without becoming crazily unfair. Actually, it's OK to be unfair, but only if the unfairness you're discussing is greater than your own.

CG: Your work demonstrates courageous expression. Among today's leaders, who displays this kind of courage and are your role models?

SR: Among politicians, I don't have role models. Among writers, I have hundreds--Joyce, Kafka, Borges, Bellow, Narayan, Grass, Calvino, Bulgakov, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Roth, Kundera are some.

CG: What are you reading now?

SR: Recent book: "Living to Tell the Tale," the autobiography of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Less recent book: "The Red and the Black," by Stendhal, in the excellent new Modern Library translation.


Today, Rushdie can be seen at his neighborhood grocery store and is juggling many creative pursuits. Some say he has become something of a pop celebrity. The author is working on a stage adaptation of "Midnight's Children"; appeared in the film, "Bridget Jones' Diary"; was spotted on stage with the band U2; and is married to model-actress Padma Lakshmi.

Rushdie's next public appearance will be 6 June when he will cross a continent to "transform" 1,600 communication professionals attending IABC's conference.

Chris Grossgart is IABC's senior vice president. She can be reached at
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Title Annotation:International Association of Business Communicators
Author:Crossgart, Chris
Publication:Communication World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2004
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