Kathleen Tarr: On Salman Rushdie and the Necessity of the Imaginative Dimension

This is the fourth
and last post in the series from our September guest author. Thank you, Kathy Tarr!

Before Netflix and YouTube, and before I could choose from a
thousand cable channels, there was public television. I tuned in to anything Bill
Moyers did on PBS, and especially recall his acclaimed poetry series, and his
program on “Faith and Reason when it aired in 2006, how enthralling it was to see
and hear Salman Rushdie being interviewed.

By the time “Faith & Reason” was produced Rushdie’s life
had “normalized”—the decade he spent in hiding had finally ended. In 1989, a
fatwa calling for the writer’s execution had been issued by the Ayatolla Khomeini,
Supreme Leader of Iran, over the publication of Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses. To Muslim extremists,
in their extremely literal interpretation of the Koran, the novel was blasphemous
to the prophet Muhammad. But as Rushdie would admit years later, hardly anyone
in the Muslim world had actually read The
Satanic Verses
at the time it was first published as the book wasn’t widely
available in the Middle East.

In 1989 after first hearing the news about the fatwa, I was
probably like most Americans, naïve and in a definite intellectual quandary about
why Muslims had reacted so violently to a work of fiction, and decades later why
the controversies continued over a Danish cartoon, and a few years beyond that,
to where we are today with groups of radical Muslims burning down the U.S.
Embassy in Libya in reaction to a home-grown, pathetic film that hardly anyone
had seen or would have known about before it ended up on YouTube.

In my life time, religion had spurred the Irish Republican
Army to detonate bombs, it had caused conflicts in Bosnia, it had driven planes
into the World Trade Center towers, and it had destroyed U.S. embassies. Growing
up in a secular household without any formal religious background or education,
the events of the day provoked me to read more religious history, something I
had previously not taken much of an interest in. What was a fatwa?  What is Islam?  How could peaceful, religious people promote
killing and acts of terror to protect honor?

Rushdie, who personally claims no religious faith or
affiliation, spoke candidly to Moyers about the power of art and literature. We
need to understand one another through the “imaginative dimension” the British
Indian writer said in that welcome voice of erudition and reason.

“All writing began as religious writing and all art began as
sacred,” he pointed out.  He was
referring to gods, goddesses, the Old Testament, Greek sculpture, cave
paintings, the master craftsman of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance painters,
to name a few historical examples.

As the “Faith and Reason” conversation continued, Rushdie
calmly stated: “Religion has been both poison in the blood and the muse of
inspiration.” The quandary, exactly!

Rushdie’s newly-released memoir, Joseph Anton, has catapulted him into the world news again. (In the
underground he assumed the alias of Joseph Anton, an appropriation of the first
names of two of his favorite authors: Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov.) The
memoir covers his years of forced exile and disguise, the danger and difficulties
he endured.

A few weeks ago, Rushdie appeared on Bill Maher with a panel
of distinguished journalists. (I know this because I found the clip on
YouTube.) Maher and his guests talked about the tragedy in Benghazi and other events involving Muslim violence
and extremism. A fearless Rushdie said he believes Islamic leaders try to
politically manipulate their people through religion.

It’s “politically manufactured rage” to incite religious mobs,
to distort facts and to inflame anti-Western sentiment. (News sources are now
reporting that the Libyan attacks were pre-meditated acts of terrorism.)

As you would expect, Rushdie kept a journal during his years
of living in the “strange dislocation of identity” when security guards had to
protect him from very real death threats and life itself had become a script
for a high-chase, thriller. It was important to correctly remember the details
of what happened during the turmoil. In writing Joseph Anton, he wanted to write a nonfiction book in the vein of The Right Stuff or In Cold Blood, true stories told with a blend of in-depth reportage
and with the storytelling techniques of a fiction writer.

I haven’t yet read Joseph
, by Sir Rushdie (yes, he was knighted for service to literature), but
I plan to.  My “spiritual” reading path
of-late has led me to an eclectic assortment of books and resources. Some of
them I’ve turned to for spiritual sustenance, and some purely for information, background,
and literary pleasure.

The list I’ve drawn together is in no way religiously preferential
or definitive as a personal “top ten” or anything.  And it certainly doesn’t come from any
expert. Due to space limitations, I left off many of my “old-time” favorites,
i.e., Russian novels, Herman Hesse’s, Siddhartha
which I first read at age 19, and
some books mentioned in my previous posts. Others may be missing because they
seemed too obvious to mention. 

In non-denominational, democratically open, religiously
tolerant eyes, here are a few resources I wanted to share:


American Spiritual Writing
(annual series, edited by Philip Zaleski)

(*Note: The 2011 edition is introduced by Billy Collins. See
the 2000 edition for a listing of the Top 100 Spiritual Books of the Twentieth
Century chosen by a committee of experts. To name a few of their top ten: Black Elk Speaks; Martin Buber’s I and Thou; T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets; Abraham Joshua
Heschel’s God in Search of Man; and Shunryu
Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.)

The History of World
(Huston Smith)
Dakota and Cloister Walk (Kathleen Norris)
The Orthodox Church (Timothy

The God Delusion
(Richard Dawkins)

Life is a Miracle
(Wendell Berry)

Waiting for God
(Simone Weil)

Concerning the
Spiritual in Art
(Wassily Kandinsky)

For the Time Being
(Annie Dillard)

Going on Faith: Writing
as a Spiritual Act
(edited by William Zinnser)

The Way of the Spirit  (Linda Hogan)
Essays by Brian Doyle (found in Portland
and Orion Magazine)


The Soul is Here for
Its Own Joy
(edited by Robert Bly)

Mary Oliver New &
Selected Poems

The Essential Rumi
(Coleman Barks & John Moyne)

A Book of Luminous
(Czeslaw Milosz)

Zen Poems
(Everyman’s Library Pocket Poetry)

Anna Akhmatova (biography
of the Russian poetess by Roberta Reeder)


Image Journal

Weavings Journal
Portland (as in U of Portland) Magazine
Notre Dame Magazine


Loyola Press

Paraclete Press
Pendle Hill Publications (Quaker)
HarperOne San

New Directions

Kathleen Tarr is a
long-time Alaskan and was the first program coordinator of UAA’s new
low-residency MFA Program from 2007-2011. Her work has appeared in
Creative Nonfiction, Alaska Airlines Magazine, Cirque, 49 Writers, TriQuarterly,
and is forthcoming in
The Sewanee Review.
She is a founding member of 49 Writers and has taught creative writing at UAA.
She earned her MFA in creative nonfiction from the
University of Pittsburgh.

3 thoughts on “Kathleen Tarr: On Salman Rushdie and the Necessity of the Imaginative Dimension”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Kathy — thanks for all of your posts and especially for this very helpful reading and resource list. I already own "Cloister Walk" — on my TBR bookshelf, and you've reminded me that I really should read Rushdie's memoir. Thanks and good writing to you!

  2. Great posts this month, thanks to Kathy for good thoughts and resources.

    I have to add a few:
    Meister Ekhart
    Tao te Ching
    Narrow Road to the Interior (Basho)
    An Interrupted Life (Etty Hillesum)
    Man's Search for Meaning (Victor Frankl)
    Buddhism Without Beliefs ( and other by Stephen Batchelor)

    Could go on and on….

  3. For reasons I can't entirely explain, I lately find myself drawn to spiritual matters and writings (including the great poetry anthology THE RAG AND BONE SHOP OF THE HEART: POEMS FOR MEN, co-edited by Robert Bly, James Hillman and Michael Meade), so I add my thanks to Kathy for the reading/resources list and especially your thoughtful postings on spiritual writing and related topics.

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