Imaginary Homelands

by Salman Rushdie

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Last Updated on December 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 805

Salman Rushdie’s essay “Imaginary Homelands” begins with an image of a photograph in the room where he writes. It is a picture of the house in which he lived as a child, taken before he was born, and he keeps it there to remind him “that the past is home, albeit a lost home in a lost city in the mists of lost time.”

On a trip to Bombay a few years before he wrote the essay, Rushdie saw his father’s house again after a long time, not in black and white but in “glorious Technicolor.” The wish to restore the past which accompanied this sight inspired him to write the novel Midnight’s Children. Rushdie realizes that because emigrant writers lose touch with the physical reality of the places in which they grew up, they necessarily create fictionalized versions of them: that is, imaginary homelands. Because he wanted to make it clear that he was wrong about “his” India, a version of the country he would never claim to be definitive, Rushdie made the protagonist of Midnight’s Children, Saleem, an unreliable narrator with a fallible memory.

Rushdie then discusses the fallibility and fragmentation of memory in more general terms. He argues that fragmentary memories are not only inevitable; in fact, they may actually be a virtue in a writer, as “fragmentation made trivial things seem like symbols, and the mundane acquired numinous qualities.” This fragmentary perception is also a reflection of the human condition. We are “Partial beings, in all the senses of that phrase,” building meaning out of scraps. Paradoxically, though, we become more partial as we draw closer to the present, an effect which Saleem, the narrator of Midnight’s Children, compares to moving closer to a cinema screen: to get too close is to see nothing clearly.

There follows a more general question about the purpose of literature. Do writers only seek to describe the world, or should they have a more political purpose? Rushdie first observes that description itself may be a political act, particularly when the writer is contesting an officially recognized, state-sanctioned “truth.” However, some people might argue that an emigrant writer is a mere “dilettante,” with no right to comment on, for instance, the political situation in India. His answer is to say that

Literature is self-validating . . . a book is not justified by its author’s worthiness to write it, but by the quality of what has been written.

Expatriate Indian writers, Rushdie argues, are not required to give up any part of their heritage, Western or Indian. Their dual or plural nature is a fertile source of material, and their distance causes them to think critically about matters that local writers may take as a matter of course.

The diversity of British Indian writers in particular covers not only the different countries they come from—India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, South Africa—but also the places they come to in Britain. This community of writers is not simply adopting the language of the former colonial overlords, but remaking it for new purposes:

To conquer English may be to complete the process of making ourselves free.

Rushdie comments on the liminal area of culture occupied by writers who are both Western and Indian, and the questions which arise from this state, all of which boil down to a single existential question: How are we to live in the world? Beyond this universal theme, Rushdie comments that an Indian writer has a unique perspective on the majority white culture they inhabit, being in it but not of it, both insider and outsider. This unique “stereoscopic vision” is something they offer instead of “whole sight.”

Finally, Rushdie warns against the danger of adopting a “ghetto mentality.” He says that he has never written for a particular audience. He wants to reach anyone he can, though he is especially concerned with “people who feel part of the things I write ‘about.’” Western writers have always felt free to place their writing in the setting they felt suited it best. Indian writers, Rushdie, suggests, should not only claim this right, but also that of writing about migration and displacement themselves as phenomena that have been central to their experience.

The novel form is now inescapably international, and it is “one of the more pleasant freedoms of the literary migrant to be able to choose his parents.” Rushdie’s major influences come from all over the world and include Gogol, Cervantes, Kafka, Melville, and Machado de Assis. He ends with an image from Saul Bellow in which a dog’s barking is understood as a protest against the limitations of its own experience. The dog is saying,

For God’s sake, open the universe a little more!

Rushdie says these words express his desire—and perhaps everyone else’s as well.

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