Why you should care
Because this book picked up on things even the author didn’t.
Sir Salman Rushdie is back in the headlines with the news that his most celebrated novel, Midnight’s Children, will become a Netflix series. While Rushdie says he’d be happy for the book to be adapted into any format — including a Broadway musical — we checked in with him at OZY Fest in New York’s Central Park about his most recent work, The Golden House, and the state of American literature.
Donald Trump doesn’t appear in your newest novel, The Golden House … but you’ve said he was part of the inspiration behind the character of the Joker.
Rushdie: It tries to do that risky thing of writing about the exact moment the book is written in. There isn’t anybody called Donald Trump in the book. But it occurred to me that in a deck of playing cards, there are only two cards that behave badly: One of them is the trump and the other is the joker. I thought, if I can’t have the Trump, I’ll have the Joker. He becomes my stand-in for Trump.
Most of the novel is not a magic-realist novel. There’s one element which is surrealist, this cartoon character who runs for president. And I must say that seems more realistic every day. Here we are, being governed by a cartoon character. But the words “Donald Trump” don’t occur, I’m happy to say. If only that were true on a larger scale.
Right up until Election Day, when I went to cast my vote, I thought, well, maybe tonight we’ll have a woman president. But my book, which I was writing at the time, was absolutely clear that that wasn’t going to happen, and the logic of the book led inexorably in the other direction. Sometimes the work of art can be more intelligent than the artist. Once it happened, I didn’t have to change anything because the book already knew.
I think [Trump] thought we had deeply bonded over Crosby, Stills & Nash.
But you have actually met Donald Trump, right?
Rushdie: Long before he admitted to any presidential ambitions. I met him in the most bizarre way, by accident at Madison Square Garden at a concert of Crosby, Stills & Nash. Neil Young had the sense to stay away. Just by chance, I was sitting next to him and his kids, those two horrible boys and a much-younger jailbait Ivanka. And I thought they can’t have brought him; Crosby, Stills & Nash are not their music. He must have brought them. And he knew all the words to all the songs.
Now, I thought this was a chance encounter, but I think he thought we had deeply bonded over Crosby, Stills & Nash. I ran into him twice more, and he was always deeply flattering. He offered me his box at the U.S. Open. He said, “You really need to see my box, it’s the best box. It’s like none of the other boxes.” This is my close, friendly relationship with Donald Trump.
What are you excited about on the American literary scene?
Rushdie: I think there’s something very interesting happening in American literature. This young generation of writers is so extraordinarily ethnically diverse. You have writers from literally everywhere, and suddenly all these stories from everywhere in the world are becoming part of American literature. And I’m an immigrant too! I have suitcases full of stories from everywhere as well. Maybe I’ll just unpack some of those suitcases and throw them at the Empire State Building and see what happens.
And what do you think of the concept of the literary canon?
Rushdie: I have no problem with dead white men. I think there were several dead white men who were very good writers. William Shakespeare, Herman Melville, I don’t mind them. But we are rethinking the canon, and I think that’s a good thing. I also think there’s a problem, which is particularly acute in this country: very little gets translated. Only 2 or 3 percent of the books published in America in a year were originally written in a different language — while in France or Germany it’s more like 30 percent — so American readers don’t get a chance to read what the rest of the world is thinking about.