If you’ve not read “The Golden House”, please be aware there may be the odd spoiler below
Salman Rushdie was at the Hay Festival talking about his new book “The Golden House”
I’ve read a four of Mr Rushdie’s books (yes, I just went off to Goodreads to count them) with “Midnight’s Children” featuring at the top of my favourite books. I read “The Satanic Verses” first and thought that whilst a clever idea, it was clear a backlash of significant proportions was likely. This led to my leaping (what can I say – I was young) to the conclusion that he must be a decidedly arrogant man. My decision to select this session was an attempt to see if I had been justified in that rapidly reached opinion.
Long story short – I wasn’t. At all. I scribbled the following words in my notebook during the session – erudite, well-read, charming and witty – and honestly, there is no higher praise in my world.
Rushdie was speaking to Tishani Doshi and, despite being on a stage in front of a packed audience, this felt like a couple of friends comfortably chatting with one another. There was laughter, political commentary and talk about the book.
“The Golden House” was written as an immediate reaction to his previous novel “Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights” which Rushdie described as a ‘fairytale’ novel based in New York. He wanted to write another novel based in New York, but to do something different – a social novel. He also had a character and a story in his head, which came out of the attacks in Bombay – a combination of jihadi, the criminal underworld and ultra wealthy. This was Nero Golden – someone who wanted to escape his past, and what better place to do this than New York.
The area where the Goldens live in New York is real – originally created as cheap housing for artists, it is now quite the opposite – the house itself is his creation. Inspired by Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”, Rushie cast the house as a protaganist. Asked by Doshi “What does a house represent?” the immediate response was “a home, the place where your books are” – which extended to Rushdie making the admission that he finds it hard to write without his books around him (as he was forced to do when he was in hiding – coincidentally not very far from Hay-on-Wye, as many a local subsequently told us). Stating that everything he’s ever written has come out of South Bombay – specifically an area of 12 houses called the Westfield Estate (which he renamed Methwold’s Estate in Midnight’s Children) near Malabar Hill. His birthplace and somewhere he still dreams about, was called Windsor Villa – as Rushdie described it “all very English”.
Determined to have a narrator who was as different from himself as possible – René is white, young and a native of New York who finds himself surrounded by immigrants – Rushdie even decided to change the character from a writer to a filmmaker. Doshi asked whether this was to allow him to include some of their recently shared experiences of Hollywood. Laughing, Rushdie explained to the audience that “when in the movie world someone says ‘we love you and back you 1000%’ – what they’re really doing is just saying hello.”
Finding Indian and western myths very inspirational, Rushdie says his book was inspired by Greek tragedy, with its inevitability of outcome. Describing the tale as “a tragedy within a tragedy” where a family flee to another country wanting to escape their identity, then finding that their identity has come too, Rushdie makes a quip to the audience “in real life one can escape it … but not in fiction!”
His decision to name the family ‘Golden’ was an easy one as the book is about money – “like the world is currently … even though it was written before Trump happened” to which Doshi quipped “is it your fault then?”
Name-checking Junot Diaz and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as young writers who’ve provided him inspiration, Rushdie expressed how important it is to get things right. Citing as an example two of Nero’s sons – he wrote these characters as having high functioning autism and gender issues respectively. Whilst having friends whose children had these issues (and possibly provided the inspiration for this decision), Rushdie spent considerable time carrying out proper research into both subjects.
Despite having lived in New York for 20 years, Rushdie views that it is still an immigrant world he lives in – a view likely to have provided the inspiration for the ‘Museum of Identity’ in the book. Despite being a Rushdie construct, it was so believable that it is now regularly searched for on Google! Expounding on the subject that identity politics asks you to identify as one chosen thing, Rushdie expressed that such renouncing makes conflict more likely because human beings are multifarious and contradictory, not unitarian single things. Worse, that if you write that way, the character doesn’t work – because we are not flat but rounded, not coherent but contradictory.
The Golden House doesn’t number among the four Rushdie novels I’ve read to date, but it was downloaded onto Kindle immediately after my visit – that decision being based entirely on what I heard at Hay. I started it yesterday … and it’s already looking good.
© Debra Carey, 2018