For most of last week I was at the PEN conference in New York. I missed last year’s because I was in Los Angeles losing the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Best First Work of Fiction to Uzodimna Iweala’s Beasts Of No Nation. This year’s theme was Home and Away and I made sure to go for many reasons, not the least being that ‘home and away’ defines my very existence. At home my wish to be away comes down on me like a sickness. Away, where I can convert home into a concept instead of a place, I miss the idea of Jamaica only to go home and be confronted with the reality of Jamaican life and pine yet again for being away.
Anyway I’m at this PEN Conference and the one set of people you cannot get away from are writers. Around writers I cease being a writer and I hate it. I become a speechless, awkward fan and try to stay as far away from them as possible. Especially if I idolize the writer. In some alternative universe I’m being dismissed by some of those writers as the aloof snob with dreadlocks who hovers in and out of readings and never talks to people, when I truth I’m just a fan who has gotten drunk on their work in the past and fear that in meeting them I will blow it and come across as the same gushing, guffawing nerd that nobody likes.
On 12th Street I literally ran into the always nice and graceful Francine Prose who gave me a big hug to which my response was to re-introduce myself again, “Hi I’m Marlon James, we met at Miami Book Fair,” which was a pretty stupid thing to say to a person hugging me. She was trying to find Nadine Gordimer who was going hog wild over New York City in a taxi and I tried not be wowed by the remark as if, of course, that crazy South African, you know how our Nadine is. But there, right in front of NYU’s Tishman Auditorium I saw Salman Rushdie for the second time.
I had seen him that Friday evening waiting outside for a panel discussion between Vikram Chandra and Kiran Desai and it was as if some deity had come in the room to deign us with his brief presence. Mark from The Elegant Variation then told me how he had met him not long after 9/11 (at a restaurant or museum I think) and Rushdie and his wife invited him over. Or rather how he was too chickenshit to introduce himself and his girlfriend bellowed, as girlfriends sometimes do, that Mark was his biggest fan but was too shy to come over and introduce himself. In that split second, sitting in that theatre with Rushdie ten or so rows ahead of me, I realized what girlfriends are for: to be the man that men sometimes aren’t man enough to be. But then I met Maud Newton, writer of the best literary blog in America and the woman behind at least 50% of the new traffic to my blog and was kinda starstruck again. I looked down ten rows for that bushy balding head and he was gone.
Most of the writers I’ve met have been very nice. At the “Granta’s Best Young American Novelists,” panel I met a few. Gary Shteyngart, author of 2006’s best novel, Absurdistan, was a riot. He was every bit as funny as his book and me, unable to stop the torrent of fanboy mania once I started told him that I wrote a blog about him and that his was the kind of book that makes me want to write books. He asked if I was a writer and I told him that I was nominated for an award along with Uzodimna and Olga Grushin who were both on the panel. He wrote down the name of my book, which I thought was really nice and even if it wasn’t sincere it doesn’t matter in the least. I think authors, even the greatest and finest are still genuinely happy to meet people who get their work and most seemed to be impressed if not stunned by somebody in a Jamaican accent talking to them about their book. Alas Rushdie was clear across town at another panel.
But there he was again on Saturday afternoon, in front of Tishman’s Auditorium and by himself. By himself, he is by himself, I thought. People were talking to him but he was mostly alone, lingering outside the theatre like everybody else, a fan of literature waiting for an event to start. He was literally in my way; to get inside I would have had to either give him a wide berth and say excuse me. Of course nobody says excuse me to Salman Rushdie. I have no idea how this works when you encounter famous people. If you make a big deal then you might give them the exact public awkwardness they probably despise, but if you act as if they don’t matter then it seems almost like reverse snobbery or colossal ignorance, as if the person is irrelevant even if you are at an event where he is clearly the focus. Not that the event was about him, but as the Chairman of PEN, an organization of which I am a member, to act as if I don’t know who he is would have been disingenuous, not mentioned awfully unsubtle.
Them Mark hailed me from down the street and I felt both relief at being called out of this dilemma and saddened that I’m really not going to meet this guy. If you’re never read this blog then you don’t know that Salman Rushdie is by and large the writer who made me want to write the books. In 1999, I had finished my first novel, all 400 pages of it when I read Rushdie’s Shame and promptly destroyed my manuscript. That wasn’t a book, is said pointing at my manuscript. This is a book! I said clutching his. I remember reading it in church and people being so disturbed by my outbursts of laughter that they thought I was possessed (I had the book hidden in a bible). Rushdie exploded my conception of what a novelist could write, how he should write and what he could say. And who knows, maybe this is all stuff that he might have enjoyed hearing, even though lord knows Rushdie does not need affirmation from some indie novelist who has only written one book.
There’s something else. Like any other big fan of an artist’s work, I dread meeting Rushdie because it might ruin my image of him. Most of the writers I’ve met are nice and some have become really good friends but there is still this crushing fear that maybe my hero is an asshole, which will all but ruin my hero worship or worse turn me into those emotionally removed but still pathetic former fans who demur that “ I still think he’s a great writer,” to mask genuine hurt. Like any fan I think I need my heroes to be heroic and not real people, and instead of knowing him to be a jerk I’d rather not know him at all. As Mark and I took our seats, I looked around for the balding head or the glasses shielding those eyes that always look as if he knows something you don’t. But he was gone.