The Committee’s Motivation Speech to Sir Salman Rushdie

The Hans Christian Andersen Literature Award Committee’s
motivation Speech to Sir Salman Rushdie

In the spring of 1862, 57-year-old poet Hans Christian Andersen tells his friends that he is about to embark on yet another long trip; he is going to visit Spain and perhaps also Africa. “After all, I am young at heart”, he emphasizes. Later that year, he confides in his diary that he goes swimming in Barcelona – donning Spanish swimming trunks – and that he feels thoroughly refreshed from the experience. There are no photographs documenting this occasion, but the trip did result in the modern-style travel book entitled ´In Spain`.

Hans Christian Andersen was not only the master of the fairytale, but also an attentive and freely experimental author of travel books who undauntedly mixed lyric poetry with narration and reportage. In the letters dating from 1862, Andersen celebrates the fact that his works have become well-known in India thanks to translation of his fairytales by Hindus, and that ´The Story of a Mother´ in particular seems to have gained widespread popularity there. Andersen writes “that my storytelling should have traveled all the way to the motherland of the poet Kalidasa and there found itself a home, well, that is a wonderful dream come true for me, indeed a fairytale”.

Today, Odense receives the visit of a poet who has been all around the world, e.g. India, Pakistan, Europe and the US, and whose adventurous novels have long found a home in Denmark. This year’s winner of the Hans Christian Andersen Literature Award, Sir Salman Rushdie, has written books whose content of stories and fairytales belong right here in Odense and everywhere else in the world where readers love stories that speak directly to the heart and challenge thoughts with wonderful plots and a multitude of characters. Among Rushdie’s chief works are the 1981 novel ´Midnight’s Children´; a great epic about the birth of modern India, and ´The Satanic Verses´ from 1988, our time’s most important novel on immigration portraying clashes and meetings among cultures, freedom of speech, belonging, and xenophobia in a global context. Among his most recent monumental works is the 2012 autobiography ´Joseph Anton: A Memoir´ which portrays the difficult years after the proclamation of the fatwa, i.e. the religious edict, which all freedom lovers in the world have condemned and actively defied.

Rushdie’s memoir is rife with emotional moments, not least his retelling of how it was to be a schoolboy who was met with racism and bullying in the 1960s’ Great Britain. Hans Christian Andersen grew up in abject poverty in Odense in the 19th century, a long way from the respectable homes of the solid middleclass in Copenhagen. The school he went to was filled with mocking, abuse and blind rage. Andersen was sent off into the world with the infamous parting words “Go to hell!” from the headmaster. In the 20th century, an Indian boy at a boarding school in England felt an enormous disconnect between the world of his childhood and the new strange British environment, and in that context three things counted against him: He was a foreigner, he was academically apt, and he was terrible at sports. ”The lessons one learns at school are not always the ones the school thinks it’s teaching” writes Sir Salman Rushdie in his memoir.

Hans Christian Andersen tried his hand at memoirs by writing several autobiographies; Rushdie has written a huge work of over 600 pages to express his take on this genre. Yet not a single page is superfluous. The linguistic attention which Rushdie gives to the mingling of different languages, e.g. English and Hindi, has been held up as a unique strength in his works, and he has explained that it is important that Indian authors are attentive to the results of encounters between languages of different origins nowadays instead of simply rejecting English for being the language of the colonizers. Language should not be static, but lively and dynamic in thought, feeling and time. Hans Christian Andersen was likewise much attuned to language; spoken as well as written language and regional folk dialects as well as officialese are all present in his fairytales. Linguistic attunement is, of course, a trademark characteristic of every poet, but in the cases of both Rushdie and Andersen the sensitivity is especially heightened due to the culture shocks they went through in their respective time periods. Humor also plays a vital role. It is unrivalled and always linguistically accurate and playful, as when Rushdie in ‘Luka and the Fire of Life’ makes Luka and his companions travel through the land of rats where they learn about the Over Rat and his special status:

‘And who chooses the Over-Rat?’ Luka asked.
‘He chooses himself,’ said Nobodaddy. ‘Actually he chooses himself over and over again, he does it more or less every day, because he likes doing it so much. It’s known as being Over- Rat-ed.’
‘Overrated sounds about right,’ said Dog the bear with a snort, and a number of passing Rats looked round sharply.

There is no shortage of problems for Luka and his companions, but fairytale and reality call for and redeem one another in Rushdie’s story on the close relationship between father and son.

In the memoir ´Joseph Anton´ Rushdie tells us about the unfavorable reception his 2001 novel, ´Fury´, received from the critics. Previously, he had been hurt by bad reviews, but now he is on the road to freedom; no matter what the critics might think, he is certain that he is on the right path. This kind of realization, where calmness and agitation mingle, leads to a special kind of insight. At the end of the memoir, it is stated that literature helps us see that people are capable of much more than they imagine. We might disagree on how to bring up children, on politics and soccer, but we are all afraid of the dark and all want to foster a sense of community. Literature encourages people to comprehend and sympathize with one another. This kind of wisdom and hope is what Sir Salman Rushdie’s works offer people all over the world, and for this, his readers thank him.

We hereby award Sir Salman Rushdie the Hans Christian Andersen Literature Award for detailing the impact that traveling and meetings of cultures have on our age through a brilliant blend of realism and imagination.

Anne-Marie Mai
Professor, Department for the Study of Culture
University of Southern Denmark
Tel. +45 6550 4505
Mobile +45 6483 1740
Email ammai@sdu.dk