On the Coattails of Sir Salman

There was something miraculous about the National Book Festival in Washington D.C. this past Saturday. Out on the Mall, that long grassy stretch between the U.S. Capitol and the monuments, we had expected torrential and unrelieved rain. The Weather Channel had told us so. The airports, we were also warned, would be affected -- planes backed up, authors stranded, unable to reach the capital. We at Book World assumed that readers, unwilling to brave the deluge, would do the sensible thing and stay home. We donned our storm gear and pushed out into morning, expecting the worst.

And yet to walk onto the Mall on Saturday morning was to walk into a sun-dappled field. Black clouds ringed the city, churning ominously in the distance, but on the green, where white tents rose up like so many domes in Xanadu (offering their pleasures), a vault of blue sky hung overhead. For a blissful six hours, from 10 to 4, it was easy to believe that we who loved books were the chosen.

And just as we were being convinced that this was so, there was Salman Rushdie, striding past on the green, wandering from tent to tent, like a moghul in one of his own stories.

Not two hours later, I was in a golf cart beside Rushdie, as we sped over the mud of the night before to the Fiction & Fantasy pavilion, where I was to interview him. Our driver, a sunny volunteer from the Library of Congress, called over her shoulder, "So, how's it feel to be a knight at the Court of St. James?"

"Oh, I don't know. A little awkward, I guess," he replied. "But my children love it!" And then he went on to say, "Funny thing, in America, some call me Sir Rushdie, which is all wrong, of course. That would be like calling Sir Lancelot 'Sir du Lac'!"

We got to the tent a little early and, as we waited outside for another storyteller to finish, a crowd began to swirl around Rushdie. Parents asked if they could photograph him with their children. He obliged, graciously. A fan from Mumbai said he remembered reading "Midnight's Children" back when Rushdie was a virtual unknown. "I knew you were great before anyone else knew it!" he said, professing special powers. "Thank you! Thank you!" Rushdie beamed. Everywhere, people seemed awed that he was there and expressed worry for his welfare. "I've been out and about for 10 years!" Rushdie insisted. It turned out that it was 20 years to the day since the publication of "Satanic Verses." Yet the nervousness for him was palpable.

In the Fiction & Fantasy tent, the audience that had gathered to hear Rushdie was overflowing. The festival, as advertised, was open and free to the public, so there had been no effort to control the crowds. (Apparently, a bit of Secret Service muscle had been applied on behalf of the First Lady, who, with daughter Jenna, had presented their book "Read All About It!" in the Children's pavilion earlier that morning). Behind the hundreds of chairs facing Rushdie, rows upon rows of people stood, beyond the shelter of the tent's white wings. They seemed expectant, wide-eyed, a little dazed that this writer who had been marked for death by Ayatollah Khomeini's 1989 fatwah, was there in their midst, with no protection, no security guards. Later, when someone asked, "How is it you are walking about so fearlessly?," he responded, "How could I be unsafe around people like you?"

There were other magical moments: Paul Theroux, reminding the audience that he was as old as Dick Cheney, talked about his most recent trip and asked whether his listeners could imagine the Vice President out in an African rain squall, running after a ramshackle bus in desperation. James McBride was just finishing a spiel about "Song Yet Sung" when a listener rushed to the microphone and asked, ""You've had such an interesting life, Mr. McBride, being raised by a Jewish mother and an African-American father! Have you ever thought of writing about it?" "Well, yes," the author of "The Color of Water" replied kindly. "I have thought about that. I've thought about it a lot."

Tony Horwitz described walking in Ponce de Leon's boots in the oppressive heat of a Florida re-enactment, wearing a full suit of wool undergarments, chain mail and conquistador's duds, wishing he could spear every smart-mouthed tourist who happened along. Across the way in the Children's pavilion, a child coaxed Dionne Warwick to sing a few lines from "Say a Little Prayer," the title of her new book.

Back in the VIP tent, where authors could retreat for food and coffee, Francine Prose confessed that even with all the magic, she hadn't been able to hold her tongue. At the White House breakfast early that morning, under the dark ring of clouds that had threatened the city, she had put it to Laura Bush directly: "Mrs. Bush, I'm deeply impressed by all you do for American children. I only wish you cared as much for the children of Iraq."

At four o'clock, I was sitting, listening to historian/journalist Rick Atkinson remind us that it took Rome 300 years to collapse (longer than the United States of America has been in existence), when the rain finally began to fall. No one budged. The crowd under the canvas was transfixed. The rows of SRO out under the firmament simply opened their umbrellas. Only I, among 120,000 festival goers, seemed worried about the fury overhead.

The war in Iraq, the economic turmoil, the campaign vicissitudes had receded to a parallel universe. Only books and their authors reigned.

-- Marie Arana

By Marie Arana |  September 29, 2008; 7:51 AM ET Marie Arana
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>>Back in the VIP tent, where authors could retreat for food and coffee, Francine Prose confessed that even with all the magic, she hadn't been able to hold her tongue. At the White House breakfast early that morning, under the dark ring of clouds that had threatened the city, she had put it to Laura Bush directly: "Mrs. Bush, I'm deeply impressed by all you do for American children. I only wish you cared as much for the children of Iraq."

Francine Prose about Francine Prose: "Oooh, look how radical that woman is! Shocking. Daring. How brave!"

Everyone else about Francine Prose: "Typical of her to gloat. Probably never happened."

Posted by: A | September 29, 2008 2:11 PM

The Festival was wonderful.
Please keep it alive!

Posted by: english teacher | September 29, 2008 6:54 PM

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