(a hastily snapped photo during company bows at the end of the show – from L, Salman Rushdie, Zainab Jah, Michael Stuhlbarg, Teju Cole, Blythe Danner, Jeffrey Wright, Matthew Love)
Well, it got sort of swept aside in all of the terrible new about human rights violations this week (and the past few weeks) but it turns out yesterday was Human Rights Day. And, as Matthew Love said at the top of the show, could you put better authors on stage to celebrate such a day than Salman Rushdie and Teju Cole?
The evening got off to a swift start with Love bringing out both authors for a brief conversation – one that the authors seemed to wish could go longer (and the audience might not’ve minded either), despite Love’s repeated attempts to curtail it for time constraints. They talked about what makes a good story, both authors attempting to divert the question to their counterpart until Rushdie finally said, calling on the history of the oral tradition (fittingly), that it “makes you want to listen” and that storytelling is “the art of keeping the audience sitting there and not throwing things.” It’s an interesting thought, seeing as these are nominally written stories: they exist, primarily, on paper. Of course, we were there to hear them aloud – but that doesn’t mean the concept doesn’t also apply, in a way, to the written word.
Things kept moving at a steady clip as Rushdie introduced Blythe Danner to read a short story of his, “A Globe of Heaven” – which was, I discovered, originally (apparently) posted on what might well have been Rushdie’s own Tumblr? Anyway, it was a quick story with a light sprinkling of sci-fi mystery to it – and Danner read it with stately warmth, the whole thing being over almost before we realized it had begun.
The first half of the night continued with Teju Cole introducing Zainab Jah, who was reading one of Cole’s few ‘proper’ short stories, “Modern Girls”. Cole’s introduction to the story explained how it veered from his usual semi-autobiographical focus to instead land in the 60s in Nigeria, exploring what (perhaps) his mother’s life might’ve been like. Jah, a magnetic stage performer, brought a fiery pace to the rather long story and while her reading allowed the individual notes of humor to come through (there were quite a few hearty chuckles from the crowd), the story itself seemed not to have much of a center. Individual moments flitted by and were gone, a writerly tic that works well in Cole’s longer work but in this circumstance made the story feel stranded too far from any shore without any way of getting to any of them.
INTERMISSION. My guest last night, writer of short typed fiction and podcast co-host (subscribe please?) Christopher Hermelin, and I discussed Cole’s Open City and Rushdie’s canon (and our gaps in it). We also discussed, as is our wont, the upcoming Tournament of Books shortlist, because why not.
The back half of the evening began with Cole introducing his “favorite actor ever,” Jeffrey Wright, and Ms. Danner, who traded off stories from Cole’s 2012 Twitter experiment, “Small Fates 2012”. For those who don’t follow @tejucole (although he’s been quiet since summer), he’s been doing some really incredible stuff with the form using the 140-character restrictions and it all started (or at least as far as I know, it did) with a project where he would look at NYC newspapers from 1912, find human interest stories (often obits), and then write them up as a one or two sentence mini-story. The results, as he warned us, were often very amusing even as they talked about horrible things like death – and both of the readers, even as they sometimes shook their heads as they read, leaned into that humor. Wright, especially, with his iconic basso voice, seemed to have a gift for delivering the witty one/two-liners with laser-sharp dryness. The whole thing sort of pushed the bounds of “what makes a story” but the back-and-forth between readers as well as the general speed of the statements themselves made for a light and fun segment.
The show closed with Rushdie bringing out the fantastic Michael Stuhlbarg to read “In the South” (you can read it at The New Yorker if you have a subscription). It’s the story of two old men in – well, in the south of India on the day that one of them falls down. Stuhlbarg is a consummate actor – I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him work in close proximity at my day job several times – and he brought such a liveliness to the storytelling. He told the story, didn’t just read it in a stately readerly tone. He adopted slight accents for both of the main characters (Senior and Junior, as they’re known), just enough that it wasn’t offensive but rather just some color to the telling. He gestured, he smiled, he frowned, he laughed, he really got into the thing. It was one of the most remarkable readings I’ve ever seen, elevated no doubt by the terrific story itself – full of humor and love and sorrow and life, even in the face of death. It was a long story, far longer than any of the others in the program, but it felt like it could’ve gone on another half again without anyone getting weary. I can’t wait for you all to hear it when it makes its way to the podcast.
The evening ended with the company bow and a signing, for which I did not stick around. But as I left Christopher and hopped on the bus across town, I found myself so grateful to be in a world where we not only have stories like “In the South” but people to tell them, too. Moments like that make my day job in the theater that much more special, because everything seems to converge.
(A big thanks to the folks at Symphony Space and Selected Shorts – if you’re not going to their events or subscribing to the podcast, you are missing out! And be sure to catch RB’s recaps of earlier Selected Shorts from this year, including The Best American Short Stories 2014 and the 30th Anniversary Gala!)
(EDIT 2:33pm: I just also want to shout out Alder and their new bar-burger. Christopher and I popped in there and even though there was only one seat left at the bar, they took pity on our need to rush to Symphony Space and let us stand and order at the corner of the bar. And it was a delicious burger too. So, hey, thanks Alder.)