Why did The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie's novel about self-doubting Muslims in London and Bombay written almost two decades ago, so resonate continents away in the corner minimalls and polylingual schools of the City of Angels?
The reason is that it told a story about the conflicts within individuals and between cultures that result from the immediate juxtaposition in time (mass media, telecom) and space (migration) of very different worldviews and civilizations. It exposed the spiritual dislocation of fragmented individuals in a fragmented world dealing with its plural identities.
The Satanic Verses dramatized the frictions of the global collage that transpire daily in megacities like Los Angeles which have little identity other than their plurality: LA is a little bit Seoul, Saigon, Taipei, Hong Kong, Mexico City, Managua, San Salvador and Tehran.
Indeed, globalization is turning the entire planet into the kind of edge culture Rushdie's novel described. Increasingly, ours is a world beyond borders in which nations are no longer places defined by their history or ethnicity, but plural spaces through which everything flows from migrants to money, from information to microbes.
Today, societies have evolved far from the pure ideal of "heimat," or homeland. Yet, they are also still far from merging into Teilhard de Chardin's utopian "noosphere," in which the intensive communication enabled by technology ties us all together in a common global consciousness.
A wired world with roots in the air instead of the soil does not in and of itself add up to a cosmopolitan culture. Forging such a culture is largely the task of the arts, especially the new genre of post-national literature of which Rushdie's The Satanic Verses was an early expression.
For all the digital images, satellite signals and instant messages swirling around the vast planetary network, there has so far been precious little advance in the shared understanding which post-national writing can bring. "What most of the mass media offer the public about Iran or Afghanistan or even about America," says the novelist Azar Nafisi, "is not knowledge; it is just soundbites." While the media serves up bits of information or reality TV-type entertainment, only "imaginative knowledge," in Nafisi's term, can create awareness. Above all, it can connect still-closed societies to the outside and let open societies peer into the soul of the Other.
"Part of the reason people liked my book, Reading Lolita in Tehran," Nafisi told NPQ, "was because they could experience through reading it what a young girl experienced in a country called an Islamic Republic. And they realized that her desires and aspirations were not very different from their own."
Salman Rushdie similarly makes the urgent case for literature in a post 9/11 world where "a new darkness and fear" have descended on America's vaunted open culture. "Literature can really help here," Rushdie says, "because it can take away that part of the fear which is based on not knowing things."
Moreover, observed Rushdie, "If you look at the bedrock where the ideas of a culture are forged, it's not on television. The ideas, of course, are afterward discussed and popularized and spread by television, but to this day still, without books, without print culture, society would not have any forum to discuss itself and forge anything new. That is what literature can do. It can still actually be the place from which new ideas, changing of ideas, subtlety and re-imagining of the world, derive."
Albert Einstein famously said that everything had changed in the nuclear age except the way we think. Until lately, one could also say that globalization has changed everything but our narrative literature, which remained national.
As exemplified by the writers who appear in this NPQ, that has begun to change. Post-national literature is a new genre for a new era without boundaries, re-imagining the world and giving voice to the experience we are all living.