Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Reading Response to Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories

ENG 358 Nonwestern Lit - WIU
Reading Response 1
January 25th 2006

When I was a young child, I often read The Beast in the Bathtub and The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry and the Big Hungry Bear before saying a communal prayer with my siblings and falling asleep. But when I—then a Catholic—made my first communion, my reading material changed. I received versions of Bible stories that were meant for children, and I felt a burdensome responsibility to read and memorize these stories, which I was told were true. At that time, it was my understanding that reading a true story was different than reading a story that someone made up—I didn’t know that a story is still a story whether it is based on someone’s experience or not. The pleasure of my imagination was fogged by feelings of guilt and vulnerability when I read Bible stories, believing that reading “true” stories would hold adult consequences. I didn’t have the ability to understand or discuss the stories with anyone, so each sentence loomed over my caged imagination. For awhile, I wasn’t able to enjoy the experience of the story because I was afraid of imagining things that were “wrong” (and, therefore, sinful). Growing up didn’t exactly make things worse; it made things better because I encountered other influences, other stories, that challenged my fears and enlivened my imagination.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a story that reminded me of my childhood ritual of reading the pre-communion books, but Salman Rushdie’s, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, enlightened and sparked in me an interest in understanding the pleasure and power of stories, as well the role that stories play in childhood development. Rushdie’s story cannot be simply categorized or labeled as being appropriate for one age group and not another because among the stories within the stories there are even more stories. The narrative transforms itself and therefore has multiple meanings, depending upon who is reading it. Each reader reads her own story into Rushdie’s story experiences the story differently, reading different meanings into the text. While I am interested in character and context, what I am most interested in is the effect that this narrative has on its reader. I was torn because the elements of stories held different meanings for me, depending on whether I assumed the role of an academic reader or as a nonacademic reader with inner child. Though I used both reading styles, ultimately I chose to be an academic reader for class (though I plan to further explore the child in me at another time).

As a story about stories, Haroun blurs the boundaries between worlds, as well as between reality and fiction. In a world of disclaimers, we often feel the need to put everything into a category in order to protect ourselves. Rushdie doesn’t ignore our curiosity and need to describe the world around us, but he challenges the boundaries of this real world by creating new realities and labels for those realities. One way that Rushie accomplishes this is by mixing the senses that we already know, in order to invent new senses (for instance, smelling unhappiness). While many of us may accept the idea (or comment) that a person can sound unhappy, we normally do not think that a person can smell unhappy. By pairing one of the senses with a concept that we wouldn’t normally associate it with, Rushdie encourages readers to question some of our beliefs about what is real and what isn’t real, and to let go of our need to relate everything to our world. He doesn’t label the worlds that surround Haroun as real or not, and, in fact, does not label or define the worlds at all. This allows enough space for the reader to reflect on her response to the otherworldliness of the story, without abandoning the language that we know.

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