In December, at The Symphony Space in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, professional actors dramatized the work of two famous authors. Before the performance, the writers personally introduced their work to the audience. These authors were Teju Cole, author of the 2011 PEN/Hemingway winner, Open City, and Salman Rushdie, writer of The Satanic Verses and the classic novel Midnight’s Children.
Cole, in one of the many moments of humor in the night, directed attention to what he saw as the elephant in the room—that he was standing next to Salman Rushdie. The audience laughed heartily, but the truth at the core of his punchline was ultimately ambiguous. Yes, it could have been classic self-deprecation: that Cole, a young author, was beside this legend: a writer who not only added to the canon, but has defied the threat of death to so. But perhaps the more likely insight of Cole’s joke, the nugget of truth the audience identified with, was his intensely relatable enthusiasm. Cole made sure that he and the audience were forced to acknowledge their luck in bearing witness not only to significant talent, but to see it take form in such a novel way.
Selected Shorts, a long-running event series at The Symphony Space, includes the normal features of an author event, the talk with the author, the book-signing, etc. However, the readings are not carried out by the writer, but are performed by professional actors. When a short story is read aloud for an audience, certain parts stick out that otherwise might have been underplayed in a solitary mind’s ear. The stories get more laughs, the characters are assigned distinct voices, and the audience is delighted by the benefits of reading a story through another person. By calling upon both performer and writer, Selected Shorts intensifies the ability of a public reading to reveal a story anew. Even the authors were stunned - and even instructed - by the artful reading of their work. Rushdie said hearing his stories in another’s voice was an “unusual experience,” and Cole confessed, “with [actor Zainab Jah’s] reading, the story finally came home.”
Upon close inspection, Cole and Rushdie are a fitting artistic pairing. Cole praised Rushdie for playing a major role in bringing the English speaking world’s attention to numerous Asian and African writers. Cole, who spent his youth in Nigeria and the US, recognized a kinship and a debt to his fellow cross-cultural author. The two share another, less likely bond: Twitter. Rushdie mentioned he was impressed by Cole’s clever and brief wisdom, with such gems as: “Writing as writing. Writing as rioting. Writing as righting. On the best days, all three.” Twitter is not useful for many reasons, Rushdie chided, but it is a suitable way for many to be exposed to the minds of today’s best thinkers and artists.
The first performance was Salman Rushdie’s “A Globe of Heaven,” read by actor Blythe Danner. Her poised manner was a well-suited contrast to the peculiar subject matter of the story, that of a globe restorer navigating through the theory that globes found in the sands of the Mexican desert were made by aliens. The second story was by Cole, about students in an all-girl’s school in 60s Nigeria. It was read by up-and-coming theatre actor Zainab Jah. The story is somewhat unusual for Cole, who usually writes in a style that is deceptively like autobiography. In this captivating story, he set out to illustrate what he imagines his mother’s childhood was like.
Cole was delightfully enthusiastic about the talent of the night. When asked what actors he would like to read his work for the event, he answered Jeffrey Wright, who can be seen in The Hunger Games and recent James Bond movies, and his wish was happily granted. He came to the stage with the returning Blythe Danner to read Cole’s “Small Fates,” a series of bite-sized stories ripped from newspaper articles from 1912. Many of these were followed by the audience’s laughter, and further asserted Cole’s mastery of the shortest of fictional forms. The final reading was performed by Michael Stuhlbarg, who gave an uproarious reading of Rushdie’s “In the South,” recently published in the New Yorker. It focuses on two curmudgeonly old men who discuss the waning of their lives. Stuhlbarg brought the two characters to life with an exuberance that is rarely seen in theatre, let alone at a reading of a work of prose.
At the beginning of the event, Salman Rushdie referenced the raconteurs of India who measure the success of a story by the attentiveness of their listeners. If this metric is accurate, then the night was an overwhelming success.