Safety concerns for writers of banned books take spotlight amid Salman Rushdie attack
The freedom of speech through writing is being examined this week after award-winning novelist Salman Rushdie was stabbed multiple times at an event where he was speaking about his work.
A week ago today, The Satanic Verses author was stabbed while on stage at the Chautauqua Institution, a nonprofit education center in western New York that regularly invites authors and other creatives to provide lectures. Currently jailed, the assailant reportedly planned the attack after reading two pages of the author’s controversial 1988 novel. The novel provoked the Iranian leader in 1989 to deliver a fatwa ordering anyone the right to kill the author and his publishers.
Despite feelings toward the book’s content and the author’s alleged behavior toward his ex-wife Padma Lakshmi detailed in her memoir, the literary community is shocked by the violent attack over a banned book as freedom of speech seems to be increasingly under threat for writers.
Organizations such as PEN America came out in support of Salman Rushdie. Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, wrote in a statement: “We can think of no comparable incident of a public violent attack on a literary writer on American soil.” The statement also revealed that the author had emailed the organization that day to “help with placements for Ukrainian writers in need of safe refuge from the grave perils they face.”
PEN America pushed the hashtag campaign #StandWithSalman, which has so far included messages of support from Stephen King and Jeffrey Eugenides. The organization held an event Friday morning with writers reading Salman Rushdie’s works on the steps of The New York Public Library.
Meanwhile, The Satanic Verses reached top spots on the Amazon.com and USA Today best-sellers list. I bought the Kindle version of the novel on Amazon after seeing the long library waits on my Libby app. Raised in a Christian and Muslim household, I wondered about the Islamic themes in the novel, a work of fiction that takes a group of Quranic verses about three pagan Meccan goddesses.
Historians who study religion believe the Islamic prophet Muhammad took the advice of these goddesses believing they were messages from God and preached those messages to his followers. Then the archangel Gabriel appeared and told Muhammad those were not messages from God but from Satan. This religious story is disputed, hence the global controversy around The Satanic Verses that has led to deaths and injuries for many of the novelist’s translators and publishers since the declaration of the fatwa.
When news of the attack broke, some social media users pointed out Padma Lakshmi’s account of her marriage to Salman Rushdie, a short-lived union out of a longtime relationship that many people are learning about now. After seeing Padma speak at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books in 2016, I audio-read her memoir Love, Loss, and What We Ate and recall how her endometriosis diagnosis contributed to their divorce.
Padma, the Top Chef host who brilliantly interweaves her love for food into her life story, shares her thoughts on the famous author, calling him an Indian Hemingway who attracted her “in the soul-sucking intellectual desert that L.A.” was for her.
“Recently I could remember my husband complaining that I rarely wanted to make love, and when I did it was only after we had been drinking. He felt justifiably rejected,” she writes. The second chapter brings up their decline in intimacy due to her reproductive disorder but paints the respected novelist Salman Rushdie as an inconsiderate spouse frustrated by the lack of sex.
Yes, intimate details about two renowned individuals spilled onto the pages of a memoir, but those passages were also brought up in the discussion of last week’s attack. Her tweet revealing her ex-husband’s improving condition almost gained 20,000 likes.
The Satanic Verses shooting up best-seller lists 34 years after it was published shows readers still stand by freedom of speech. At the time of its publishing, the novel had been banned in multiple countries with significant Muslim populations including Iran.
The trend of buying banned books is happening to more recent releases like Ibram X. Kendi’s Antiracist Baby that peaked on best-seller lists after Texas Sen. Ted Cruz decried its antiracism message during the confirmation hearings in March for Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.
When people want to attack books, readers are more likely to buy the books. The purchase can be out of curiosity for the content that’s being banned. Why don’t they want me to read this? In the case for The Satanic Verses, it takes a story from a holy book and reimagines that story in a fictional way interwoven with magical realism.
How the book is classified as fiction must be reiterated since the three-decade upheaval makes it seem like the book is nonfiction. There has been debate about how to approach religious texts classified as nonfiction that can be considered anti-Jewish, anti-Christian, anti-Muslim, or against a particular religion and be misconceived by readers for truth when there are inaccuracies. But this isn’t the case here.
Because Salman Rushdie had a fatwa on him, his safety has been a concern for over 30 years. But with so many books being banned, we have to wonder how high the concern is for other authors’ safety that could be at risk over their decisions to openly discuss their works in public.