Let me be clear. I do not know Salman Rushdie. Oh, I know OF him, of course. He has been one of the world’s most celebrated authors for decades now. I have seen him on television, read about him in newspapers and magazines, listened to his interviews. We have some mutual friends and acquaintances, I believe, for the world of publishing is a small one, but we’ve never been in the same place at the same time that I recall. I doubt that he has ever read any of my work, and I am abashed to admit that I have never read any of his.
Not for any particular reason. There are hundreds of authors whose books I keep meaning to read, without ever quite getting to them. My unread shelves hold more books than I could possibly read if I lived to be a hundred and did nothing between now and then but read, all day, every day. There are classics of English literature that I know only from the CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED comic books I read in the 50s. There are major seminal works of science fiction and fantasy gathering dust on my shelves. One day, I tell myself, one day. There are books I have loved… yet other titles by the same writers remain “to be read.” So my neglect of Rushdie really had nothing at all to do with him, and everything to do with how many books there are in the world, and how few hours in the day.
Not (yet) having read Rushdie’s novels did not keep me from admiring the man… from afar, as it were. Along with the rest of the world, I read of the turmoil around THE SATANIC VERSES and the fatwa declared against him by the ayatollahs of Iran. For the “crime” of writing a book that some people did not like, he was forced to spend a decade in hiding, surrounded by guards, wearing disguises when he dared leave his house. Through it all, he displayed courage, compassion, and grace under fire, while holding firm to his principles and yielding not an inch to the haters. In more recent years, the danger finally seemed to have ebbed, and Rushdie was once again able to speak and travel and appear in public.
He emerged as one of the world’s leading defenders of free speech, which only deepened my admiration for him. Freedom of speech is a central pillar of our democracy, and every other democracy in the world. There is nothing, but nothing, that I believe in more strongly.
And these days freedom of speech needs defenders, for when I look around, I find it under attack everywhere. Blacklisting, cancel culture, libraries being closed or defunded, classic works of literature being banned or bowdlerized or removed from classrooms, an ever growing list of “toxic” words the mere utterance of which is now forbidden no matter the context or intent, the erosion of civility in discourse. Both the Rabid Right and the Woke Left seem more intent on silencing those whose views they disagree with, rather than besting them in debate. And the consequences for those who dare to say things deemed offensive have been growing ever more dire; jobs lost, careers ended, books cancelled, “deplatforming.”
And now, it seems, attempted murder.
I cannot begin to express how horrified I am by the attack on Salman Rushdie in New York as he was about to give a speech. He was stabbed multiple times by a masked man who leapt onto the stage and rushed at Rushdie before he could say a word. The latest report I’ve read says that Rushdie is off the ventilator and improving, but he will never entirely recover. He suffered damage to his liver, and to his arm. He may lose an eye. The attack took place in front of a large audience who had come to hear him speak… ironically, about America as a haven for dissidents.
The attacker was arrested, and is being held without bail. His name is known, but I will not use it here. He already has an attorney, and I read that he will plead “not guilty” to the various charges being brought against him. When you try to kill someone on a stage in plain view of hundreds… well, I have to wonder how his legal team will dispute his guilt. An insanity defense? The devil made him do it? He was just following orders, a soldier of god? Maybe he just did it for the money. There is a considerable bounty on Rushdie’s head, after all. (Would that those who offered that bounty could also be arrested and tried before the World Court). Perhaps the attacker was drunk, or on drugs. Maybe he’d eaten a Twinkie. No doubt we will learn his motive when the case comes to trial. (Will the trial be televised? Will the public follow it as avidly as they did the Johnny Depp/ Amber Heard case? Call me cynical, but somehow I doubt it).
I think we all know what motivated the attack, however. We know what Salman Rushdie did. We have known for many years.
He wrote a book.
A book that a lot of people did not like.
I don’t know Salman Rushdie, as I said. That cannot be helped. There’s not much I can do for him… except to hope that he makes a full recovery, or as much of a recovery as he can possibly make, given his injuries… or maybe I should call them wounds. For that is what they are, wounds received in battle in a war he has been fighting most of his life, a war for freedom of speech, for art, for compassion.
I don’t know Salman Rushdie’s work either, however… and THAT is something I can do something about. I just placed an order for copies of THE SATANIC VERSES, MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN, and several of his other books. And I have instructed the managers at Beastly Books, my little bookshop here in Santa Fe, to order every Rushdie title presently in print. Beastly is not an ordinary general interest bookshop (Santa Fe has several of those); almost of the books it stocks are autographed. They carry my own titles, of course, along with books by the authors who have appeared at Beastly Books and the Jean Cocteau Cinema over the years for signings, interviews, readings, and other events. Rushdie’s books would not previously have been on our shelves, no more than those of thousands of other writers who we have never hosted. But that’s changing, as of today. From here on, we will be stocking everything Rushdie wrote…
The man who rushed on stage in Chautauqua with knife in hand wanted to do more than murder Salman Rushdie. He wanted to silence him.
Well, fuck that. I say, let his voice be heard.
I hope that all of you reading this will join me.
If, like me, you have never read his books, if he’s only someone you saw on the news, go out and buy THE SATANIC VERSES. Or any of his books, actually… but SATANIC VERSES is the one that will make the point most clearly. If you already have a copy on your shelves, great… but he has lots of other books, buy some of them. Tell your local bookstore to put his novels on their shelves. Make sure your local library stocks them.
If enough of us out there truly believe in freedom of speech, we can send Salman Rushdie soaring up the bestseller lists again. Nothing would please me more than to see THE SATANIC VERSES rise to #1, decades after its original publication. Nothing would make the point more clearly.
Current Mood: angry