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tags: literature, Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie was stabbed repeatedly yesterday at the Chautauqua Institution, in western New York. He is on a ventilator. He has wounds to his neck, stomach, and liver; severed nerves in one of his arms; and, according to his literary agent, Andrew Wylie, will probably lose an eye. This singular symbol of daring artistic ambition has become, suddenly, a flesh-and-blood person in grave suffering.
Over the years, I have interviewed Rushdie at public events in Toronto and New York, and hosted him for events associated with PEN Canada and the University of Toronto. Every time I took part in one of these, my mother would tell me to be careful. Every time, I set aside her warnings. Of course I would appear onstage with Rushdie: My own commitments to freedom of expression and to the higher goods of literature matter more to me than any concern for my personal safety—and appearing with Rushdie, of all people, was about as clear and assured a sign of this as one could give. But also, after so many years, of course I would appear onstage with him: Was anyone really that worked up about Salman Rushdie, or even about novels, anymore? Wasn’t the Satanic Verses controversy just receding history, useful only as a stellar reference point for demonstrating one’s literary-political bona fides?
The Satanic Verses was published 10 years before Rushdie’s 24-year-old alleged attacker, Hadi Matar, was even born. And more than three decades have passed since Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa, a religious edict, calling for Rushdie’s death because of the novelist’s representations of the Prophet Muhammad and Islam. Dire enough consequences followed in the fatwa’s early years: Deadly riots and bookstore bombings occurred around the world; several of Rushdie’s publishers and translators were attacked, including the Japanese professor Hitoshi Igarashi, who was stabbed to death. All told, some 45 people were killed amid the international tumult that greeted the novel.
Facing a religiously sanctioned bounty on his life, Rushdie went into hiding for more than a decade, a dislocating, despair-inducing experience that he wrote about in his 2012 memoir, Joseph Anton. Since then, he has largely returned to public life; before yesterday’s attack, Rushdie was moving around freely, both in his adopted home of New York City and throughout the cultural and literary world.
He has shown punchy humor and great élan in recent appearances—such as his cameo in a 2017 episode of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, with Lin-Manuel Miranda, a send-up of the fatwa itself. Along the way, he has shrugged off the ceaseless questions about whether he was still worried about the death threat. Indeed, the criticism voiced by some about a possible lapse of security at Chautauqua is at odds with Rushdie’s sense of his work and himself. He made the choice to put freedom of expression and freedom of movement before their fearful alternatives.
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