A A long time ago – December 7, 1992, to be exact – I was backstage at a Toronto theater, taking off a Stetson. Along with two other writers, Timothy Findley and Paul Quarrington, I had performed a mix of 1950s country and western classics, repackaged for writers – Ghost Writers in the Sky, If I Had the Wings of an Agent, and others. stupid parodies of that nature. This was an advantage of PEN Canada in those days: writers dressed up and made fun of themselves to help writers persecuted by governments for things they had written.

As the three of us were lamenting how horrible we had been, someone knocked on the door. The backstage was locked, we were told. Secret agents talked up their sleeves. Salman Rushdie had been fiery in the country. He was about to appear on stage with Bob Rae, the premier of Ontario, the first head of government in the world to support him in public. “And you, Margaret, as past president of PEN Canada, are going to introduce it,” I was told.

Sip. “Oh, okay,” I said. And that’s what I did. It was a silver moment where your mouth is.

And, with the recent attack on him, so is it.

Rushdie exploded onto the literary scene in 1981 with his second novel, The Midnight Children, which won the Booker Prize that year. No wonder: his inventiveness, scope, historical reach and verbal dexterity were breathtaking, and he opened the door to subsequent generations of writers who might previously have felt that their identity or subject excluded them from the mainstream. moving feast that is English-language literature. He ticked all the boxes except the Nobel Prize: he was knighted; he’s on everyone’s list of important British writers; he has collected an impressive bouquet of awards and accolades, but above all, he has touched and inspired many people around the world. A large number of writers and readers have long owed him a large debt.

So they owe him another. He has long defended the freedom of artistic expression against all comers; now, even though he is recovering from his wounds, he is a martyr.

In any future monument to murdered, tortured, imprisoned and persecuted writers, Rushdie will figure prominently. On August 12, he was stabbed onstage by an assailant during a literary event at Chautauqua, a venerable American institution in upstate New York. Again, “that kind of thing never happens here” turned out to be wrong: in our current world, anything can happen anywhere. American democracy is threatened like never before: the attempted assassination of a writer is just one more symptom.

Undoubtedly, this attack was directed against him because his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, a satirical fantasy which he himself believed dealt with the disorientation felt by immigrants (for example) from India to Great Britain. Brittany, was used as a tool in a political policy. power struggle in a distant country.

When your diet is under pressure, a little book reading creates a popular distraction. Writers don’t have armies. They don’t have billions of dollars. They don’t have a captive voting bloc. They thus make cheap scapegoats. They are so easy to blame: their medium is the spoken word, which is inherently ambiguous and prone to misinterpretation, and they themselves are often talkative, even downright grumpy. Worse, they often speak truth to power. Even apart from that, their books will annoy some people. As the writers themselves have often said, if what you’ve written is universally loved, you must be doing something wrong. But when you offend a leader, things can get deadly, as many writers have discovered.

In Rushdie’s case, the power that used him as a pawn was Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran. In 1989 he issued a fatwa – a rough equivalent of the bulls of excommunication used by medieval and Renaissance Catholic popes as weapons against secular rulers and theological challengers such as Martin Luther. Khomeini also offered a large reward for anyone who assassinated Rushdie. There were numerous murders and assassination attempts, including the stabbing of Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi in 1991. Rushdie himself spent many years in forced hiding, but he gradually emerged from his cocoon – the Toronto PEN event being the most important first step – and for the past two decades he had been living a relatively normal life.

However, he never missed an opportunity to speak out on behalf of the principles he had embodied all his life as a writer. Freedom of expression was at the forefront of these. Once a yawning liberal platitude, this concept has now become a hot topic, as the far right has tried to kidnap it in the service of libel, lies and hate, and the far left has tried to dump it. by the window. serving his version of earthly perfection. It doesn’t take a crystal ball to schedule many round tables on the subject, if we come to a time when rational debate is possible. But regardless, the right to free speech does not include the right to defame, maliciously and prejudicially lie about provable facts, utter death threats or advocate murder. These must be punished by law.

As for those who still say “yes, but…” about Rushdie – a version of “he should have known better”, as in “yes, so much for the rape, but why was she wearing that revealing skirt” – I can only note that there are no perfect victims. In fact, there are no perfect artists, nor perfect art. Anti-censorship people often find themselves forced to defend work they would otherwise scathingly review, but such a defense is necessary unless we all have to have our vocal cords removed.

Long ago, a Canadian MP described a ballet as “a bunch of fruit bouncing around in long underwear.” Let them jump, I say! Living in a pluralist democracy means being surrounded by a multiplicity of voices, some of which will say things you don’t like. Unless you are prepared to defend their right to speak, as Salman Rushdie has so often done, you will end up living in a tyranny.

Rushdie had no intention of becoming a free speech hero, but he is now. Writers everywhere — those who aren’t state hacks or brainwashed robots — owe him a huge vote of thanks.

  • Margaret Atwood is a novelist

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