In 1989, I was working at the B. Dalton bookstore in the Americana Manhasset shopping center in Long Island, N.Y., when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued his fatwa against Salman Rushdie. I was 17. What was already a dream job for a bookish teenager turned into something else: a political awakening.
Like most kids of that era, I had long been aware of the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the hostage crisis that followed, even though I was too young to read the news at the time. A crude description of what should be done to the ayatollah had been spray-painted in thick, black lettering on a wall right outside the elementary school I attended. Looking at it every day, I had a dread childish sense of “Someone could get in trouble.”
It was only when the fatwa was issued that I realized: This is the kind of trouble worth responding to. Our store manager told us that B. Dalton had resolved to continue to sell “The Satanic Verses,” the novel that had provoked the ayatollah’s fatwa. Some of my fellow employees may have not wanted anything to do with it. After all, a few bookstores in the United States had been firebombed. But like most of my co-workers, I immediately shifted from fright to determination, signing up for as many shifts as I could take on.
The store took precautions. Each day we came to work, a manager updated us on the latest protocols. At one point, all copies of the novel were taken off the shelves and displays and held in a back room. Later, we kept copies hidden under a counter in the back.
“If somebody asks whether we stock it or not, think carefully before you reply,” we were told. “Answer on a case-by-case basis.”
Twenty-five years later, by that point working at The Times as the editor of the Book Review, I was having drinks with Salman Rushdie’s agent, Andrew Wylie, on the day Gabriel García Márquez died. Wylie suggested that Rushdie write an appreciation of García Márquez for the Book Review. There was no other possible answer than yes. Rushdie’s essay, which he filed the next day, needed no editing. When it ran on our cover, the response was gratifyingly, overwhelmingly positive.
In that essay, Rushdie wrote about how, despite their different countries of origin and languages (for him, India and English; for García Márquez, Colombia and Spanish), he saw his own life in his peer’s work: “I knew García Márquez’s colonels and generals, or at least their Indian and Pakistani counterparts; his bishops were my mullahs; his market streets were my bazaars.” As well, he wrote, “in both places religion is of great importance and God is alive, and so, unfortunately, are the godly.”
We never succeeded in persuading Rushdie to write for the Book Review again, no matter how many times we asked him. He always graciously begged off; he was working on another novel or traveling. But publishing Rushdie remains a high point from my nine years of editing the Book Review. How lucky we were.
What is there left to say about the horrific attack on Rushdie last week at the Chautauqua Institution in New York, a place with little security because it always felt so safe? About the fact that after all these years, the act of writing fiction was punished with violence?
I think back to my time at B. Dalton, when in the aftermath of the fatwa, customers came in in droves. Some would lay down their copies of “Clear and Present Danger,” “The Dark Half” and the latest Nelson DeMille on the counter before saying, “I don’t know if it’s my kind of thing, but I would like to buy a copy of that ‘Satanic Verses.’” Others walked straight to the cash register and asked if we were carrying what we thought of as The Book. “We need to support him,” they would say. Those customers became another kind of inspiration.
Because it’s not only vital that authors continue to write books that may challenge and possibly offend some people’s sensibilities or sanctimonies. It’s not only vital that publishers continue to stand by those authors, to protect and promote and be proud of them, and that translators continue to make those words available to global audiences. It’s not only vital that bookstores continue to sell those books, even if their staff members disagree with or disapprove of them or even if they fear that some in their communities will oppose them.
It’s also vital that readers continue to read the works that sustain those authors. Ultimately, it’s readers’ willingness to tackle challenging books that allows a culture to remain open and flourishing.
It’s Rushdie’s readers, after all, who last week may have literally helped save him. “We are so grateful to all the audience members who bravely leapt to his defense and administered first aid, along with the police and doctors who have cared for him and for the outpouring of love and support from around the world,” Rushdie’s son Zafar said in a statement after the attack. It’s readers who will continue to read his novels years from now who will always keep Salman Rushdie’s words alive.
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