To Support Salman Rushdie, Just Read Him

The author would like to be known for more than the Satanic Verses controversy. We can do something about that.

A black-and-white portrait of Salman Rushdie
Paolo Pellegrin / Magnum

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?

But now we have this answer to those questions.

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.

Like other interlocutors of his around the world, I suspect, I received two requests from him before the events we did together: first, that if security had to be present, then it should not be a visible or dominant presence; second, that whatever we were to talk about when it was showtime, please let it be something other than the fatwa. Chatting backstage with him before an event in Brooklyn in December 2015, I made passing mention of the fatwa and The Satanic Verses. He pointedly reminded me that he had published many other books—including eight novels since Verses, two children’s tales, a memoir, and two collections of nonfiction. His frustration with the public’s continued fixation on “the Rushdie affair” no doubt relates to his wanting to move on, both as an artist and as a person.

Alas, yesterday’s attack has placed that part of his identity front and center once again. And it elicited comments of outrage and sympathy from a spectrum of public figures—in the U.K., Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the novelist Ian McEwan; in the U.S., New York Governor Kathy Hochul and PEN America President Ayad Akhtar. This is a rare chorus. Politicians and artists tend to regard one another with suspicion, even contempt. Here, they spoke as one: The attack on Salman Rushdie was appalling and wrong (except to people weighing in on Iranian social media, apparently).

I was in Milwaukee for a family reunion when the news broke. Many of my midwestern in-laws—not your typical Salman Rushdie readers—knew all about him, his famous book, and what had happened after its publication. Simply put, Rushdie still matters. No other writer’s work has stakes so high. This is too bad for all of us, including Rushdie.

In decades and centuries past, writers took what seem today extraordinary, heroic risks to say what they wanted about religion and politics: Solzhenitsyn, Joyce, Wilde, Voltaire, Dante. But writers in our current literary culture struggle to achieve such relevance. They must negotiate the publishing industry’s sensitivity readers, then hope to find actual readers, and still hold onto an idea of themselves as artists rather than algorithmically regulated identarian protagonists (or antagonists). Lamenting all of that is, admittedly, easier than following Rushdie’s model.

We venerate the wounded Rushdie as the apogee of a shared defense of artistic freedom, but do we have the gifts, and the guts, to follow him? We can more readily demonstrate our solidarity with him and advance the principles he embodies by committing to literary works bold and ambitious enough to make the very acts of writing, publishing, and reading once more daringly world-changing, even, if must be, dangerous.

Also this: Instead of just scrolling and sharing links about him and the attack, we can actually read something by Salman Rushdie. One of those other books he wants to be known for.

The Ground Beneath Her Feet is a good candidate. Published in 1999, the novel is a funny and violent and demanding reworking of the myth of Orpheus featuring two rock-and-roll stars. It’s chockablock with encyclopedic references, electric wordplay, pop-culture callouts, and deeply felt reflections on the whipsawing experience of being both famous and in hiding, too visible and disappeared. One of the two main characters, Vina, grew up partly in upstate New York, and tours American colleges delivering “chautauquas … improvised monologues, whose closest cousins were the oral narrative sessions of the great Indian storytellers, actually existing Indians from actual existing India, as she liked to say, pulling rank over the Red kind and meaning it, although it was part of her magic, the thing that made her the colossal figure she became, that—publicly, at any rate—no Native Americans ever took offence.”

Given Rushdie’s gifts for verbal and intellectual acrobatics, and his provoking, delighting sense of ironies and coincidences that bestride the real and the imagined, I like to believe he was going to talk about Ground, with its chautauqua-delivering upstate–New York heroine, on that stage at Chautauqua—had it not been for the attacker, and provided the audience wanted to hear about his work, not just about his freedom to write it. Ground ends, by the way, with a suddenly resonant observation by the narrator: “The mayhem continues, I don’t deny it, but we’re capable also of this.”

Capable of what? Read Rushdie.