The chit-chat in the authors’ lounge at the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts early Friday morning ranged from the beauty of the place (Sechelt, B.C.) to the joys of being back at a live, in-person authors’ festival. It soon turned to horror as news spread of what happened at another literary event in Chautauqua, N.Y., where Salman Rushdie was stabbed in the neck by a man who rushed the stage.
Onstage in Sechelt, The Globe and Mail’s André Picard addressed – and for some in the audience, broke – the terrible news as he began his event. “An attack on one writer is an attack on every writer,” said Mr. Picard, who is here to speak about his book Neglected No More: The Urgent Need to Improve the Lives of Canada’s Elders in the Wake of a Pandemic. Those who hadn’t heard about the attack gasped.
“It’s a horrifying notion that an author could be so violently harmed for sharing their work,” Vancouver Writers Fest (VWF) artistic director Leslie Hurtig, who is attending the Sunshine Coast festival, commented. She, too, was in the hospitality lounge. “He must have carried that fear with him to the podium every time he stepped on stage.”
Mr. Rushdie’s 1988 book The Satanic Verses was viewed as blasphemous and banned in many Muslim countries including Iran, where the late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a 1989 fatwa, or edict, calling for the author’s death. Mr. Rushdie went into hiding and was protected by an around-the-clock guard for almost a decade. He then started to cautiously attend festivals and events again.
Ms. Hurtig recalled an incident at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver in September, 2017. Mr. Rushdie was being interviewed onstage by then-VWF director Hal Wake, when during the question-and-answer period an audience member got up and said he had a gift for Mr. Rushdie. He held up a box and approached the stage. When a member of the crew tried to intervene, the man persisted; he absolutely had to give this gift to Mr. Rushdie directly.
“The audience held its breath,” Ms. Hurtig, who was then incoming artistic director, recalled. The place was filled with trepidation. What was in this box? Mr. Rushdie’s history as the fatwa was on everyone’s mind.
That night in Vancouver, things turned out just fine. Inside the box was a personal gift that spoke to Mr. Rushdie’s background. The author was touched – and a bit shaken.
In Sechelt on Friday, people were visibly shaken. “This is my very first festival and to hear this news is just devastating,” said Marisa Alps, incoming executive and artistic director of the Sunshine Coast festival. “That didn’t even occur to me that I would have to look after our authors’ physical safety. It didn’t even cross my mind until this morning. So I feel heavy-hearted and I feel like a bit of a loss of innocence, actually, that this is happening right now.”
She talked about how writers have always been at on the forefront when it comes to pushing boundaries, challenging systems in order to inform and educate people. “And they do so without even considering the risk of their own safety.”
The talk in the authors’ lounge turned to religious zealotry, bigotry, white supremacy and anti-LGBTQ hatred. On Thursday night, trans writer Ivan Coyote had opened the festival with a moving talk. Mx. Coyote often spends hours after readings speaking to fans and family members of LGBTQ youth. That access is so important – but could it also be dangerous?
“As an event producer, my blood runs cold with this news and the implications for those that continue to share their stories and ideas,” Ms. Hurtig said Friday.
Jane Davidson, the Sunshine Coast festival’s outgoing executive and artistic director, talked about how this event, marking its 40th year, is known for bringing writers and the public into the same space. “It’s like a summer camp feeling and people have always loved that warm, friendly access to writers. And the writers enjoy that, too.”
Was she concerned, I asked, about the possibility that could change, after Friday’s event?
“Honestly no, and maybe that’s just me thinking I can’t go there,” said Ms. Davidson. She said she was having trouble processing what had happened.
Jael Richardson, who founded and runs the Festival of Literary Diversity in Brampton, Ont., is in Sechelt to talk about the books she has authored, including the novel Gutter Child.
“I think when you run a festival for marginalized communities, you always have to be aware that there are terrible people out there who are willing to do terrible things,” she said. “So you try to build in precautions to make that less likely to happen. Of course this is the worst-case scenario: It’s happened.”
Ms. Richardson’s words really hit home. I’m at the Sunshine Coast festival not as a reporter or moderator, but to talk about my own book this weekend; it’s my first official book festival as an author. But it’s hard to concentrate on that right now. I, like everyone else here, am thinking about Mr. Rushdie. I interviewed him in 2015 about his novel Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, which he described as “a comedy of New York and a fairy tale of New York.”
I was so nervous calling up this man who was internationally renowned – the winner of many prizes, including the Booker – and who had famously gone into hiding because of the fatwa. But he put me at ease right away: He answered the phone himself and was warm, funny and engaged. No pat answers, no haughtiness, I wrote at the time.
That novel took digs at religious zealots, such as a “murderous gang of ignoramuses” whose long list of forbidden pleasures include painting, sculpture, music, theatre, journalism and voting. I asked Mr. Rushdie whether his experience with the fatwa had made him think twice about writing such things that could be considered blasphemous.
“No, no,” he told me from his Manhattan apartment. “My view about writing is very simple. You either do it or you don’t. And if you do it, don’t be scared. I think self-censorship is a worse crime than bad writing. And bad writing isn’t the writer’s fault; they’re just not good writers. But self-censorship is the writer’s fault.”
Marsha Lederman is speaking at the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts on Saturday and Sunday.
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