Freedom to Read, Entry #4: American science fiction author Nick DiChario on the apex of all book challenges
One of my all-time favorite banned books is Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, in large part because in the fall of 2002 I had an opportunity to meet Rushdie during his appearance at the University of Rochester in upstate New York. I’m an American, and Rochester is where I was born and raised. At the time, I was the director of education for a non-profit literary center, and a friend from the university had kindly given me a ticket to the cocktail party after the reading where Rushdie was expected to mingle.
Rushdie was well known by then. The Ayatollah Khomeini had ordered Rushdie’s death for writing a novel that many Muslims viewed as blasphemous, and he’d been living his life under the threat of assassination since 1989. I couldn’t help but wonder if I would have had the courage to do what Rushdie had done for so long if I’d been faced with the prospect of dying for my art, for the right to say what I wanted to say knowing people would hate me and want to kill me for it. For this, Rushdie was a hero to me, and I desperately wanted to shake his hand and tell him so.
Those of us privileged enough to live in the Western world might think we’re immune to censorship and its ravages, but it’s not so. The American Library Association maintains a list of books that hundreds of groups and individuals attempt to frequently ban from library shelves each year. The top five books on that list are, in order of appearance, 1) The Great Gatsby, 2) The Catcher in the Rye, 3) The Grapes of Wrath, 4) To Kill a Mockingbird, and 5) The Color Purple — arguably five of the most influential books in modern American literature. What would happen to these irreplaceable words, arranged just so, if we weren’t vigilant about protecting them?
Censorship in all its various forms hides everywhere, but sometimes it jumps out of the bushes and scares the hell out of us. The gunning down that occurred at the office of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris last month serves as a sad and tragic reminder. It made me think again about the importance of the written word and why people want to read and write and publish. Sometimes it’s about truth and justice. Sometimes it’s about principles and giving a voice to those who don’t have one. Sometimes it’s about art, or history, or love, or laughs, or money. And sometimes it’s about life and death.
Censorship is a plate served best with fear and power. Those in power (or those who hunger for it) are afraid of the thoughts inside our heads, how our dreams, if they’re allowed to manifest, might affect others, and how our words could undermine their authority and challenge their beliefs. The freedom to read, the freedom to write, and the freedom to speak are bonded together as one. Make no mistake, words are as dangerous as they are beautiful because they have the power to move our hearts and minds, and because we, as human beings, are sometimes willing to fight and die for them. Nobody knows this better than the enemy.
The killings at Charlie Hebdo should be a wakeup call to all of us. There are still people out there who want to control what we write and how we write it, what we read and how we read it, and what we say and how we say it. These people will always have excuses and rationalizations in their attempts to control our thoughts and repress our voices: Religion. Politics. Righteousness. Paternalism. Protectionism. Patriotism. Race. Gender. Treason. War. Order. Philosophy. Ideology. Dogma. For Your Own Damn Good. Etc., etc., ad nauseam.
When I finally got my chance to shake Rushdie’s hand and tell him he was my hero, he hitched an eyebrow and offered me a shrewd smile. After all these years, I can’t trust myself to quote his exact words, but the essence of it went something like this: He did not see himself as a hero for writing the book. Instead, he saw us, all of us, as heroes for reading it.
I hope everyone will keep that in mind during Freedom to Read Week in your great country of Canada. Not very many of us will need to make the choice Salman Rushdie made, or pay the price that the brave people at Charlie Hebdo paid. But all of us can do our small part. We can exercise our freedom to read. We might not think of it as a courageous act, but look around, my friends. It’s a small world after all.
Please, please, read a banned book this week. Read The Satanic Verses if you haven’t already. There’s no time like the present. And there’s no guarantee the book will be around forever.
Nick DiChario’s short stories have appeared in many magazines and anthologies across the world. He’s been nominated for the Hugo and a World Fantasy Award, and his novels A Small and Remarkable Life (2006) and Valley of Day-Glo (2008) each received nominations for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Novel of the Year. His many jobs have included paperboy, construction worksite gopher, dishwasher at a Catholic seminary, creative writing professor and workshop instructor, indie bookstore owner, education director for a non-profit literary center, and writer/editor of corporate communications.