Muslims burning copies of Salman Rushdie's novel 'The Satanic Verses' in Bradford, UK, circa 1988. (Photo: Derek Hudson/Getty Images); 'The Satanic Verses' by Salman Rushdie; Salman Rushdie, at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on Oct. 10, 2015 in Cheltenham, England. (Photo: David Levenson/Getty Images)
The Toronto International Festival of Authors Honours Salman Rushdie and the Freedom to Write and Read
As the festival returns Sept. 22 with in-person events, Margaret Atwood, John Irving, Ian McEwan and Deepa Mehta will join the tribute to “the Satanic Verses” author / BY Dene Moore / September 22nd, 2022
In 1988, as his novel The Satanic Verses was being burned throughout the Muslim world, author Salman Rushdie was invited to the stage at the Toronto International Festival of Authors (TIFA) to read from his controversial work.
More than three decades later, the festival will honour the author again, hosting a tribute to Rushdie as he recovers from last month’s stabbing attack at a literary retreat in Chautauqua, N.Y. The free TIFA event, Freedom to Write and to Read: Standing with Salman Rushdie, will feature prominent members of the literary and film world, including Margaret Atwood, John Irving, Ian McEwan, Rohinton Mistry and Deepa Mehta, among others.
“The freedom to read and to write is a battle that has been fought through the ages. That should tell us something about its importance,” said Mehta, the award-winning Indo-Canadian screenwriter and director whose Elemental trilogy of movies (Fire, Earth and Water) were targeted by Hindu extremists in India. “Sadly, it seems to come not without a price.”
In 2012, Mehta brought to the screen Rushdie’s most-celebrated work, the Booker Prize-winning Midnight’s Children. She was in disbelief when she heard about the attack on stage in New York. “I admire him totally, not only for his brilliant writing, his imagination [and] his honesty, but also for his continuous fight for freedom of expression,” she said in an email. “And, oh yes, he is one of the wittiest men I know. I guess I am a staunch fan.”
Mehta hopes the Sept. 27 event will give festival-goers a better understanding of what Rushdie stands for, as well as “the travesty that was committed in the name of religion.”
Rushdie, 75, is the author of 14 novels, but it was The Satanic Verses that drew death threats and accusations of blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad. In 1989, the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa calling for the author’s death.
Shyam Selvadurai, the Sri Lankan-Canadian author of several novels, including 2022’s Mansions of the Moon, was horrified by the attack and humbled to realize any writer could be targeted, including himself. “I think it’s also part of a broader issue about the way in which certain people decide that they have the right to control the narrative. To me, it’s not just a stance against what happened to Salman Rushdie, it’s a stance against that idea that you have some right to completely control the narrative and silence other people; that your single story can dominate.”
At a time when books are being banned in the United States, the event is a taking a stand for the freedom to write and to read, he said. “any freedom we have is conditional,” he said. “You can’t just take freedom for granted. You always have to be vigilant about this.”
The event is a partnership between TIFA, Penguin Random House Canada, Writers Trust of Canada and PEN Canada, a non-profit that promotes literature, fights censorship and helps free persecuted writers from prison. Rushdie, who spent years in hiding following the fatwa, is a former president of PEN America and has been a prominent defender of free expression. He suffered a damaged liver and severed nerve in an arm and reports say he is likely to lose an eye as a result of the attack. A 24-year-old man has been charged with attempted murder.
Roland Gulliver, TIFA’s director, says adding the event to the festival line-up was a natural fit. It celebrates authors and their works, but is also a space to champion the work of writers whose voices are struggling to be heard. “One of the most important things and most beautiful things about book festivals is being able to discover stories from around the world from different perspectives, different worlds, from different cultures,” he said.
The festival will return to in-person events after two years of online programming due to the pandemic. And it will be the largest in the festival’s history, with more than 200 events across the city over 11 days, from Sept. 22 to Oct. 2. Other highlights include the PEN Canada Graeme Gibson Talk, which will feature Filipino-American journalist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa discussing freedom of expression and human rights. Atwood will talk about the link between disinformation and the decay of democracy.
Canadian director Sarah Polley will present her essay collection, Run Towards the Danger, and British author McEwan will make his only Canadian appearance to present his latest novel, Lessons. Canadian poet Dionne Brand will talk about her latest book, Nomenclature: New and Collected Poems, and Scottish-American author Douglas Stuart will make his first Canadian appearance to talk about his new novel, Young Mungo. Authors from more than 30 nations are taking part in the festival, some of them well known and some of them new voices.
“The joy of a festival is discovering new writers and discovering writers from around the world … but also welcoming old friends,” Gulliver said. “One of my ambitions is to grow the program and grow the 11 days of what we do, both here at Harbourfront and across the city.”