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A Conversation Between Generations

We’re all in this together, one book answering another,” E.L. Doctorow said in his acceptance speech on Tuesday night at the PEN American Literary Awards, his words echoing in the hall and in this writer’s heart. Doctorow is 81-years-old and frail. Like several other authors that night, he had trouble getting up the stairs to the stage. But his voice is still strong, both in person and on the page. Most striking is his humility: one book answering another, an eloquent and sustaining phrase for every other writer in the audience and beyond, whether wildly successful or still striving every day to write something worthwhile and get published. It’s a striking contrast to the solipsism of Salman Rushdie’s memoir, "Joseph Anton," which I recently finished. Without question, Rushdie’s ordeal was horrendous and his determination to continue living his life and to continue writing, heroic and memorable, but he doesn’t have much to say to other writers, especially young writers. Perhaps that effort would have been a detour away from the armature of the book, I’m not sure; it is an important document. But when he encounters Arundhati Roy at a gathering, he has nothing complimentary to say about her Booker-winning masterpiece, “The God of Small Things.” It was a bristly encounter. Did Roy feel patronized rather than encouraged? I have no idea what that encounter was really about—what Indian sub-continent sub-scripts were written therein, what barbs were being thrown—but I can’t imagine Doctorow not taking the young woman writer in his warm, more experienced writer’s embrace.  Read More 
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Pussy Riot Silenced

I went to a conference at the NYU Law School last Friday called “Pussy Riot & Protest; The Future of Dissent in Putin’s Russia & Beyond.” The conference was also sponsored by the NYU Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, The Art Law Society, the Tisch School of the Arts, Department of Performance Studies and the Department of Art and Public Policy. It was an impressive gathering, the second I had attended in one week about the freedom to write, the freedom to protest, the freedom to assemble, the freedom to perform. On the dais: Pussy Riot’s Russian defense team, four articulate lawyers, all of them risking arrest when they return to Russia.

Why should it matter to American writers, artists, lawyers, professors and students that three Russian feminist punk rock artists have been sent to a hard labor camp for two years because they staged a protest performance at a church in central Moscow? Moscow is far away. Russia is not America.

I was struggling to answer this self-inflicted question—partially rhetorical—when a poet got up on stage and declaimed a wild, bold and obscene poem, riffing on the word pussy in the spirit of the Vagina Monologues. That was a show stopper because this bold poet would have been bleeped continually on American television. In fact, the other night when Salman Rushdie appeared on The Daily Show, he was bleeped several times, as was Jon Stewart. Comedy Central is owned by whom? The FCC has these rules because? Our media operates without prior restraint? The articles I have submitted for publication have never been censored/edited to satisfy the advertisers?

So, we live in a Great Democracy where freedom of speech and assembly are guaranteed by our Bill of Rights. True? Partially true? Almost true?

Consider Facebook, for example, which I thoroughly approve of and enjoy. I was skeptical at first—see early blogs back in 2008 and 2009—but no longer. And I belong to an open group where the administrators welcome comments so long as they cheer everyone along. No dissenting voices are allowed to remain as comments; they are deleted. I am always writing dissenting comments and asking questions; they are often deleted. Why not open the conversation? No, not permitted. I find this disheartening. My free speech has been deleted. I have been silenced. Debate on an important subject has been eviscerated.

In the smallest of ways, and at the most local level, all silencing matters.  Read More 
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I arrived at the Union Square Barnes & Noble last night in the middle of a tornado watch. Inside, the crowd waiting for the Salman Rushdie reading was equally restive. They would not be allowed to sit in priority seating—silver folding chairs—if they had not bought Rushdie’s 600-page memoir, “Joseph Anton,” in hardcover at a hefty hardcover price, or downloaded the book onto their Nooks. There were complaints from the press, including this writer, about the policy, as many had downloaded the book onto their Kindle or iPad Kindle Apps. But that was the point: we were not Barnes & Noble customers, we were Amazon customers. And so the discussion continued until the NYPD and beefy private security arrived, not because of the complaints, but because of Salman Rushdie who is still somewhat protected. The B&N staff scrambled to seat those without Barnes & Noble purchased copies of the book into the white folding chairs.

The hostess, a poised and articulate Michiko Kakutani, welcomed all of the seated audience, white chaired (300 people) and silver chaired (200 people), and made a point of saying she’d take questions at the end of the reading from both sections alternately.

I was sitting in the silver chair section next to Pradeep, from Bombay, and a friend of his visiting from Singapore. Both are avid readers and Rushdie fans, but they had to buy two books in order to be seated. “I would have preferred to hear Salman Rushdie read before I decided to buy the book. Or, if I had been charged for the event, I would have paid to hear him read. This policy feels a bit desperate to me,” Pradeep said.

Desperate and coercive, I might add.

Of course we don’t know if there will be any Barnes & Noble bookstores left in a few years and this is worrisome. But the policy of setting up a privileged cohort in silver chairs—first-class customers--is not conducive to customer loyalty. Many walked out of the store unwilling to stand in a second-class line to wait for the white chairs. The atmosphere was exploitative and the staff at the store, though polite, were also defensive. They hadn't set the policy and did not seem trained to handle such a large, demanding crowd.

Finally, the confusion and the grumbling were over. Salman Rushdie had arrived, looking a bit tired after what must have already been a very long day, the day his memoir was released and he had to stand still for photo ops and answer questions, not about the literary merits of his books, but about the reaction of the Islamic world to that infamous, despicable video. He had remained patient and good-natured throughout these interviews; I saw two of them when I got home.

At the podium in Barnes & Noble, he seemed completely relaxed, reading and talking, reading and talking. I have heard him speak several times over the years, but never as eloquently. It must have been a great relief to write this book after nearly a decade of living undercover and then the passage of more years enjoying his freedom, mostly in the United States. Hit men had killed his Japanese translator, shot his Italian translator and his Norwegian publisher, both of whom thankfully recovered. We mustn’t forget the horror of this, a writer targeted by assassins in the pay of a government, in this case, Iran. A shooting war, as Rushdie describes it, and one of the early manifestations of the continuing unsettled relationship between the Arab and Western worlds.

“It is strange for a novelist to acquire a life like a novel,” Rushdie said. “Suddenly there are men with guns in your kitchen. All this makes for a good story, but not for a good life.”  Read More 
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