Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Writing a Death Sentence: Salman Rushdie, His Work, and the Unforeseen Consequences

In writing a novel, an author no doubt has many thoughts on the process. They think of plot twists, what words work best together. They think of what it will feel like to write the final word of the final sentence, then to edit, and finally, to have to published. They dream of the success they might have with their work, if it could become one of the greatest books ever written. They certainly don't ever imagine that their books could be the literal death of them.

That, however, is what has happened to Salman Rushdie.

Born in India to parents of Muslim heritage just weeks before the nation's independence from Britain, Rushdie has endured great success with his novels, which are based mainly on his native land. Though his first work, a sci-fi novel named Grimus, was a blip on the screen, he compensated for its failure by writing Midnight's Children, a complex tale about a boy born at the stroke of the midnight of India's freedom, and consequently given the power of mind-reading and a connection with the other children born at that time. It was also his first brush with controversy: in the novel, he criticized Indira Gandhi, then prime minister of India, who nearly took him to court for defamation; however, she was assassinated before anything could go further.

His fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, caused a far greater stir. The book was published in 1988, and is about two men who are the sole survivors of a plane crash. One, who has retained his Indian Muslim identity, takes on the persona of the archangel Gibreel while the other, who has left behind his heritage, is transformed into a devil. The two men go their separate ways, with the "angel" committing a murder/suicide and the "devil" reconciling with his estranged identity as a Muslim.

The striking title refers to verses apparently from the Koran which allow the person praying to appeal to three pagan goddesses. The book also was loosely based in part on the life of the prophet Muhammad as well, and it was for this reason (derogatory references/blasphemy, in Muslim leaders' eyes) that the book was banned in many Muslim countries, and eventually a fatwa (religious opinion concerning Muslim law) for Rushdie's death was proclaimed by Ayatollah Khomeini on February 14, 1989. While Rushdie has not since been harmed, others connected to the book have apparently suffered and died in the years following the fatwa.

To think that a book, a relatively small, innocuous pile of papers bound by string and cardboard, could be so damning to a single person or group of people. To think that simple suggestions, ideas, and words printed from imagination and not supposed fact, could hold so much weight and even cause people to want to kill someone else. It's almost unimaginable, isn't it? But it happened to Salman Rushdie, and even though Khomeini is long gone, the fatwa and threats remain in place. It's almost terrifying to think that one can't speak his or her mind without the threat of death hanging over his/her head in some places, but unfortunately this is very true in many parts of the world. Too many, in fact.

The Satanic Verses is a long-weekend read, at the very least; it is dense, filled to the brim with words and lovely images and devices, and it takes you on an incredible journey (if you can hold on through the entire thing). I unfortunately was unable to finish it on my first try, but sometimes soon I will try again, and I intend to make it. This is one book that you can't let pass you by, if you ever get the chance to read it. Take the risk.

(Sources: Wikipedia (links within page))

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

When you first approach and start reading this book, you wonder if it could be written any more simply; however, as you read further, you can see very clearly how teens can relate to the protagonist's feelings, thoughts and dilemmas. I had it on a list of to-reads for a while before finally stumbling upon it at my campus library, and I devoured it in two days. It moves quickly, but there is much more than just words.

Charlie is a naive teenager who is struggling a bit in school and also struggling to find his way in life. He's not very well-known, and he ends up floating around and meeting two step-siblings, Sam and Patrick. Through the book, which is composed of Charlie's letters to an anonymous "friend," we witness Charlie's growth into their hard-partying, misfit circle and also his coming of age, replete with drug experiments, first dates and first loves. We also learn about Charlie's past; his only friend committed suicide shortly before Charlie went into high school, and his aunt Helen has also passed of causes that Charlie refuses to talk about. To cope, he hangs out with Sam and Patrick (who we find out is gay), who perform in a rendering of Rocky Horror, reads books his English teacher Bill assigns to him on the side, and listens to music by the Smiths, Nirvana and other artists.

The book explores many topics- abortion, abusive relationships, drugs and alcohol, feminism and radicalism, suicide, homosexuality and its stigma in society. At the end, we find that Charlie has to be committed to a mental hospital for some time after sinking back into memories of his aunt Helen and what killed her. However, even with all of this in his path and in our own minds as readers, he (and we) both emerge from the conclusion with a positive notion, one that assures us that everything will be okay after all.

Of course, thanks to all of the "taboos" that Wallflower tackles, it has been removed from Portage (IN) High School classrooms, challenged at the West Bend Community Library in Wisconsin for containing "child pornography", and restricted in high school in Wyoming and Virginia to juniors and seniors, even though Charlie begins writing his letters in the novel as a freshman. As if teens don't go through all of these changes, all of these growing pains, and they don't face situations like these while growing up. Also, it was challenged in Montgomery County (TX) Memorial Library System along with 15 other young adult books with gay positive themes by the Library Patrons of Texas. Good old Texas, still convinced that homosexuality is sin and unnatural. Well, I've got news for you guys: it isn't. Get over it.

While I believe that kids should at least be guided while reading books such as Wallflower and shouldn't be given material like this at too young an age, I'm also of the opinion that kids can never be too young to learn about life. There are young people out there who already do this and more, in real life. That is not fiction, or a movie that one can turn off. Chbosky certainly didn't pull all of these storylines out of his own head- obviously, things like these are taken from real-life experiences or stories from others. We must stop assuming that things like this don't happen in our society, because they do.

Read this book and take heed.