Posts Tagged ‘Kepler’s’

Salman Rushdie: “We are living in the darkest time I have ever known.”

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

Would people defend him today? He thinks not. With Timothy Garton Ash last year. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

Charlie Hebdo has announced that they will publish no more cartoons featuring Mohammed, although every other religion and public figure will continue to be fair game. In other words, the terrorists have won. “We have drawn Mohammed to defend the principle that one can draw whatever they want… We’ve done our job,” said Laurent “Riss” Sourisseau, Charlie Hebdo’s editor-in-chief.

It’s hard to be nostalgic about a fatwa, but Sir Salman Rushdie‘s recent comments in The Telegraph remind us that his Valentine’s Day card from the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 were the good old days. Leading figures from around the world linked arms to express solidarity with him, and to protest any encroachment on freedom of speech. Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Joseph Brodsky, Christopher Hitchens, Seamus Heaneyand others stood for Rushdie. There was no backing down. And today?

Said Rushdie, “We are living in the darkest time I have ever known.” The author of the condemned Satanic Verses, told France’s L’Express. “I’ve since had the feeling that, if the attacks against Satanic Verses had taken place today, these people would not have defended me, and would have used the same arguments against me, accusing me of insulting an ethnic and cultural minority.”

Everblooming friendship

Thank you, Christopher.

In particular, Rushdie said he was dismayed by the protests that followed a decision by the American branch of the PEN writers’ association to award a prize for courage to Charlie Hebdo after a dozen of its staff were massacred in January. More than 200 writers, including Michael Ondaatje, Teju Cole, Peter Carey, and Junot Díaz, signed a letter objecting to PEN rewarding the satirical magazine for publishing “material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.”

“It seems we have learnt the wrong lessons,” Rushdie told L’Express. “Instead of realizing that we need to oppose these attacks on freedom of expression, we thought that we need to placate them with compromise and renunciation.” Cole explained to him that his case was different – 1989 protesters defended Rushdie against charges of blasphemy; Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, he argued, were an expression of Islamophobia.

Rushdie thinks it’s a case of political correctness gone wild. “It’s exactly the same thing,” he said. “I’ve since had the feeling that, if the attacks against The Satanic Verses had taken place today, these people would not have defended me, and would have used the same arguments against me, accusing me of insulting an ethnic and cultural minority.” (To be clear, I find Charlie Hebdo cartoons tasteless and not very funny. That’s not the point.) 

Let’s remember Sontag, president of PEN, in that 1989 moment. Hitchens wrote: “Susan Sontag was absolutely superb. She stood up proudly where everyone could see her and denounced the hirelings of the Ayatollah. She nagged everybody on her mailing list and shamed them, if they needed to be shamed, into either signing or showing up. ‘A bit of civic fortitude,’ as she put it in that gravelly voice that she could summon so well, ‘is what is required here.’ Cowardice is horribly infectious, but in that abysmal week she showed that courage can be infectious, too. I loved her. This may sound sentimental, but when she got Rushdie on the phone—not an easy thing to do once he had vanished into the netherworld of ultraprotection—she chuckled: ‘Salman! It’s like being in love! I think of you night and day: all the time!’ Against the riot of hatred and cruelty and rage that had been conjured into existence by a verminous religious fanatic, this very manner of expression seemed an antidote: a humanist love plainly expressed against those whose love was only for death.”


Thank you, Susan.

Sontag and Hitchens were famous people, of course, who lived in high-rise apartments and could go into hiding, as Rushdie did. But a lot of other people put their lives on the line. Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses, was stabbed to death on the campus where he taught, the Italian translator Ettore Capriolo was knifed in his Milan apartment, and in Oslo, William Nygaard, the novel’s Norwegian publisher, was shot three times in the back and left for dead.

Others at risk included bookstore owners, bookstore managers, and the people who worked for them. So let me take a few moments to recall the heroism of one of them, Andy Ross, owner of Cody’s Books in Berkeley, which was bombed in the middle of the night two weeks after the fatwa was announced. On his own blog (he is now a literary agent) he wrote:

I spoke of the fire bombing that occurred at 2 AM. More troubling was that as we were cleaning up in the morning, an undetonated pipe bomb was found rolling around the floor  near the poetry section. Apparently it had been thrown through the window at the same time as the fire bomb. Had the pipe bomb exploded, it would have killed everyone in the store. The building was quickly evacuated. … As I walked outside, I was met with a phalanx of newsmen. Literally hundreds. Normally I was a shameless panderer for media publicity. At this point I had no desire to speak. And I knew reflexively that public pronouncements under the circumstances were probably imprudent. …


Cody’s in 2006. (Photo: Creative Commons/Pretzelpaws)

One-time heroism wasn’t enough. How were they to react to the attack? Would they continue selling the book? Would they put it at the front of the store, or hide it somewhere towards the back? Or would it, like 1950s pornography, be offered by request only, in a brown paper bag?

I stood and told the staff that we had a hard decision to make. We needed to decide whether to keep carrying Satanic Verses and risk our lives for what we believed in. Or to take a more cautious approach and compromise our values.  So we took a vote. The staff voted unanimously to keep carrying the book. Tears still come to my eyes when I think of this. It was the defining moment in my 35 years of bookselling. It was the moment when I realized that bookselling was a dangerous and subversive vocation. Because ideas are powerful weapons. It was also the moment that I realized in a very concrete way that what I had told Susan Sontag was truer and more prophetic  than anything I could have then imagined. I felt just a tad anxious about carrying that book. I worried about the consequences. I didn’t particularly feel comfortable about being a hero and putting other people’s lives in danger. I didn’t know at that moment whether this was an act of courage or foolhardiness.

But from the clarity of hindsight, I would have to say it was the proudest day of my life.

The story wasn’t over. Rushdie visits the Bay Area regularly (I wrote about his visit to Kepler’s here). And even while in official hiding, he insisted on calling on Cody’s several years later (Berkeley rents finally did what bombs could not, and the valiant bookstore closed its doors in 2008). Ross recalls Rushdie’s appearance at Cody’s:

We were told that we could not announce the visit until 15 minutes before he arrived.  It was a very emotional meeting. Many tears were shed, and we were touched by his decision to visit us. We showed him the book case that had been charred by the fire bomb. We also showed him the hole in the sheetrock above the information desk that had been created when the pipe bomb was detonated. One of the Cody’s staff, with characteristic irreverence, had written with a marker next to the damaged sheet rock: “Salman Rushdie Memorial Hole”. Salman shrugged his shoulders and said with his wonderful self-deprecating humor, “well, you know some people get statues – and others get holes.”

Read the whole thing here.

What? No Kepler’s?

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

10,000 square feet of books

On Christmas Eve, Flavorwire named the top ten U.S. bookstores here. The article begins in this user-friendly way:  “Bookstores are dying. They’re dying because of jerks who are too cheap to buy a hardcover, or even a paperback, and too lazy to get a library card.”  Odd, for an article that is running online.

Two bookstores in Seattle made the cut, and Powell’s of Portland.  San Francisco’s City Lights is named — no surprise there, either:

Justly famous: City Lights

“Started by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin, City Lights Booksellers and Publishers in San Francisco, CA offers the best in classic and newly-released literature. Their claim to fame is publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems then suffering through the resulting obscenity trial. After all that, the store was designated a San Francisco landmark. Supplementing their in-store performances and promotion is their delightful podcast with news on releases and upcoming events.”

Kepler's in 1955

The comments are filled with protest.  Several nominate San Francisco’s Green Apple Books and one reader voted for Diane Goodman’s Ocean Avenue Books.  But, surprise:  no Cody’s and Moe’s from Berkeley.  And … what?  No Kepler’s?

After all, the fame of Kepler’s is international.  Salman Rushdie, the Shah of Blah himself, lamented during a recent visit that he had “never made it to Kepler’s before” and added “I am delighted to finally find my way to Menlo Park.”

Roy Kepler

Kepler’s was founded in May 1955 by peace activist Roy Kepler. The Grateful Dead gave live shows there early in their career, and they, along with folk singer Joan Baez, often made appearances at the bookstore.  (Management assumed by Clark Kepler, Roy’s son, in 1980.)  Customer loyalty is fierce.

In 1990 Publishers Weekly named Kepler’s “Bookseller of the Year.” However, by 1996, large discount warehouses and were revolutionizing the bookselling business. Kepler’s closed its doors on August 31, 2005.  That’s where the fierce customer loyalty kicked in:  The local community responded with demonstrations. Thousands gathered on the expanse of what is now known as “Kepler’s Plaza” to express support and protest the loss.

The bookstore re-opened in October 2005.

Kepler’s story is told in the documentary, Paperback Dreams, which aired on PBS, tells the tale of two landmark independent booksellers and their struggle to survive. Cody’s and Kepler’s Books helped launch a counter-culture, and for 50 years have protected free speech and celebrated intellectual inquiry. At one time or another, the owners of these stores were harassed, vandalized, threatened, and even suffered acts of terrorism for simply selling books. But their future is uncertain in our fast digital world.  You can order the DVD here.

Salman Rushdie: The Shah of Blah in Menlo Park

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

The Shah of Blah celebrated being in “a great bookstore” last night, and lamented he had “never made it to Kepler’s before.”

“I am delighted to finally find my way to Menlo Park.”

Delighted to be in – what?  Menlo Park?  At Kepler’s?  Salman Rushdie, who has lived in London, Bombay, and New York looks forward to quietly signing books for a hundred people in this polite little burg?

Clearly, this was not the abrasive Salman Rushdie I remember from 2008.  Was there the sort of metaphysical body switch one might find in his latest book Luka and the Fire of Life?  Even the voice was different:  The word choice was distinctly British, but the accent softer, Americanized.  There wasn’t a bodyguard in sight.  He was nothing but charm and affability.  (I wrote about the recent kerfuffle with Jon Stewart and the Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam here and here and here.

Luka and the Fire of Life was written for his son Milan.  His older son advised Rushdie:  “Dad, don’t write novels. Write series.”

“It is very good commercial advice.”  He didn’t take it.  It was more than two decades between his first children’s fantasy, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, and the sequel. 

What motivates him to “make it new”? “A low boredom threshold,” he said.  “Repetition is the most boring thing in the world for me.”

Here are my notes as he answered questions from the audience:

Are Western audiences missing a lot of the cultural references?

“They’re missing something, sure, but they’re all still sitting here,” he said, indicating the audience.  Polite Menlo Park laughter.

He noted that William Faulkner is now popular in India; apparently, “what they’re getting is enough.”

We lose cultural references not only in space, but in time, he said.  Tolstoy, for example, is full of references that are lost to a 21st century audience.

But still, he said, it’s fine if only one-and-a-half billion people get it – “merely one-fifth of the human race.  So it’s kind of a private joke.”  More polite laughter.

How long has he been writing books?

“Books that got published?  Since 1975.  I was writing before that – just nobody liked it.

How did he move from unpublished to published?

“I started to write better books.”  It took “12 and a half years getting it wrong.”

“I’m grateful my earlier efforts never saw the light of day,” he said – it’s the   advantage of being a novelist over a playwright.  “You can make your mistakes in private.”

But a play’s not alive till it’s performed.  “You’re naked, vulnerable in front of an audience.”

Are his books autobiographical?

Writing from the borderland (Photo: Mae Ryan)

“People are always asking if the characters in my book are autobiographical,” he said, noting it was any novelist’s most-frequently asked question. “It means I must have had one helluva life.”

He recalled giving opposite answers to this question to journalists in the same city, on the same day.  When the responses were published at the same time, “nobody even noticed.”

He also commented on the longing of readers to be in the book.  He recalled meeting a “very grand” lady covered in jewelry and carrying a fan.  She swatted him with the fan, and accused him of representing her in his book. “Naughty boy!  Never mind.  I forgive you.”  He replied to no avail: “Madam, you have to accept that this is the first time I have ever laid eyes on you.”

“I don’t know why you’re going on about it.  I said I forgive you,” she replied haughtily.

On roots

“The place you land is not the place you start from.”

Rushdie said that we live in a world where “everyone knows everything within ten seconds.”  But he recalled growing up in a slower world in India, where communication was pretty much left to the radio and newspaper.

He commented on “the individual in the world to whom the idea of roots is not important — not uprooted, but who moves around in the world without a sense of belonging.”

“We have privileged roots and the idea of belonging in our culture,” he said. “Other ideas are not given air time, except in art,” where we often celebrate the outcast, the voyager, the cowboy, the adventurer. “Official culture says, ‘Stay home.’”

On imagination and reality

“Things cross between imagination and reality,” he said, noting that we live among “things even our grandparents would have found ridiculously fanciful – airplanes, cellphones.”  (Well, his grandparents perhaps.  Mine whizzed about in airplanes.)

“Before you can make a wheel, you have to imagine a wheel.  The world begins in imagination and move into reality.”

“I wanted to write about that borderland.”

And not a word about the fatwa.