PEN Nigeria, African Writers Rally Around Salman Rushdie

Writers all over the world have strongly condemned the attack on Salman Rushdie, author of Satanic Verses, who was attacked on stage by Hadi Matar, a 24-year-old man, last Friday, at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York, where he was scheduled to speak on his book.

In solidarity with other writers in the world, PEN Nigeria (Nigerian Centre of PEN International) held a Zoom conference where they read Salman Rushdie’s works tagged “Stand with Salman: Defend the Freedom to Write” last Friday.

Folu Agoi, President PEN Nigeria, in his address of welcome, said, “We want everybody to know that there is the right to speak and the right to write, and we collectively unite in condemning this despicable action.”

Dagga Tolar, Secretary, PEN Nigeria, noted, “The essence of this event is clear. One of us has been brutally stabbed. Though we received the positive news that he is on the path of recovery, we are coming together to say no to this incident to stop the right of expression of the writer.”

Also, Tony Mochama, Secretary, PEN Kenya, said: “We are gathered here to intervene on behalf of one of us, not just one of us but on the symbol of freedom of speech. Since 1989, when the supreme leader of Iran declared The Satanic Verses, authored by Salmon Rushdie, he declared fatwa on him, and, till today, over 20 years, Salman Rushdie has been living like a rat who is been hunted from a hole all over the world.

“We are speaking with one voice today as proponents of freedom of speech. We are collectively saying: enough is enough, as far as the world of literature exists and as far as we are enjoying civilisation of this world, which we are enjoying today, all began with writing.

“Writers all over the world have the freedom to express themselves. It doesn’t matter what any government or religion says or not, we as writers all over the world, are the custodians of the culture and confidence of humanity. For that, we say collectively that Salman Rushdie has the right to live, and all writers all over the world also have the right to express themselves.

Tony Mochama, Secretary, PEN Kenya, added Nigeria “is very loud on every front in literature, sports and other professions.”

Lookman Sanusi, based in London, said, “We have to be careful as writers, and we have to be very deep. It is not all about respect but also compromise, and we need to be respectful about other people’s opinion, because we have the right to beliefs, and, when we are writing, we have to be very sensitive to other people’s opinion. We can write, but our writing should be defined.”

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Perpetual Eziefule-Ohiri, Vice President, PEN Nigeria, added,” What is important for us as writers is that we understand what he has written. I am very sure that a lot of people have not read this particular work that is causing controversy. For writers, what is most important for us is that we have to be very sound. When we read as vast as we can we can better understand other people’s perception when they write. When people condemn the works of writers, it’s because they don’t understand the writer or the product or concept he/she is writing, and they don’t understand why the writer is writing in the first place. Knowing the issue of this stabbing, I took out time to know about the writer and his works. The question we should ask now is: how many writers have taken the time to find this out?

“As writers, we cannot avoid being ignorant, because, if we are ignorant, then it means we have not gotten hold of freedom. I want to encourage every writer here today and even those who are not that this is a call for each and every one of us to get hold of this book and read to understand so that, when those who know not know about this particular writer, we will be better informed on how to educate them on his writing and it will make us become better writers.”

Marita Banda from Zambia said, “It is good that we gathered in this manner, and thanks to PEN Nigeria. This is good testimony for the freedom of expression, and we stand together in solidarity to condemn the attack on a fellow writer, Salman Rushdie. Even on this forum, we have divergent opinions, but we still come together, because we believe that, for us to progress and with civilisation, it is important for us to express our various opinions.”

During the conference, Salman Rushdie’s words, delivered at PEN America’s 2022 Emergency Writers Congress, were read to the gathering: “We are engaged in a war of narratives, incompatible versions of reality, and need to learn how to fight it. A tyrant has arisen in Russia and brutality engulfs Ukraine, whose people, led by a satirist turned hero, offer heroic resistance and are already creating a legend of freedom. “Meanwhile America is sliding back toward the Middle Ages, as white supremacy exerts itself not only over black bodies, but women’s bodies, too. False narratives rooted in antiquated religiosity and bigoted ideas from centuries ago are used to justify this, and find willing audiences. In India, religious sectarianism and political authoritarianism go hand in hand. Violence grows as democracy dies. False narratives of Indian history are at play that privilege the majority and oppress minorities, and are popular, just as the Russian tyrant’s lies are believed.

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‘This is the ugly dailiness of the world. How should we respond? It has been said that the powerful may own the present but writers own the future, for it is through our work—or the best of it the work that endures—that the present misdeeds of the powerful will be judged.

How can we think of the future when the present screams for our attention, and, if we turn away from posterity and pay attention to this dreadful moment, what can we usefully or effectively do? A poem will not stop a bullet. A novel cannot defuse a bomb. Not all satirists are heroes.

“But we are not helpless. Even after Orpheus was torn to pieces, his severed head, floating down the river Hebrus, went on singing, reminding us that song is stronger than death. We can sing the truth and name the liars.

‘We can stand in solidarity with our fellows on the frontlines and magnify their voices by adding our own. Above all, we must understand that stories are at the heart of what’s happening, and the dishonest narratives of oppressors have attracted many.

 

‘So we must work to overturn the false narratives of tyrants, populists, and fools by telling better stories than they do, stories in which people want to live. The battle is not only on the battlefield. The stories we live in are also contested territories. Perhaps we can seek to emulate Joyce’s Dedalus, who sought to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race. We can emulate Orpheus and sing on in the face of horror, and not stop singing until the tide turns, and a better day begins.’

The contentious 1988 book triggered Iran’s then leader Ayatollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa, or religious edict calling on Muslims to kill the author. Since then, Sir Salman has received decades of threats. For the last 33 years, the world-renowned author has lived under threat because of his writing.

Rushdie was forced into hiding after the publication of his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses. It took nearly a decade for Rushdie to become more vocal and visible, though he continued to write stories. Today, Rushdie is widely known for being a vocal defender of artistic expression.

Rushdie, 75, was born in India and later grew up in England. He has written 14 novels, many of which have been translated in over 40 languages and received numerous accolades.

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