Magic City Books brought the famously banned author to speak about his latest novel, “Quichotte,” which retells the Cervantes classic.
The last week in September has been dedicated to celebrating the freedom to read since the creation of Banned Books Week in the 1980s. This year, booksellers, librarians, journalists and readers alike came together to promote inclusivity and expression Sept. 22-28.
Local independent bookstore, Magic City Books, celebrated Banned Books Week by bringing world-renowned writer, Sir Salman Rushdie, to Tulsa on Sept. 23 to speak about his latest novel “Quichotte.” He spoke at the All Souls Unitarian Church with Moroccan-American author Laila Lalami, whose novel “The Other Americans” is currently on the long list for the National Book Award.
PEN America is an international organization that deals with the intersection between human rights and literature, aiming to protect free speech all over the world. Rushdie was the former president of the organization. The National Outreach Program Director, Katie Zanecchia, spoke before the discussion, informing the audience about their mission. One of the major projects that PEN America organizes with is called “Literature Locked Up,” which deals with book banning in prisons, where inmates are limited in their access to books.
Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses” is one of the most famously banned novels in modern history; the book caused an international uproar upon its publication in 1988. The plot centers on two Muslim Indians living in England. Rushdie’s writing challenged, and at times mocked, tenants of the Islamic faith, incorporating a retelling of the story of the Prophet Muhammad.
The treatment of Islam led to uproar across the world. “The Satanic Verses” was ultimately banned in several countries, burned in Britain and accompanied by violent protests in Pakistan. Most notably, Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran at the time, issued a fatwa, or religious rule, commanding Muslims to kill the author.
Rushdie was born in India to a Muslim family, but at the time of the book’s publication, he had become a British citizen and was living in the U.K. These threats led to his retreat into protective hiding for several years. After Khomeini’s death in 1998, the Iranian government denounced the fatwa. Rushdie laughed when discussing “The Satanic Verses,” calling it an “ex-banned book.”
Since this controversy, Rushdie has moved to the United States and published several more books, including a memoir entitled “Joseph Anton,” the pseudonym he was forced to use during his time in hiding. Rushdie extracted this name from the first two names of his favorite authors, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. In his recently published novel, “Quichotte,” Rushdie delves into his own life, including a character named Conrad Chekhov.
“Quichotte” retells the 17th-century classic Miguel de Cervantes novel, “Don Quixote.” The novel follows a protagonist, Quichotte, as he travels across the country to find a TV star he has fallen in love with. This story is woven with the story of Sam DuChamp, an author who is writing the story of Quichotte.
While borrowing the title, thematic concerns and hero’s journey from Cervantes, Rushdie also looked to a 12th century epic Persian poem, Attar of Nishapur’s “The Conference of the Birds” for inspiration. Rushdie weaves these literary antecedents with cues from his own life to create a multifaceted and densely layered work that deals with several contemporary issues.
Quichotte is a pharmaceutical salesman by trade, whose job is to sell Fentanyl spray. In their conversation, Lalami was taken aback by Rushdie’s admission that he did not invent Fentanyl spray for the novel, but based this detail, as well as a crooked doctor character, on actual events. These details alluding to the opioid crisis took on a more personal meaning for Sir Rushdie. Recently, his youngest sister died from an opioid overdose. This tragedy pushed Rushdie to breach the subject in his writing.
Another contemporary issue that Rushdie spoke extensively about was the issue of “fake news.” A chaotic and jarring novel, “Quichotte” represents a recounting of reality that can exist when the general public disagrees about what is true. Rushdie contemplates this dichotomy between truth and perception, asking the audience, “What happens when reality is fragmented … What happens when the world is mad?”
“Quichotte” weaves antecedents from across literary history with contemporary controversies. While Rushdie has always challenged boundaries in his writing, “Quichotte” represents yet another risk from this spectacular author.