Enjoyment and Enlightenment

Once upon a time, I had a librarian.  Her name was Mrs. Priester, and she worked at my elementary school.  Kevin was quite fond of her, because she encouraged reading in him and even took it upon herself to find books that she thought he would enjoy.  She didn’t need to do this for me, because the day I met her I told her, in the bragging way of a 5-year-old, that I already knew how to read, thank you very much.  In fact, I even had a library card already.  (I thought I was hot shit.)  What Mrs. Priester did teach me, however, was the difference between fiction and non-fiction.  I don’t know why the concept confused me so much as a small child, but I kept mixing up the terms, until one day she made it very simple: fiction was Fake.  Non-fiction was Not Fake.  It stuck, I understood, and she further explained that the books I wanted to read were not just called “chapter books,” but novels, and that novels were fiction: made-up stories for one’s enjoyment and enlightenment. 

I tell you this so that we are all very clear on what a novel is, and what fiction is.  I want there to be no misunderstanding, because this is the key piece of the thing that is infuriating me right now.

Let me paint for you a word-picture.  I, a writer, who lives in the Western New York region, and writes fiction, awoke Friday morning to learn of a tragedy that befell a fellow author.  Salman Rushdie was attacked with a knife onstage at the Chautauqua Institute while doing an interview.  I quite literally choked on my iced coffee, and my reasons are twofold.  First of all, Chautauqua?! I live in Buffalo and we just had a grand scale community tragedy about 3 months ago, and now we got crazies rushing stages and stabbing authors just an hour away? Not to mention, I can’t tell you how many times I have fantasized of being some famous writer who is invited to speak at Chautauqua-that’s like life-goal stuff.  And now, that place is marred, too…just like the damn grocery store.

Secondly, and more importantly: violence against a wordsmith.  I know of Rushdie, though his book, The Satanic Verses, sits unread on my shelf because I simply haven’t picked it up yet. But I know a little backstory, like the fact that Iran’s Ayatollah issued a fatwa in the 80s against him, which is basically an edict saying an Iranian should kill Rushdie. The man has been living with death threats for years, all because his book supposedly goes against Islam.  I think it’s because, from what I have read online, one character abandons the religion.  But again, I haven’t read it yet.  The point is that it doesn’t matter, because The Satanic Verses is a novel, and therefore, fiction, and fiction equals fake.  It’s not real; it’s just a story-a made-up situation in a guy’s head that he put down on paper and then an entire country took it the wrong way and decided he needed to die. 

How easily that could be any one of us.

I mean, I just finished the first draft of a book that features an exploration of the concept of religion as a shackle that keeps one from living their authentic life.  I do not expect death threats for the thoughts I come up with in my own head, but I’m sure its gonna piss of an evangelical or two.  But as mad as they get, do I deserve to be stabbed in the face for my imagination?  Absolutely not. 

So, when I head about Salman Rushdie, I was crushed.  I tried to explain to Mark why it was bothering me so much, but I couldn’t find the words.  Maybe it’s just that I am so sad that someone was hurt…just for playing pretend. Because that’s all we’re doing, really, when we write fiction: make-believe, in verse.  And I just do not believe anyone should be harmed over such innocent enjoyment.

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