Amid tight security (and a last-minute politically-charged boycott of the fair by the Iranian Ministry of Culture) author Salman Rushdie spoke at the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair opening press conference, telling reporters that the publishing world must continue to stand up for free speech.
“I’ve always thought in a way that we should not need to discuss freedom of speech in the West, that it should be like the air we breathe,” Rushdie said. But violence and the ongoing threats of violence, he acknowledged, requires publishers to fight on.
“At this point, publishing begins to feel like a war,” he observed. “And publishers and writers are not warriors. We have no guns, no tanks. But it falls to us to hold the line, not to withdraw from our positions, but to understand that this is a position from which we cannot fall back.”
Rushdie’s appearance at the fair comes with the publication last month of his latest novel Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (Penguin Random House).
The author's appearance, however, has apparently reopened some old wounds for the Iranian government, which in 1989 had issued a Fatwa against Rushdie for The Satanic Verses. Frankfurt officials confirmed last week that the Iranian Ministry of Culture officially cancelled the national stand planned for this year’s fair, citing Rushdie’s presence. Fair director Juergen Boos said the decision saddened him, but that freedom of speech was “not negotiable.” Boos added that several Iranian publishers will still be present at the fair.
The presence of Rushdie also led to threats made against the fair, which resulted in tight security at the opening event. Journalists not only had to submit to background checks, but also to searches, and a metal detector before entering the press conference.
In his 23-minute talk, Rushdie spoke eloquently of the need for writers and artists to freely express their views of the world around them, and cautioned that free speech is not only endangered by threats of extremist violence, but by feelings of “political correctness” as well. He specifically called out a group of incoming Duke University students who made headlines this year when they took issue with the book offered for their summer reading program, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, a graphic novel memoir by the 54-year-old MacArthur Genius Award winner in which she discusses her realization that she was gay.
“They felt their religious upbringing would be offended by this book,” Rushdie said. “And it seemed to me that the idea that students should not be intellectually challenged at a university is the exact opposite of what universities are for. It struck me that may be those students should withdraw from the university and let other students arrive who could benefit from what we call an education.”
Thronged by bodyguards on either side, Rushdie also pointed out the necessity to protect the lives of writers, and not just the act of writing. “Literature, the art itself, is unbelievably durable and strong,” he said. “But writers are weak. Writers can be damaged. Their lives can be destroyed. And even if their work survives and justifies them in the end, that is not much consolation when you’re dead.”
The Frankfurt Book Fair officially kicks off tomorrow, October 14, with the opening of the exhibit halls.