We are enjoying heaven – twenty degrees today. Showers of scarlet and gold leaves, the trees more spectacular than usual this year. Everyone is out soaking up sun, storing those D’s for the dark days ahead. Hard to sit inside.
So on Sunday afternoon, I almost didn’t go to an event I’d booked a ticket for, it was too beautiful. Luckily I decided to go because I could ride there and back, getting an hour of sun on the bike. It was an event put on by PEN Canada – the stellar organization that defends writers and journalists persecuted for their writing – with a film about Salman Rushdie and a discussion afterwards about freedom of expression.
It was thrilling. The documentary, Codename Sally, was about Rushdie’s surprise appearance at a PEN event in Toronto, the first public show of support to a writer condemned to death by fatwa, because the mullahs of Iran disapproved of his novel. The courageous organizers, who took enormous risks with this event – a bookseller had been murdered for selling Rushdie’s books – gathered a large group of Canadian artists, put them on stage at a fundraising event, and promised them a special guest. Introduced by Margaret Atwood, Rushdie, who’d been kept in darkest secrecy for his own safety and everyone else’s, walked out to gasps, a roar of approval, a standing ovation.
People like Louise Dennys, his Canadian editor, and Bob Rae, then premier of Ontario and the first politician in the world to publicly embrace Rushdie, spoke about the experience, and Rushdie himself on film told us what it meant to him. They took him to Ottawa where he met Canada’s Foreign Minister. Days later, the Canadian delegation at the UN brought a motion to condemn Iran for the fatwa.
The film was followed by a discussion about freedom of expression with Dennys, Rae, filmmaker Deepa Mehta, John Ralston Saul, Adrienne Clarkson and others. At one point, they agreed that the most dangerous job in the world right now is to be a writer or a journalist. The threats to free speech now come from both the right and the left. The violent authoritarian right, besides twisting and cancelling the truth, continues to murder writers. The left is cancelling and condemning any point of view they disagree with.
I rode home proud to be Canadian and a writer. But sad – to think of the premier we have now, who wouldn’t recognize a novel if it smacked him in the face. Clarkson told us that all the people involved had grown up in the time of Lester B. Pearson, when Canada played an important role on the international stage and was known for its peacekeepers. My thoughts echoed Deepa Mehta, who asked, What happened? How did these horrible people end up taking over? Why are we losing so much ground?
The news, more dire every day, it seems – China, Ukraine, the US, the climate. It did my heart good to be reminded of a time of almost heroic idealism. Bravo to all concerned.
You can watch the film online by going to the PEN website here.