Seventeen years ago: February 1989

In the spring of 1989, I was a second-semester graduate student. Once a week, I entered a locked courtyard and mounted the stairs to a tiny seminar room for my class in Anglo-Indian Narrative. Our professor—one of the greatest I’ve ever had—announced that she no longer taught the grab-bag “postcolonial” class. The specific conditions of colonization differed so vastly across and within the globe that a single course could not responsibly treat the Caribbean, Canada, Australia, South Asia, and Africa. Of course, she was right.

I remember a lot about that class. Of those early weeks of the term I remember two things. First, we were reading lots and lots and lots of Edmund Burke. I was reading Burke for another class at the time and, to be honest, that meant that twice a week I was humbled by how little of Burke I understood and (more shameful) how little I cared. I really tried, but Burke did not light my fire. Second, after Burke, after Kipling, after memoirs of “the Mutiny” a great, great treat awaited: a visit from Salman Rushdie. I tried to hang in there, eager to be one of the bright young grad students with a smart question when the great novelist visited our class.

Then, on Valentine’s Day, 1989, the fatwa against Rushdie was declared. (The Satanic Verses had been published in September of 1988; it was banned in India in October, weeks before Michiko Kakutani got around to reviewing it for the Times.) He went into hiding. He would most certainly not be coming to our class.

The protests—now deadly—that have erupted over a cartoon depicting Mohammed have put me in mind, again, of that troubled time. I find myself thinking, with weird nostalgia (is that the right word?), “Back in my day, the protests were over highbrow fictional blasphemy, not mere editorial cartoons…”

Ultimately, however, these culture clashes over representations of the sacred are really interesting. In the case of Rushdie, I think, he got tangled (to put it mildly) in the difference between his own perspective as a cosmopolitan Muslim and that of fundamentalist Muslims. The current protests, by contrast, revolve around depictions of Mohammed by a non-Muslim cartoonist: a much more common kind of offense, I think. But then, when the riots begin, these distinctions, these interesting conversations, have already ended. That's the sorry fact about violence.

You can find several smart posts on these sorry events over at Moorish Girl, of course. As Laila Lalami says: “’Leave the cartoonist alone! He has a right to his stupidity!’ And also, for the love of all that is holy, don't we have better things to do than to worry about a cartoon?”

Elsewhere, in more sorry literary events, J. T. Leroy’s identity has finally been unmasked by the writer’s partner (a man in search of a book deal) while, at the Times, one reader is shocked, shocked, to find some actual facts in a novel! What is this distinction between fact and fiction coming to? (Via Moorishgirl):
AFTER READING JOHN BANVILLE’S Man Booker prize-winning The Sea, a slim volume trumpeted as fiction, I was startled to discover, upon perusing my hefty atlas, that this supposedly fantastical place named Ireland was an actual island. While reading, I thought it sounded familiar, yet I let it slide, not wanting niggling particulars to ruin the experience.

Still elsewhere, and far more celebratory, the 8th Carnival of Feminists is up at Gender Geek. There’s a lot to peruse, admire, ponder, and love there. The next Carnival is being hosted by Mind the Gap, on February 22nd. Nominations should be sent to mindthegapcardiff AT yahoo DOT co DOT uk, to arrive no later than 19th February. Among other things, this Carnival ends with links celebrating the lives and work of Betty Friedan, Wendy Wasserstein, and Coretta Scott King as well as the work of Sandra Day O’Connor—lucky in her retirement, though we are hopelessly unlucky in her loss.