Twenty Years Ago, Salman Rushdie Surprised Toronto
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Twenty Years Ago, Salman Rushdie Surprised Toronto

The author shocked an audience of literati with his appearance at a PEN Benefit on December 7, 1992.

Bob Rae and Salman Rushdie, December 7, 1992. Photo by Jean-Marc Desrochers Photography, courtesy of PEN Canada.

The PEN Canada benefit that happened twenty years ago today at the Winter Garden Theatre was an unusual evening. Amid serious readings supporting free expression, there were lighter moments, like when the Margaret Atwood, Timothy Findley, and Paul Quarrington appeared on stage in cowboy garb to sing country tunes written by Atwood.

It wasn’t long before talk turned to Salman Rushdie. Starting with John Irving, a succession of authors addressed the death threats Rushdie faced after Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa on him in February 1989 for blaspheming Islam in The Satanic Verses.

After reading a passage from Midnight’s Children, Atwood introduced the next writer. There was a collective gasp from the crowd of 1,200. Clad in a black PEN t-shirt, Salman Rushdie walked onto the stage.

Front page story, the Toronto Star, December 8, 1992.

Rushdie’s appearance had to do with his desire to emerge from hiding. After three years of seclusion, the author decided to be—as he notes in his recent autobiography, Joseph Anton—“a loud and visible man.” Starting with an appearance at a Danish PEN event, Rushdie became an unannounced guest at writing benefits around the world. He was invited to Toronto by his Canadian publisher, PEN Canada president Louise Dennys. Organizing the event required two months of cloak-and-dagger work. Rushdie’s name was never mentioned during phone calls and no information was leaked to the public—especially where he would stay (the home of Michael Ondaatje and Linda Spalding). The coded phrase when his appearance was confirmed was, according to Star columnist Michele Landsberg, “We have a turkey for lunch.” The event had the type of security usually reserved for a royal visit.

He arrived on December 5 on a private plane with a Ralph Lauren-designed interior, which he later said was the most comfortable transatlantic flight he had ever experienced. Two days later, PEN organized a top-secret lunch for the city’s top media executives. Rushdie urged the group to pressure the federal government to use its influence in international organizations to defend him at the United Nations. He believed that “the issue is simple: you don’t kill people for writing books.”

At the Winter Garden that night, authors were summoned backstage by Saturday Night magazine editor John Fraser during intermission. “The security people didn’t like it,” Fraser told the Globe and Mail. “We had to convince them it was okay to let so many people backstage.” The writers were handed papers listing events during Rushdie’s seclusion. One writer joked to Rushdie, “This is a helluva bar mitzvah you’re getting,” to which Rushdie responded, “Yes, but it’s a beautiful one.”

Adrienne Clarkson and John Ralston Saul flank Salman Rushdie, December 7, 1992. Photo by Jean-Marc Desrochers Photography, courtesy of PEN Canada.

After the thunderous applause he received upon taking the stage, Rushdie discussed witch hunts and the power of comedy. He urged the audience to lobby politicians to impose sanctions on Iran and encouraged them to read The Satanic Verses. Rushdie then read a story of his, “Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella of Spain Consummate Their Relationship.” Afterward, Dennys read a message from Minister of External Affairs Barbara McDougall, offering Rushdie the federal government’s support.

Rushdie was joined onstage by Ontario Premier Bob Rae, the first sitting leader in the Western world to publicly meet with the author since the fatwa. “Rae was youthful, friendly, blond, wore sneakers, and said he had agreed to come on stage at the benefit even though his wife was afraid he would be killed,” Rushdie later recalled. Noting that other political leaders seemed to be “terrified by an obscene edict from a fanatic sect in Iran,” Rae told Rushdie that “You are always welcome among us here in Ontario and Canada.”

Two days later, there were editorials in the Globe and Mail and the Star pushing the federal government to act. Both papers criticized Ottawa for seemingly being more interested in building trade with Iran than with censuring it for anti-democratic behaviour. The Globe suggested that cancelling the fatwa should be a condition of furthering the economic relationship. Star columnist Richard Gwyn felt the PEN event showcased the Bob Rae people had voted for: a classy, intelligent leader instead of a politician leading a gaffe-prone government. Pierre Berton used his Star column to urge a massive boycott of Iran, as otherwise “it means nothing that an evil old man can reach out beyond his country’s borders to invoke the death penalty against a citizen of a free country.”

Not everyone was impressed with Rushdie’s visit. McDougall received and promptly dismissed a letter from a Thornhill mosque which viewed the framing of Rushdie’s situation as a free speech issue hypocritical, given the alleged blasphemy against Islam and the recent deportation of holocaust-denying British historian David Irving. A letter from a University of Toronto student published in the Globe and Mail accusing Rushdie of religious intolerance and portraying his supporters as people who “lend legitimacy and credibility to his mockery of the belief system” sparked weeks of debate in the editorial pages.

Ric Young, Salman Rushdie, Louise Dennys, and Michael Ondaatje, December 7, 1992. Photo by Jean-Marc Desrochers Photography, courtesy of PEN Canada.

In a letter published in the Star a year after his appearance, Rushdie wrote that the evening was “one of the most special moments of my life. When I walked on to the stage and felt that great wave of sympathy and support, it helped wash away the year of murderous hatred and the pain of the witch hunt.” He added that he was relieved that he had not experienced a single threat while in Canada, and he also praised Rae and McDougall for their support, as well as the House of Commons for unanimously passing a resolution condemning Iran.

“I send you my thanks,” he wrote, “and I send you my love.”

Additional material from Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie (Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), the December 8, 1992, December 9, 1992, December 11, 1992, and December 30, 1992 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the December 8, 1992, December 9, 1992, December 12, 1992, and December 16, 1993 editions of the Toronto Star. Thanks to reader Patricia McCowan for the story suggestion.