Seven years ago, Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, a death sentence, against Indian-born British novelist Salman Rushdie for the views on Islam expressed in his book ''The Satanic Verses.'' The fatwa had the ironic effect of focusing greater attention on this writer's work than it was already receiving. For most of the time since, Mr. Rushdie has been in hiding.
Rushdie was interviewed by Monitor Radio host Sharon Basco on his current US book tour to promote ''The Moor's Last Sigh.'' The interview was conducted in a conference room at a Boston hotel. The following are excerpts:
I can't resist talking to you about security, because here we are, and our IDs haven't even been checked. We were left alone in this room. The doors aren't locked. What's going on?
It's what's not going on that I think is relevant, and I think one of the main purposes of this whole trip is to make that point: that, you know, the world is not as it was. I just thought it was time to get back to normal.
It's a great relief to me because I was very determined that publishing this book was the appropriate moment for me also to be able to get back to being a writer and doing what writers do.
A writer for The Atlanta Constitution wrote: ''Rushdie is ... a symbol of two worlds that have no comprehension of each other.'' Do you feel some sort of responsibility [for living up to that symbolic role]?
No, I have to say that I don't feel symbolic. I think one of the problems was my invisibility. When people are invisible ... they can be made to represent all sorts of things, good and bad, because the person himself is a sort of absence. I think now that I'm ... more of a presence it's easier for me to ... be seen as a person rather than as an abstraction. I do think it has been extraordinary ... to be asked to stand up for values that I care about.... I think I would go on being involved in [that] whether it was my case or somebody else's.
What's happened to freedom of speech because of your case?
Well, I think the one thing to say is that it did get defended....
I think that one of the things that was interesting in the way that the United States responded to this case was that people said that we ... had to ask ourselves if we believed in what we said.... I've heard case after case after case of booksellers who were bullied and coerced and intimidated and so on and who simply refused to give in....
If they had not stood firm at that moment, there would have been no principle to defend. If the book had been withdrawn from stores because people were scared, then ... the battle would have been lost.
Seven years ago you had to go into hiding. Do you ever feel yourself becoming hardened to [your related] losses?
I hope not hardened.... I was very anxious that this event did not turn me into its creature, you know. I didn't become as an individual or as a writer simply the person reacting to the effects of the fatwa.... It was important therefore to set aside a great deal of anger and bitterness which it would be ... easy to feel because it would cripple me ... both as a person and as an artist.
One element of your work that has been eclipsed by events is the humor. Will the lighter side of your work be able to emerge at some point?
Yes. It was as if the fact that the attack on my work was so dark and humorless, that those values got transferred to the work itself. After everything that happened with The Satanic Verses it is very pleasant to have a book people seem to like.
You've talked about ways that your characters represent what ... you've experienced. At some point, I imagine we'll see your memoirs, too. Have we not seen them yet because they would reveal too much about the methodology of keeping you safe?
Partly that. Partly because I think the story's not over. I think it has to be written when it's in the past. And I think even then, perhaps not immediately, but perhaps recollected in tranquility. I'm not in any great hurry to write the story, but I do think it's an important story to write. When I do do it, I will do it as a work of nonfiction and it will be kind of a memoir, rather than a fiction.... It would be absurd to fictionalize this, you know. It's too bizarre already.