It has been a while now, since I took time off from work. That is, paying work that allows me to feel independent.
One reason for this break was that I wanted time to focus on my own writing. That is, writing that I want to do, regardless of whether anyone wants to pay for it, publish it, praise me for it, or not. The other reason is that I had begun to feel I was on very uncertain ground. I needed to think about many things. About how I work, what I choose to write, in which genre, and whether my work means something after all.
I was not - am not - looking for reassurance. I don't need to be told "Oh, but journalists/writers like you are needed". I'm objective enough, unsparing enough, to know why a certain kind of writing is required and what it accomplishes. But I needed to figure out whether I am willing to pay the price I must, in order to go on writing.
All writers, across genres, have to pay the price for their choices. Some brilliant minds who would rather write about ecology end up writing inane pieces about how the manufacturers of X detergent or Y soap might kill the competition. Some feminists end up writing about the inevitability of Brazilian waxes or the merits of 'settling' for a man, as long as he'll marry you. Some have written about their own despair, and died of it. Some have written their truths and been exiled or jailed or murdered for it.
They could have chosen not to, you know. I think of that often, these days. That these days, it is so easy to give offense. I'm certain there's enough on this blog, for instance, to offend several groups. So far, I've not bothered to censor myself. Or haven't I? Have I said everything I could have said? Have I not stopped to think, rethink, saved drafts and slept over them a few nights, to make sure I wasn't saying something indefensible, to make sure I wasn't crossing any lines of offense?
It is fine to say "but that is the only responsible thing to do". Perhaps it is. And perhaps I have tried to be responsible, rather than afraid. But what if I did say something indefensible? What should have been done to me? What if I did cross all lines, offending everyone right, left and center, across caste, religion and gender lines? What would I lose? A reputation? A home? A career? Liberty? Life?
These are difficult questions. For a writer who is aware of the repercussions, and who isn't in these times, these are beyond moral or ethical dilemmas. These are matters of life and death. Because, really, it takes so little, and makes so little sense. Somebody has a problem with the title of a movie. People could die. Somebody has problems with a beautiful song. People could die. Somebody paints. Somebody could die. Somebody shoots a photo. Somebody could go to jail. No laws are broken. And yet, suddenly, you could be stripped of your right to life and liberty, your right to expect that your country will protect you as a ctitizen.
Take a well-known book that might well have had its demerits, but we aren't allowed to find out. "The Satanic Verses is a rich and complex literary novel, by turns ironic, fantastical and satirical. Despite what is often said, mostly by those who haven't read it, the book does not take direct aim at Islam or its prophet. Those sections that have caused the greatest controversy are contained within the dreams or nightmares of a character who is in the grip of psychosis. Which is to say that, even buried in the fevered subconscious of a disturbed character inside a work of fiction - a work of magical realism fiction! - there is no escape from literalist tyranny. Any sentence might turn out to be a death sentence. And few if any of even the boldest and most iconoclastic artists wish to run that risk."
The above paragraph is from a piece titled 'How Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses has Shaped Our Society' and it echoes many of my own concerns. Not because I wish to criticise religion in print but because I wish not to approach writing with fear in my heart. Because the only thing that fear produces is more fear and any work that has been infected by fear is at best, mediocre, and really, utterly worthless as a testament to a lifetime of thinking and creating. One might as well not write.
While I would urge everyone to read the whole piece, please do at least read this little section:
"The word, though, that is most frequently launched at the heirs of Rushdie is Islamophobic. Almost any criticism of Islam or any of its adherents is likely to trigger accusations of Islamophobia. For example, in 2007 the Channel 4 documentary Undercover Mosque exposed various preachers making hateful and violent statements regarding women, Jews, homosexuals and infidels. By any journalistic measure it was a compelling and revelatory documentary. But in the media storm that followed it was not the inflammatory preachers but the programme-makers who found themselves subject to an inquisition. The police tried to prosecute them for broadcasting "material likely to stir up racial hatred". And when that failed they referred the film to Ofcom for censure. It took nine months before the film-makers were fully vindicated and their professional reputations restored.
Of course, very few people sympathised with the preachers shown in the documentary but many did want to express their sympathy with Muslims in general, whom they saw, not without reason, as an embattled minority. And to the well-intentioned, the best way of doing this was to condemn anyone who criticised any Muslim, regardless of their extremism. As the playwright David Edgar put it: "Whether they like it or not, the current defectors [his term for those liberals who criticise extremist Islamic leaders] are seeking to provide a vocabulary for the progressive intelligentsia to abandon the poor."