By Zadie Smith
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When atrocities of this kind occur, we hear an explosion of the language of ‘rights.’ The right to free speech, to religion, to revenge. The zealous defenders of these rights often conceive of their rights as being in direct opposition to the rights of others. Sometimes these rights seem to exist solely in a state of contention. In these arguments about who has the right to do what, the barricades were built long ago. They remain in their habitual positions. Meanwhile, the rhetorical grenades fly back and forth along preordained routes. Within a day or two it becomes easy to forget that beneath these over-familiar and calcified debates there lies a human being, in this case, Salman Rushdie. A real man with a real human body. Presently catastrophically wounded and in pain.
Another possibility is to employ the language of duties. There are duties we have towards each other and to ourselves. My own duty to Salman is the duty of kinship, because he is one of my people, that is, a writer. In our peculiar guild – which stretches the globe – our collective duty is to language. We are wordsmiths. We consider ourselves custodians of words. They don’t belong to us alone, of course, but we try to take special care of them, renewing and refreshing them, like so many farmers tilling our separate stretches of land. We think of ourselves as having a duty of care towards language itself. A self-appointed duty, no doubt, but still a duty.
It is our duty, as writers, to commit acts of language. We do this in all sorts of ways, particular to each one of us, but always with the awareness that our acts of language do not cancel each other out. They cannot eradicate each other, nor kill each other. They lay next to each other, in simultaneous existence, like so many tilled fields, even if the things we choose to grow upon them are as different from each other as can be imagined. Language is a simultaneous situation: you speak, I speak. You write, I write. Both sentences can be heard. Both can be read. Sometimes the result is joy and enlightenment; sometimes friction and fury. Some sentences are louder than others, some more brutal, some barely whispers. But never does one sentence entirely snuff out the other. Unless it is a legal, militaristic or state-sponsored sentence. Unless it is a ‘death sentence.’ Fictional sentences have no such power to command. Fictional acts of language are the very opposite of an eye for an eye. They offer alternative ways of seeing, not ultimatums. Whereas, if you take a man’s eye, it is gone, irrevocably and forever.
It is the duty of writers to work their particular patch of land in their own way, and the literary landscape created by Salman Rushdie is one of the greenest and most fertile on this planet. He has always been a stern defender of his right to tend his corner as he sees fit, but even stronger than his arguments, to my mind, is his example. Many people in his position would have hastily planted a new, less provocative crop of words, or cultivated a forest of retraction. But as a stalwart member of this guild of writers, he felt his duties so acutely that he chose to stand in the middle of an open field for all to see, well aware he risked his life by doing so.
When writers are about their work – when we are cultivating acts of language, on the page or in public – we rely on a broader duty of care, one upon which all unarmed workers depend. Writers are no more soldiers than postmen or teachers, and we have, like them, an expectation of physical safety, which can only occur when many different kinds of citizens feel a duty of care towards each other. The people who rushed from the audience to the stage to protect Salman from a young man intent on violence – those brave citizens enacted that duty of care. Whoever condemns both individual and state sponsored acts of violence expresses their duty of care. Whoever hides behind a rusty old barricade to make the argument that words are as lethal as guns and knives and fists has forgotten it – or perhaps never knew it.
© Zadie Smith 2022
This piece first appeared in Italian in La Stampa.
Zadie Smith was born in North-West London in 1975 and holds a degree in English Literature from the University of Cambridge. She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and has twice been listed as one of Granta’s 20 Best Young British Novelists. Her first novel, White Teeth, was the winner of The Whitbread First Novel Award, The Guardian First Book Award, The James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction, and The Commonwealth Writers’ First Book Award. Her second novel, The Autograph Man, won The Jewish Quarterly Wingate Literary Prize. Zadie Smith’s third novel, On Beauty, won the Orange Prize for Fiction, The Commonwealth Writers’ Best Book Award (Eurasia Section) and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Her fourth novel, NW, was shortlisted for the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize and the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Her most recent novel, Swing Time, was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and longlisted for the Man Booker 2017. She published her first essay collection, Changing My Mind, in 2009 and her second essay collection, Feel Free, in 2018. Her first short story collection, Grand Union, was published in 2019. In 2020 she published a short essay collection, Intimations. In 2021 Zadie Smith and Nick Laird publish their first children’s picture book, Wierdo, illustrated by Magenta Fox. Zadie Smith writes regularly for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books and is a tenured professor of Creative Writing at New York University (NYU). She lives in London and New York.
Photo credit: Dominique Nobokov