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Rushdie’s Satanic Verses would probably not be published today, says Adichie

In her BBC Radio 4 Reith Lecture on Freedom of Speech, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses the artistic need for freedom of speech (BBC/Richard Ansett/PA)
In her BBC Radio 4 Reith Lecture on Freedom of Speech, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses the artistic need for freedom of speech (BBC/Richard Ansett/PA)

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has said Sir Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel The Satanic Verses would “probably not” be published today.

Sir Salman was attacked in August during a literary event in New York, where he suffered a damaged liver and severed nerves in an arm and an eye.

The Satanic Verses, his fourth novel, led to death threats in Iran in the 1980s.

Adichie is known for novels including Americanah and Half Of A Yellow Sun, which in 2020 was voted the best book to have won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in its 25-year history.

Delivering the BBC Radio 4 Reith Lecture on freedom of speech, the Nigerian-born writer said: “Here is a question I’ve been thinking about: would Rushdie’s novel be published today? Probably not. Would it even be written? Possibly not.

“There are writers like Rushdie who want to write novels about sensitive subjects, but are held back by the spectre of social censure.

“Publishers are wary of committing secular blasphemy. Literature is increasingly viewed through ideological rather than artistic lenses.”

The 45-year-old author also said that if any of the books that “formed and inspired and consoled” her were censored, she would be “lost”.

Sir Salman Rushdie incident
Sir Salman Rushdie (Booker Prizes/PA)

She added: “My practical reason, we could also call it my selfish reason, is that I fear the weapon I advocate to be used against someone else might one day be used against me.

“What today is considered benign could very well become offensive tomorrow, because the suppression of speech is not so much about the speech itself, as it is the person who censors.

“American high school boards are today engaged in a frenzy of book banning, and the process seems arbitrary.

“Books that have been used in school curriculums for years with no complaints have suddenly been banned in some states, and I understand that one of my novels is in this august group.”

She also took aim at “virtual vigilante action” for targeting people who have said “terrible things”.

“This new social censure demands consensus while being wilfully blind to its own tyranny,” she added.

Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

“I think it portends the death of curiosity, the death of learning and the death of creativity.”

The Reith Lectures begin on Radio 4 and BBC Sounds on Wednesday at 9am.

Lord Rowan Williams, Darren McGarvey and Dr Fiona Hill will also give lectures inspired by Franklin D Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech.

The famous 1941 address covered freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear – with one speaker per topic.

Lord Williams will explore freedom of worship, Dr Hill will speak on freedom from fear and Orwell Prize-winning author McGarvey is discussing freedom from want.