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Rushdie e-mail backs local author

Spokane writer’s debut canceled over religious fear

On Thursday, Spokane author Sherry Jones received the kind of notice for her first novel, “The Jewel of Medina,” that most writers would kill to have.

Internationally renowned writer Salman Rushdie sent the Associated Press an e-mail about the book.

Unfortunately, Rushdie’s comment was a condemnation of Jones’ publisher, Random House, for pulling the book before it had arrived on a single bookshelf.

“I am very disappointed to hear that my publishers, Random House, have canceled another author’s novel, apparently because of their concerns about possible Islamic reprisals,” Rushdie’s e-mail said. “This is censorship by fear, and it sets a very bad precedent indeed.”

Rushdie has personal experience with such Islamic-inspired reprisals. His 1989 novel “The Satanic Verses” was condemned by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, earning Rushdie a death sentence that forced him to live in protected seclusion for several years.

Jones’ novel had been scheduled to be published Tuesday by Ballantine Books, a subsidiary of Random House. But in May the publisher, citing “cautionary advice … from credible and unrelated sources,” reneged on the deal. The publisher had purchased both “The Jewel of Medina” and its sequel, which Jones recently finished, for $100,000.

“They went all out to showcase my novel and, yes, I was extremely excited,” Jones said Thursday in a phone interview from Missoula. “Everybody there (at Random House) was expressing so much enthusiasm for my book,” she added, including her editor, who had sent her a letter that “was just gushing over how much she just loved my book.”

“The Jewel of Medina” focuses on Aisha bint Abu Bakr, often described as the “favorite wife” of Muhammad. The novel, Jones said, follows Aisha from her betrothal to Muhammad at age 6 through her marriage to him at age 9 and his death nine years later.

“I wanted to tell her story as a way to illustrate to everyone, not just women, but to everyone who might care to read her story … the strength and power that women had during the early days of Islam under Muhammad,” Jones said.

Jones’ problems began in April when Random House, seeking endorsements for the novel, sent an advance copy to Denise A. Spellberg, an associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

According to an Aug. 6 opinion piece by Asra Q. Nomani in the Wall Street Journal, Spellberg hated the book, describing it as “a very ugly, stupid piece of work.” In an interview with Nomani, Spellberg said she was particularly upset by a sex scene between Aisha and Muhammad.

“I don’t have a problem with historical fiction,” Spellberg told Nomani. “I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can’t play with a sacred history and turn it into soft-core pornography.”

Through a series of phone calls and e-mails between Spellberg and Muslim scholars, and ultimately Random House, editors began to have second thoughts. After company officials received an e-mail from an editor at Random House’s Knopf imprint (where Spellberg is under contract) saying that Spellberg was calling “The Jewel of Medina” “a declaration of war” and “explosive stuff,” Random House told Jones’ agent that it was considering postponing publication.

The decision became final on May 21. The reason, according to the Journal story, was “fear of a possible terrorist threat from extremist Muslims” and concern for “the safety and security of the Random House building and employees.”

“I was stunned to hear from them on that they were considering delaying publication because of this hyperbolic rhetoric from this lying professor,” Jones said. “You can quote me on that: She has just lied about my book. Lied and lied and lied, and I cannot figure out what her agenda is.”

Jones, who since has taken possession of “The Jewel of Medina” from Random House, says other companies have expressed interest in the novel.

“A number of publishing houses have expressed outrage at Random House’s decision and want to be the one to take whatever risks there might be and publish the book,” Jones said. “I personally don’t believe that there is a risk.”

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