It’s been an up and down couple of months for Spokane-based writer Sherry Jones.
First her novel “The Jewel of Medina,” which tells the story of Muhammad’s wife A’isha, was supposed to be published by Random House.
Then, following a devastating academic review from a Texas college professor, which likened the book to “soft-core pornography,” Random House reneged on the deal.
Almost before the ink on the headlines had dried, New York-based publisher Beaufort Books announced that it would publish Jones’ novel.
Then came news that someone had fire-bombed the London home of the man whose publishing company, Gibson Square, was set to print the British edition of the novel.
Last weekend Jones was in New York, helping Beaufort announce that the publishing date had been moved up from Wednesday. Most copies of the novel’s 50,000 first U.S. printing were sent out Monday.
And at 7:30 Friday night, Jones will finally be able to do more than just defend a book that only a few editors and journalists have had access to. She’ll read from and sign copies of “The Jewel of Medina” at Auntie’s Bookstore.
What readers are likely to find, she says, is a book that is far from anything remotely pornographic.
“When people are able to read ‘The Jewel of Medina,’ what I think they will find is a book that teaches you about Islamic history in an entertaining, informative way,” Jones said by phone from New York. “It’s a page-turner. It’s a moving, epic love story about two of the most fascinating characters ever to people the pages of history.”
Jones, a 47-year-old former journalist who has lived in Spokane for the past year, says she developed an interest in A’isha several years ago while earning a bachelor’s degree in creative writing at the University of Montana.
She’d been working on a novella to complete an Honors College project, she said, “but I ran across the story of A’isha as I was reading about women’s situations in the Middle East. It was after 9/11, and we had heard from the press in Afghanistan at that point about how oppressed women were under the Taliban regime. And I just wanted to learn more.”
A’isha is A’isha bint Abu Bakr, one of several wives of the prophet Muhammad. “The Jewel of Medina” follows A’isha from 619 A.D., when at age 6 she was first betrothed to Muhammad, to the prophet’s death in 632 A.D.
As Jones explained in an Aug. 15 interview, “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.”
The problem, of course, is that Islam is particularly protective of Muhammad – to the point where riots have resulted from a Danish newspaper’s decision in 2005 to run the prophet’s likeness in a series of cartoons. So when someone gives a negative review to a novel featuring one of Muhammad’s wives, especially one popularized as his “favorite” spouse, some followers of Islam are bound to get upset.
It was in an interview with a Wall Street Journal reporter that Denise A. Spellberg, an associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, said, “I don’t have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can’t play with a sacred history and turn it into soft-core pornography.”
Jones says she is tired of speaking of Spellberg. But she did admit to having e-mailed the woman, asking her to retract her accusations because, in Jones’ view, the problem is not the novel but Spellberg’s view of it.
“I see that all the hostile reaction has not been to my book, which nobody has read, but to that word, pornography,” Jones said. “And I don’t know if she could put the genie back in the bottle, but the honorable thing to do would be to try. Because my publisher in Great Britain has had an attack and is in hiding now, all in reaction to that word.”
She’d rather talk about the attitudes that she hopes her novel will help bring about regarding an American view of Islam.
“We’ve seen the results of a radical, violent interpretation of Islam,” she said, “but the moderate interpretation of Islam, which is the majority of Muslims, is much different. So if we can realize what kind of person Muhammad was, if we can look at the strength that the women in his life held and were encouraged to hold by him, then we can begin to perhaps diminish our demonizing of this foreign culture and this religion.”
Jones is grateful, in any event, to Beaufort not just for having picked up the contract that Random House dropped but for responding to the latest trouble by confronting it directly.
“We decided that we needed to get the book out as quickly as possible because what’s happening now is not reaction to the book but reaction to, you know, inaccurate accusations about the book,” Jones said. “So rather than allow more time for speculation to continue to be fueled and to fuel anger and resentment, we thought if people could read the book then everything would simmer down.”
That’s what happened, she says, in Serbia, the first of 15 countries the book is scheduled to be published in.
“(I)n Serbia, once the book was actually published and available to people, the furor and controversy went away,” she said. “And I was told that my book is No. 1 there.”
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