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Leïla Slimani: ‘Attack on Salman Rushdie shows why we must not censor ourselves’

The bestselling author Leïla Slimani says the knife attack on Salman Rushdie has left her and other writers afraid, but that they have a “duty” to keep making public appearances and resist censoring themselves, despite the dangers.

The French-Moroccan writer, whose novels include Adèle, Lullaby and The Country of Others and is Emmanuel Macron’s personal representative for the promotion of French language and culture, said defending her freedom as a writer “feels even more important than before” and was an act of resistance.

“I’m afraid, I know the risks, I’ve always known the risks,” Slimani, 40, told the Observer. But to cancel or avoid events out of fear would, she said, be tantamount to allowing the terrorists to win. “All of us are afraid, all of us know that one day a knife or a bottle with acid or something like that could happen, but that’s what we have to do. And if we do it we have to do it bravely.”

Rather than cutting back on events, she said writers and artists should be doubling down, putting on more events, encouraging people to read more and becoming “more curious and interested in everything that happens in the world”.

Salman Rushdie is tended to after he was attacked during a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution.
Salman Rushdie is tended to after he was attacked during a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution. Photograph: Joshua Goodman/AP

“I don’t want the terrorists to dictate my agenda and my life,” added Slimani, who lives in Lisbon with her husband and two children. “Even in the worst time, even after the Bataclan, even after Charlie Hebdo, I continued to write, like many other Muslim writers and French writers, and we continue to have fun and to go out and to meet our public.

“It’s the most important kind of resistance.”

Slimani, who has been appointed chair of next year’s International Booker prize, said she feels “obliged” to be brave. “I feel forced to be brave, even if sometimes I’m very frightened, sometimes I’m afraid, not only for me but for my family, for my children.

“Even if sometimes I have the feeling that I’m a coward, that I’m not fighting enough against fanaticism, terrorism and the Islamists.”

Rushdie was stabbed in the neck and torso this month as he was about to deliver a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution in New York state, more than three decades after a fatwa on the author was issued in reaction to his book The Satanic Verses. Sales of the 1988 novel, which was said by some Muslims to be blasphemous, have soared since the attack, with the book re-entering the UK charts and the publisher ordering a reprint.

“We all feel, and when I say all I mean all the Muslim intellectuals, or people coming from this part of the world, that we have a duty, and we really need to be the voices of enlightenment, voices of freedom, the voices of dignity,” said Slimani.

“We need to speak for all those people who are afraid to speak, and we need to be very very careful not to censor ourselves.”

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If writers and intellectuals are afraid, “that’s the end,” she said. “We need to be the voices of freedom, we don’t have the choice but to be free. Because this is the definition of our work.”

Despite the risks, she is made to feel “very optimistic” when she meets her readers, whom she usually finds generous and open-minded.

In a fragmented world, she sees storytelling and literature as playing a vital role, especially at a time when nuance is often lacking. “It’s the place where you can give expression to ambiguity, to uncertainty, when you can say that someone can be something and something else at the same time,” she said.

“We need that because we live in a time where people want to define themselves in very small identities, and to say ‘I am this and I am not that and because I am not that all the people who are that are my enemies’.”

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