Sherry Jones and The Jewel of Medina: "Dreams die in shards."
Sherry Jones interviewed me for the Missoulian in 1996 when my first novel came out. Kindred spirits, we stayed in touch over the years as she labored toward the dream of publishing her own first book, A’isha, Beloved of Muhammad, an ambitious historical novel about the Prophet’s child bride. Last year, Sherry’s opus sold to a Random House imprint in a six-figure, two-book deal. Retitled The Jewel of Medina, it was scheduled for publication August 12, 2008.
But in late May, Random House abruptly canceled plans for Jewel and its sequel “for the safety of the author, employees of Random House, booksellers and anyone else who would be involved in distribution and sale of the novel.”
According to Asra Nomani of the Wall Street Journal, a review copy was sent to Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas in Austin, in hopes that she would offer a promotional quote. Instead of simply declining to blurb the book, Dr. Spellberg called an editor, who circulated an email to other powers that be at the publisher: “Denise says it is 'a declaration of war . . . explosive stuff . . . a national security issue.' …Does not know if the author and Ballantine folks are clueless or calculating, but thinks the book should be withdrawn ASAP.”
Kurt Vonnegut said, “Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.” Dr. Spellberg’s cherry on top was a “frantic” phone call to Shahed Amanullah, the editor of a popular Muslim website, who fired off an email saying he knew nothing about the book but had been told it was “incredibly offensive”. The message was forwarded far and wide, and a recipient proposed a plan to flood Random House with emails demanding that “this new attempt to slander the Prophet” be taken off the market with the author’s apologies.
Spellberg has said the book is “a very ugly, stupid piece of work” that turns A’isha’s story into “soft core pornography” (an amazing accomplishment for a book with no sex scenes), comparing it to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, which is (as much as I love my friend) patently ridiculous. This book could more accurately be compared to The Red Tent, Anita Diamant’s beautiful Torah-based bestseller, which offered modern readers a greater understanding of a woman’s life in an ancient and extremely foreign culture. With utmost respect for Islam, Sherry had envisioned building a bridge to A’isha’s world. Now she wrote to me, devastated: “Dreams die in shards.”
“I objected strenuously to the claim that ‘The Jewel of Medina’ was ‘extensively researched,’” Dr. Spellberg said. “As an expert on Aisha's life, I felt it was my professional responsibility to counter this novel's fallacious representation...”
Literary quality is a matter of personal taste, and I’ll resist speculating on Dr. Spellberg’s motives, but she’s wrong about the research. Sherry learned Arabic and spent two years immersed in scripture, scouring ancient and modern writings, weighing widely varying interpretations with a journalist’s impartiality. Then she did what many academics and religious fundamentalists don’t want anyone to do: she made up her own mind.
Dr. Spellberg told the WSJ, “If Ms. Nomani and readers of the Journal wish to allow literature to ‘move civilization forward,’ then they should read a novel that gets history right.”
Would that be the “right history” according to the Qur’an, in which fishermen were transformed into apes? (Sura 2: 65) Or the Pentateuch/Torah, in which angels had sex with girls and spawned a race of giants? (Genesis 6:1-4) Or the New Testament, in which decomposing corpses strolled about town? (Matthew 27:52) As a storyteller, I have my opinion about how those stories came to be told. When I write about that, I present it as opinion, which is what Sherry Jones did, presenting her interpretation of the story of A’isha as a novel, unlike Dr. Spellberg and others who present their interpretation of scripture as fact. I’m grateful for the firm scriptural foundation I gained from twelve years of fundamentalist Lutheran and Baptist school followed by Catholic college, but I believe God gifted His children with horse sense and free will so that His word would live and grow in our open minds.
We can’t debate the decision by Random House without knowing all the facts. (Full disclosure: I've done two books at RH imprints and had universally good experiences there.) It’s not clear if any “email blast” actually took place, and as of this writing, there’s been no report of actual physical threats. Only rumors of possible response. Though Dr. Spellberg and others trembled to the worst kneejerk conclusion about Muslim reaction (as if Muslims think and act with the homogeny of a synchronized swim team), the initial response to Amanullah’s email simply called for web community members to educate themselves and raise their voices.
Unfortunately, they and Dr. Spellberg extended that to include the stifling of someone else’s voice, zealously contending that we should all defer to that which they hold sacred. But to a novelist, what could be more sacred than freedom of thought and expression?
Update 10/28/09 Reflections on a firestorm (3 Questions for Sherry Jones, author of "The Sword of Medina")