Gray Areas

Apropos of Margaret Atwood. Earlier this month, the British novelist Geraldine Bedell, author of The Gulf Between Us, claimed to have been dis-invited from the Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature, where her book was supposed to be launched, because it contained a gay sheik character. She also claimed that The Gulf Between Us had been banned from sale in the, well, Gulf. Bedell protested; several authors rose to her defense and in support of freedom of speech; the venerable Margaret Atwood canceled her appearance at the festival; there was a major hoopla in London newspapers. Here’s The Times, for instance: “Geraldine Bedell’s novel banned in Dubai because of gay character.” And here’s The Telegraph: “British author Geraldine Bedell banned from Dubai book festival.”

Only now, after all this exposure and publicity, does the image get a little more complicated. If you read the articles linked to above, you’ll notice that the source appears to be Bedell herself and an email from the festival’s director, Isobel Abulhoul. You’ll also notice that the book is not due out until April, which makes it a little hard to claim that it was “banned” from sale. After the initial controversy, Abulhoul came forward to say that she was in fact approached by Bedell’s publisher for a possible launch of the novel at the festival. She read the manuscript, decided it wasn’t right for the festival, and said no. One can safely assume she wasn’t expecting her email to be leaked to the press. Margaret Atwood wrote a funny, self-deprecating piece for the Guardian, explaining how she was fooled into thinking this was a clear-cut case of censorship:

From reading the press, I got the impression that her book had been scheduled to launch at the festival, and that the launch had then been cancelled, for whiff-o’gay-sheikh reasons; and that, furthermore, it had been banned throughout the Gulf states; and that furthermore, Bedell herself had been prohibited from attending the festival, and also from travelling in Dubai. So said and other commentators.

This was a case for Anti-Censorship Woman! I nipped into the nearest phone booth, hopped into my cape and coiled my magic lasso, and swiftly cancelled my own appearance; because, as a vice-president of International PEN, I could not give my August Seal of Elderly Writer Approval to such a venue.

Well done, Anti-Censorship Woman! was the response. How stalwart!

But possibly not.

You can read Atwood’s response in full here.