PEN Journey 2: The Fatwa

PEN International celebrates its Centenary in 2021. I have been active in PEN for more than 30 years in various positions, including as Vice President, International Secretary and Chair of International PEN’S Writers in Prison Committee. With memories stirring and file drawers bulging with documents, I am a bit of a walking archive and have been asked by PEN International to write down memories. In digestible portions I will recount moments, though I’m not certain I can contain all these, but I hope this personal PEN journey may be of some interest.


It was President’s weekend in the US—between Lincoln and Washington’s birthday, coinciding with Valentine’s Day, 1989. I was President of PEN Center USA West and had just hired the Center’s first executive director ten days before. I’d been working hard with PEN and was also finishing a new novel, teaching and shepherding my 8 and 10-year old sons. For the first time in a year and a half my husband and I were going away for a long weekend without our children. He had also been working nonstop and had managed to clear his schedule.

On the plane to Colorado where we planned to ski, I read that Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses had been burned in Birmingham, England. The next day Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie. What was a fatwa? The Supreme Leader of Iran was calling for the murder of Rushdie wherever he was in the world, and he was offering a $6 million reward. As information about the fatwa developed, it also included a call for the death of whoever published The Satanic Verses.

I began making phone calls. This was a time before omnipresent cell phones so I had to find phones and numbers where people could reach me. (Usually our vacation dynamic was that my husband was on the phone.)

That first day I skied and wrote press releases on the ski lift and stopped at lodges on the mountain to use the pay phones to communicate with our new executive director. I’d ski another run then call the office again to answer questions from the press. What exactly was a fatwa, we were still asking? What did this mean for a writer? By the end of the day, I told my husband I had to return to LA.

“Can’t this wait?” he asked.

“No, it can’t,” I said.

Though a fatwa was a new concept, I understood, as did PEN members around the world, that a threshold had been crossed when a head of state issued a death warrant on a writer wherever he was in the world. Our two sons came out to be with my husband, and I returned to LA. Our board went into action as did PEN Centers around the globe to protest the fatwa. We organized a public event at the Los Angeles Times with writers and experts, an event which included readings from Rushdie’s book. Some were frightened by the threat, but most in PEN gathered. We contacted US government officials and began coordinating with global PEN centers, including American PEN in New York to confirm the support of writers for Rushdie and to protest Khomeini’s action.

Davis Dutton, center, of Dutton’s Books with some of his employees who voted to ignore the threats from Iran and stock “The Satanic Verses.”

Whatever the controversy over The Satanic Verses and its “insult” to Muslims, PEN was clear that the right of the writer to write without fear of death was primary.

The mobilization included discussions with bookstores to encourage them to keep the book on the shelves for many were quietly removing it. The fuller scope of our PEN’s actions at the time is described in the column below in the PEN Center USA West’s newsletter and in a story in the Los Angeles Times.

Los Angeles Times, February 23, 1989


Next Installment: PEN Journey 3: Walls About to Fall



  1. susan osnos on May 21, 2019 at 12:27 pm

    Joanne, what a great story and very well told. I think the press releases on the ski lift was my favorite part. I’ve written a lot of press releases in my life, but never there.

    • Joanne on May 22, 2019 at 5:55 am

      Thank you, Susan. It was a galvanizing moment for PEN.

  2. Malcolm O'Hagan on May 21, 2019 at 8:33 pm

    The PEN is mightier than the sword.

    • Joanne on May 22, 2019 at 5:55 am

      Let us hope!

  3. Hori Takeaki on May 22, 2019 at 3:12 pm

    Thank for your enlightening second journey report to the Center of Pen International World, dark or bright.
    I will keep reading it and then, I shall write my reflections.

    • Joanne on May 22, 2019 at 3:37 pm

      Hori, I hope you’ll write yours as well.

  4. Marilyn Palasky on May 24, 2019 at 2:20 am

    Looking back–I marvel at your responses which seem so sure.

    • Joanne on May 24, 2019 at 10:38 am

      There was much I and others were not sure about then except we understood a threshold had been crossed by the fatwa which not only threatened lives but the foundations of free expression.

  5. Chris Slaughter on May 24, 2019 at 4:34 pm

    It’s fascinating reading about your involvement in this piece of history.

  6. Veronica Stoddart on June 3, 2019 at 11:34 am

    What a galvanizing story! Hats off to you for all you’ve done on behalf of writers everywhere. I so admire the work you’ve done.

    • Joanne on June 3, 2019 at 5:34 pm

      Thank you, Ronny.

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