Atwood accuses Dubai book festival of censorship

Gay characters offended ‘certain cultural sensitivities’ say organisers

Amol Rajan
Thursday 19 February 2009 01:00 GMT

An international book festival in Dubai is facing the possibility of a mass walkout in its inaugural year with authors queuing up to protest against the censorship of a book that discusses homosexuality.

The Canadian novelist and former Booker Prize winner Margaret Atwood sparked the controversy by pulling out of the Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature after a fellow writer was blacklisted for offending “cultural sensitivities”.

The book at the centre of the latest storm is The Gulf Between Us, a romantic comedy by the English writer Geraldine Bedell which is set in a fictional Gulf emirate. It was due to be formally launched at the festival but has been withdrawn by the festival at the last minute because it features a gay relationship. Bedell commented: “Can you have a literary festival and ban books because they feature gay characters? Is that what being part of the contemporary literary scene means? The organisers claim to be looking for an exchange of ideas – but not, apparently, about sex or faith. That doesn’t leave literature an awful lot of scope.”

The festival director, Isobel Abulhoul, issued a statement in which she said: “I knew that her work could offend certain cultural sensitivities. I did not believe that it was in the festival’s long term interests to acquiesce to her publisher’s request to launch the book at the first festival of this nature in the Middle East.”

Atwood, a vice-president of the writers’ group International PEN, has infuriated organisers of the literary festival by posting a letter of protest on her website. “I was greatly looking forward to the festival”, the letter reads, “and to the chance to meet readers there; but, as an international vice-president of PEN – an organisation concerned with the censorship of writers – I cannot be part of the festival this year.”

Atwood goes on to express dismay at the “regrettable turn of events”. Just how regrettable, however, may not be clear until the full roll-call of dropouts is complete. Her boycott was reinforced with protests from other writers threatening to pull out. The children’s author Anthony Horowitz has written to festival organisers expressing “deep concern”. In an email to Abulhoul, seen by The Independent, Horowitz writes: “As both a children’s author and a member of PEN, I cannot be associated with a literary festival that opposes freedom of speech and which attempts to censor other writers … It doesn’t help that my name is being used constantly to promote the festival... in truth, I should have known about this earlier”.

Other writers may be emboldened to join Atwood in boycotting the event by the words of Jonathan Heawood, the director of English PEN.

“The idea of a literary festival is cultural exchange through literature”, Heawood said. “A festival that shuts its doors to anything mildly controversial isn’t really worthy of the name. Ultimately it is up to individual writers, but I applaud any others who follow Atwood’s example.”

Sixty-six authors from 20 countries, including Kate Adie, Jung Chang, and Louis de Berniéres, still plan to attend the festival.

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