Boulder CO 1992

Boulder, Colorado

The Novel of the Americas Symposium
September 8-25, 1992

Roy Lisker

The Novel of the Americas Symposium of 1992 at the University of Colorado in Boulder opened in the Mackey auditorium at 8:30 AM on Tuesday, September 8th . It was a mammoth event extending over 3 weeks, and included lectures, readings, panel discussions and guest appearances of over 300 novelists from countries in North and South America and the Caribbean. Also in attendance were about half a dozen former presidents of countries in the Western hemisphere including : Raul Alfonsin of Argentina (1983-89), Oscar Arias of Costa Rica (1986-1990) , and Michael Manley of Jamaica (1972-80; 1989-92) . Their brief statements at the opening ceremonies were followed by remarks from the principal organizer of the event , Raymond L. Williams, (currently in the department of Hispanic Studies, UC Riverside.)

The scope of the 18-day Novel of the Americas Symposium (September 8-25th) was vast. A short list of the most widely read and acknowledged guest speakers and panelists bears this out: Toni Morrison, Luis Rafael Sanchez, Peter Matthiessen, William Styron, William Gass, Carlos Fuentes, Ishmael Reed, Leslie Silko, Gerard Vizenor, Juan Goytisolo (Spain), Wole Soyinka (Nigeria), Amy Tan, Linda Hogan, Beth Cutland (Canada), Ai Bei (China), Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Edwards, Roberto Echevarria, and others.

After the morning session I approached Raymond Williams. Describing myself as a novelist and CU visiting scholar , I asked if it were possible to receive a complementary pass for the entire 3-week symposium. He agreed to do so, and I received a free pass for the whole conference. The normal registration fee was $125. I was, in fact,a visiting scholar in the Electrical Engineering department of CU at that time.

Later on it appeared that Williams entertained some doubts as to my legitimacy. Whenever I ran into him on campus his face broke out into a sweat; he might flash a ghastly smile then take steps to avoid me. When he saw me eating in the faculty club dining room, he turned livid. I leave it to the reader to judge if my activities during this event justified such behavior. In any case, Williams, who cannot be commended too much for organizing this Symposium, never rescinded my free pass.

To be fair:none of the things I was doing on campus seemed strange to me, but they might well have to others. Along with selling self-published books and cards on campus , reciting chanted poetry and playing violin and recorder in the Mall, I also advertised and sold my Ferment Press booklets from a stand set up in back of the dining halls outside the CU student union,(University Memorial Center). Essays on Einstein, Bach, Hamlet, Quantum Theory, history of psychiatry, 18th century music and medicine, collections of short stories, and the like were offered to one and all at prices ranging from $3 to $10. I naturally assumed that all novelists behave the same way, and that the by-passing would think I was just another delegate to the Symposium. Yet I quickly got into trouble, as will be revealed shortly.

The afternoon of Thursday, September 9th saw me outdoors on campus, up to my usual tricks. A large poster, resting on a confiscated chair, informed the public that I was selling self-published books. Each title was listed against a price that could only be considered derisory, given the amount of work that had gone into the writing of these books, the vast investment in education and experience needed to acquire all the expertise that went into writing them ( Doesn't that sound like your favorite medical doctor?) the costs of printing, and the hours invested in standing about waiting for customers. Sales had been good up to then; they would hold steady at around $40 per afternoon for the next few days. I let the public know, of course, that I myself was a delegate at the Novel of the Americas Symposium.

Inevitably there were some hecklers. Particularly obnoxious in behavior was a woman, apparently a departmental secretary at CU, who came down the road to my right with a friend on their way to the UMC dining-halls. She unleashed a tornado of abuse the moment she saw me. I don't know if she was ridiculing me,my venture,or my merchandise; in either case the invective was completely unprovoked.

I confess that I reacted, in a textbook situation in which I should have maintained a dignified silence. What I told this woman was, that she showed so little respect for learning that it was astonishing she could be holding down a job on a university campus. This, of course, knocked the chip off her shoulder. She went immediately to a campus police officer to complain that I was selling things on campus and had made insulting remarks to her.

So, the officer came from around the building and asked me what I was doing. My zeal for the cause of press freedom had by that time been jacked up to an exceptionally high pitch of revolutionary fervor. I was a participant, it should be recalled, in a gathering including as delegates more than 300 novelists from around the world. Many were from Latin America, more than one among them famous for the courageous stands they'd taken against their own governments. Some had spent time in jail; others had been case histories for P.E.N. or Amnesty International. These were living exemplars of the principle of freedom of expression who, more than once, had paid the price.

And here I was, one of them - in action! The books I was selling were serious work, well researched, carefully edited, in excellent condition. They were being sold for almost nothing; the money barely covered the daily costs I incurred while attending the Symposium.

This background is necessary to understand behavior which, under normal circumstances I might have deemed erratic, if not insane: when the policeman told me that I couldn't sell anything on campus and needed to leave right away, I crossed my left wrist over my right and said : "Very good, officer! Put on the handcuffs and take me away!"

The poor man reeled back three foot or so and put up his hands: "Hey, sir! Take it easy! We can talk this thing over!" For the most part - there are exceptions - a big university will not employ a squad of dumb palookas to do its' policing. He realized that I was not on campus to swindle people, or even to make a profit. In a friendly, even approving manner, he told me that the university did have a procedure whereby merchandise or literature could be sold on campus. Then he directed me to an office on the ground floor of the Memorial Center where I could meet with someone who could authorize my presence on campus.

I closed down operations and went into the UMC. To no-one's surprise, certainly not to mine, the fees demanded by CU to do what I wanted to do vastly exceeded the amount of money I could have hoped to make, even after a month of sales. I would have to confine myself to a specific table in the basement of the UMC that would completely nullify my visibility, and be required to restrict business to a few specified hours on each day.

I was hardly alone in my frustrations. Talking with the then chair of the drama department, Richard Devins, he told me that a day of events had been organized several years before, to raise awareness and money for AIDS research. The university refused to budge a split farthing on its policies relative to the "merchandising of commercial speech". Everything had to be paid for in full, with all the usual restrictions of time and venue.

Early the next morning I paid a visit to the offices of the ACLU in Denver. To a large extent ACLU branches are autonomous: the theory and practice of civil liberties in Denver may have nothing to do with these things in California or Massachusetts. And so it proved to be. The woman in the Denver office quoted some nonsense to me about "commercial speech", then let me know that the cause of selling self-published books below cost on a university campus was beneath the radar of anything the ACLU would want to consider. I then asked her why it had not considered the rights of the Nazis in Skokie, Illinois in the same category. This made her very angry; the ACLU lost more than half its membership because of this (in my opinion) error in judgment. I would not say that it was a happy confrontation.

Yet dramatic developments were destined to turn the focus of all my activities in a new direction. On the afternoon of September 9th word got around that Salman Rushdie would be making a surprise appearance at the 8 PM gathering in the large basketball court of the University Recreation Center.

By the time I arrived the bleachers were filled to capacity. Several hundred people were also seated in bridge chairs distributed on the floor of the ballcourt . State troopers stood at all the entrances of the Recreation Center, charged with the task of turning away anyone with a fanatic glitter in his/her eyes, or a too ingeniously knotted turban. Despite the reservations of departmental secretaries, cops and ACLU lawyers, Dr. Roy Lisker Incorporated had no trouble being allowed into the event. I took up a seat in the bleachers, about 4 ranges up from the walls of the court, and to the left of the makeshift podium.

After the introductory talks by William Styron and Peter Matthiessen the audience settled back in a prolonged silence, and waited. Audiences are impatient by nature; after about 15 minutes one sensed the development of a general sense that Salman Rushdie might not have shown up, or that the event had been cancelled for security considerations.However no one stood up to leave.

Suddenly Salman Rushdie , surrounded by at least a dozen (perhaps as many as 20) state troopers and security guards, strolled in from the front of the court and marched up to the podium. Everyone stood up in homage; the applause which reverberated around the building lasted as long as one would expect it to last on such an extraordinary occasion. In his short speech, he emphasized the dark medieval vision of Islam as conceived by the Iranian Ayatollahs. This, he assured us, gave a very false picture of Islam to the rest of the world. Turning (metaphorically) to face the Ayatollah Khomeini, he said "You are in as much a prison as this man is now in - and that speaks volumes. "

He didn't speak very long before he was "whisked away" (An expression no doubt coined to describe precisely this kind of situation). As the gathering was dispersing, William Styron stepped up to the microphone and made an announcement: "To show our solidarity with Salman, the conference organizers have been asked to manufacture hundreds of small buttons with the message: I Am Salman Rushdie. We ask you to wear these buttons at the remaining lectures, readings and panel discussions of the Symposium."

I left the conference and took the bus back to Denver and my room in the slovenly, sleazy,seedy, insalubrious hotel where I was staying, the Hotel Standish (since demised).

The more I thought about it on my way back to Boulder the next morning,the more I recognized that William Styron's gesture was inadequate. Attendees would not pick up the buttons; or if they did they would conceal them, or wear them at one event at most before putting them back or throwing them away. Only a macho approach would do! : I had to order and wear a tee shirt with the message I AM SALMAN RUSHDIE displayed in large, two inch high black felt letters on a neutral ground!

Such custom made tee shirts could be commissioned and manufactured at an establishment on the Boulder Mall that no longer exists, The Brick Shirt House.

The baptism of this shirt took place at a panel session, in the UMC, at 4 PM Monday September 14th. The panelists were Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Wole Soyinka, Vargas Llhosa, and Jorge Edwards. Styron's buttons were ready by then, piled in boxes on a table to the right of the entrance to the UMC forum room. As I'd predicted, the people who took a button wore it once, then returned it to the boxes as they went out; or they held it in one hand, covered over with the other. Or, for the most part they didn't take one at all. Then I walked in and took a seat, my highly provocative identity theft blatantly displayed across my chest. Few if any in the audience appeared to be ruffled by my action; but shock waves came immediately from the panelists. William Styron looked at me with some distress before his face broke into a broad, if perplexed, smile.

The strongest reaction came from Wole Soyinka. One might say that he was thunder-struck. It isn't hard to understand why. He comes from Nigeria, a land where Moslem and Christian fundamentalists hold political and popular power, and exercise it freely. Had this been Nigeria, not only would I be, or about to become, dead, but the entire audience of the panel discussion (perhaps of the entire Symposium) would have been in mortal danger.

On the following afternoon I gathered up my paraphernalia and marched out onto the CU campus, to the same spot where I'd been selling Ferment Press books for the last week. A new sign was place alongside the old: it spoke of issues of freedom of expression; it explained that I was unable to give my books away for free; suggesting indeed that there might be something wrong with giving away books holding serious intellectual content in a place where the prices of textbooks are systematically inflated to many times their real worth. I mentioned that I'd been to visit with the ACLU and been told that my books constituted "commercial speech", therefore legally banned from the CU campus. I indicated my intention of defying the law. To top it all off I was wearing my new I AM SALMAN RUSHDIE tee shirt, an opening invitation to any Moslem fanatic to assimilate me into the Ayatollah's fatwa as a target.

Reactions were strong, of course, and not always in the best of taste. Students cocked index finger and thumb into a figurative pistol, aimed it at me and cried "Pow"! Some Middle Eastern students passed quickly by, genuinely frightened. Sales went up a bit, though many potential customers were undoubtedly discouraged from coming near me on account of the tee shirt. The cop who'd advised me to apply to the university for a license walked by quickly, a smile on his lips: the dimensions of the "cause" had expanded beyond anything he wanted to get involved in.

It was approaching 6 PM : the campus was emptying out, and the number of persons going by me had dwindled to a trickle. Another half hour passed with neither spectators nor sales. Then I noticed an undergraduate, a young woman probably not yet 20, standing off to my left. Her arms cradled a half a dozen big textbooks. A smile full of admiration radiated from her full, naive, uncomplicated face. It took several minutes for her to work up her nerve.Finally my manner seemed unthreatening enough for her to realize that she was in no danger in coming up to speak to me. Then he walked, rather shyly, over to me and said: "I've read your Satanic Verses!"

I wore the tee shirt again a few times, at the conference and around town, being guided by my intuitive estimate of how long it would be safe to do so. Then I stored it away. Once in awhile I bring it out for poetry readings.

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