Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Tale of The Jewel of Medina

A week ago yesterday, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published an op/ed article titled "You Still Can't Write About Muhammad" here. In it, an ex-WSJ reporter named Asra Nomani told the story of a first-time author named Sherry Jones.

In 2002 Ms. Jones, a correspondent for the Bureau of National Affairs, a news agency, decided she wanted to write an historical novel about the Aisha, the youngest wife of the Prophet Muhammad and Aisha's influence on the founding of Islam. Jones did a lot of research (you can see her bibliographic list here) and over half a dozen years she wrote her novel, which she titled The Jewel of Medina, found an agent (Natasha Kern) and sought publication.

According to Ms. Nomani's Journal article, Ballantine, a division of Random House (RH), bought the novel in 2007 in a $100,000, two-book deal. The book was scheduled to be released yesterday . . . until Random House pulled the plug on May 21. A month later, on June 21, Ms. Jones signed a termination agreement with RH so that she and Ms. Kern could try to market the novel elsewhere.


Because, in April, Ballantine asked Ms. Jones to compile a list of academics who *might* be willing to endorse The Jewel of Medina. Ms. Jones added the name of an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas in Austin whose book she had read during her research. Denise Spellberg's book was also about Aisha and was titled Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of 'A'isha Bint Abi Bakr. Ballantine sent Ms. Spellberg and other scholars a copy of the galley of Ms. Jones' novel.

Ms. Nomani's article reports:
But Ms. Spellberg wasn't a fan of Ms. Jones's book. On April 30, Shahed Amanullah, a guest lecturer in Ms. Spellberg's classes and the editor of a popular Muslim Web site, got a frantic call from her. "She was upset," Mr. Amanullah recalls. He says Ms. Spellberg told him the novel "made fun of Muslims and their history," and asked him to warn Muslims.
Mr. Amanullah sent an email out to Middle Eastern and Islamic studies graduate students warning them of the call he'd received and including report of the sale from the May 7, 2007 issue of Publishers Marketplace:
Journalist Sherry Jones's debut historical novel A'ISHA, BELOVED OF MUHAMMAD, set in seventh-century Arabia, the story of the favorite wife of the Prophet Muhammad, recreating her marriage at the age of nine, her struggle for personal freedom in a society where women had few rights, and her dedication to The Prophet's vision of a true faith . . . "
Ms. Spellberg's work wasn't done, however. According to Ms. Nomani, she also contacted her own editor at Knopf, another division of Random House. That editor, Jane Garrett, sent an email to her bosses that read in part:
"She [Ms. Spellberg] thinks there is a very real possibility of major danger for the building and staff and widespread violence," . . . "Denise says it is 'a declaration of war . . . explosive stuff . . . a national security issue' . . . thinks the book should be withdrawn ASAP."
Following publication of Ms. Nomani's article, Ms. Jones began her own blog here. In her entry for August 6th, she says:
Denise Spellberg, the UT professor who started all this, called it [her novel] "soft porn" -- which makes me feel like a literary master, able to write a pornographic novel without sex scenes!

Bloggers are going wild, reading all kinds of things into Ms. Nomani's excellent opinion piece. Some believe the Random House assertion that several people warned of potential terrorist attack. If so, that's news to me. The only one I was told about was Ms. Spellberg.
Ms. Spellberg apparently demanded equal time from the Wall Street Journal because on Saturday, the WSJ ran a second piece on the subject by Ms. Spellberg titled "I Didn't Kill the Jewel of Medina." You can read it here.

In her rebuttal, Ms. Spellberg accuses Ms. Nomani of false assertions and says she did not stop the book's publication. Of course, she is right. That was Random House's decision.

She also speaks of her "scholarly expertise" and "professional capacity" in making an assessment of the novel and its potential to provoke anger among Muslims. She does not make any reference to her own attempts to provoke Muslims.

She complains of Ms. Jones' "fallacious representation" of the facts of Aisha's life. With what seems to me to be a remarkably ironic self-righteous tone, she says:
I do not espouse censorship of any kind, but I do value my right to critique those who abuse the past without regard for its richness or resonance in the present.
The purpose of this post is to exercise MY right to critique those who abuse the present by shouting "Fire" AND THEN proceeding to ignite the spark that creates the very conflagration of which she warns.

This behavior on the part of a so-called academic is reprehensible in my view. Ms. Spellman speaks of exploitation, but I find her not-so-subtle threats to the Random House staff worse than any pandering to those who espouse "sex and violence." She practically invited reprisals to the publisher by her irresponsible and hysterical behavior.

Without regard for whether The Jewel of Medina is well-written or well-researched, I hope it soon finds a publisher.


Mike Keyton said...

Great post. It made my blood boil.

Kristi said...

The only effect that Spelling has guaranteed by her efforts is to push The Jewel of Medina to the top of every bestseller list immediately upon release by whichever publisher picks it up. You can't buy this kind of publicity.

Jolie said...

Thank you so much for this informative post. I'll be linking to it on my blog later.

I'm especially glad to hear that THE JEWEL OF MEDINA may yet be published with another house, because all this hype has made me eager to read it so I can see for myself what the fuss is about. I can't wait till we have the book in hand so everyone can develop an informed opinion.

Any publisher Jones approaches with the book would be foolish to turn her down. Kristi's right; this book will sell like hotcakes. And then to Denise Spellberg we can all say: "Nyah nyah!"

Maya Reynolds said...

I agree with the publicity windfall.

And a new publisher who has the sense to contact the Muslim community and let them actually READ the book might find that this whole affair has been a tempest in a teapot.

I think Random House acted precipitously although they may have been forced to do so because of staff fears.

I would like to see Ms. Spellberg held accountable for her lack of judgment and for acting as a provocateur instead of as an educator.