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Context and Censorship
on February 8, 2004
The key to understanding "Haroun and the Sea of Stories" is to look at the context during which it was written. Salman Rushdie was in hiding, and on the run, after a fatwa had been placed on his head for writing the Satanic Verses. He was away from his wife and child (the latter for whom the book was written).
Essentially, "Haroun and the Sea of Stories" is a story about censorship. The protagonist participates in a war between the forces of speech and the forces of silence. There are two events which precipitate this war: 1) Princess Batcheet, of the land of storytellers (Gup), is kidnapped by the armies of the land of silence (Chup), and 2) the Ocean of the Streams of Stories, the source of all the stories in the world, is poisoned by the ruler of Chup.
The people of Gup are faced with a major decision. They only have resources to fight one battle and the question is often asked: "What is more important? The Story? Or the Storyteller?" Is the story more important than the ability to tell it and the person who is communicating it?
What is even more poignant in this tale is that Rushdie has made the Princess an unlikable character: she is ugly, has a screechy voice, and makes improper, invaluable, or disrespectful comments when she speaks. Rushdie was Princess Batcheet at the time this book was written. The price on his head was placed over improper, invaluable, or disrespectful comments (as viewed by some populations in the world) he had written in the Satanic Verses.
In the end, both the person and the stories are saved and Rushdie makes his crucial point: one could not exist without the other. Even though the princess is disliked, she is saved because all ideas must have the chance to be expressed- even ideas that have been deemed "bad" or "dangerous". Censorship kills the story and will eventually kill mankind.
Rushdie illustrates that freedom of speech is integral to the survival and evolution of our human culture. In a time when our world is becoming increasingly paranoid about expression and is enacting stricter laws to regulate the dissemination of ideas (perfect example: the fallout over Janet Jackson's Superbowl appearance), Rushdie's "Haroun and the Sea of Stories" stands out as a beacon to those who believe in freedom. This is such an inspirational book for children, and adults, to read. Rushdie is a man who risked his life to share his thoughts with the world- and he lived to tell a story about it.