For some reason, I conflated the news that Joni Mitchell may or may not be in a coma with the news that Michael Ondaatje has withdrawn from next month’s PEN American Center gala because PEN intends to honour the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo with a Freedom of Expression Courage Award. Maybe I conflated Mitchell and Ondaatje because Mitchell and Ondaatje are the same age or maybe because they are well-known nationally and internationally.
Mitchell’s song “Big Yellow Taxi” (1970) reminds us
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Til it’s gone
On the morning of 7 January 2015 at about 11:30 local time, two brothers, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, forced their way into the offices of the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Armed with assault rifles and other weapons, they killed 11 people and injured 11 others in the building. After leaving, they killed a French National Police officer outside the building. The gunmen identified themselves as belonging to the Islamist terrorist group Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, who took responsibility for the attack. Several related attacks followed in the Île-de-France region, where a further 5 were killed and 11 wounded.
In 1992, Ondaatje won the Booker Prize for the The English Patient (a book I once described as a “Nurse novel“). Ondaatje shared the Booker Prize with Barry Unsworth, whose 1992 novel Sacred Hunger is the better book. Now, Ondaatje is, as Kenan Malik says, wrong about free speech. Ondaatje can be included in the list of those Malik calls “liberals who proclaim it unacceptable to give offence,” an ignominious honour Ondaatje shares with Peter Carey, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Taiye Selasi and cartoonist Garry Trudeau.