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Video: Salman Rushdie honored at PEN America gala, his first in-person appearance since attack

"Terrorism must not terrorize us. Violence must not deter us."

Salman Rushdie made a surprise appearance last Thursday at the PEN America's 2023 Literary Gala gala, where he accepted the organization’s Centenary Courage Award. The event was held at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan.

It was Rushdie's first public appearance since last August, when he was severely wounded by a knife attack while onstage at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York to give a talk on artistic freedom.

PEN America’s current president, playwright, novelist, and current New York State Author Ayad Akhtar introduced Rushdie, who was welcomed with a standing ovation. His attendance had not been announced beforehand.

Associated Press reporter Hillel Italie covered the event and wrote: "The host Thursday night was 'Saturday Night Live' head writer Colin Jost, who inspired nervous laughter with jokes about the risks of being in the same room as Rushdie, likening it to sharing a balcony section with Abraham Lincoln... Rushdie was clearly elated to attend the gala, but his voice sounded frailer than it once did and the right frame of his glasses was dark, concealing the eye blinded by his attacker."

NYS Writers Institute followers will remember his planned visit to Albany in 1989 was abruptly canceled when the late Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s supreme leader, issued a fatwa calling for the author’s death for allegedly insulting the prophet Muhammad in his 1988 book The Satanic Verses. Rushdie lived in hiding for years, as detailed in his 2012 nonfiction book Joseph Anton, before deciding to return to public life.

Rushdie visited the NYS Writers Institute in 2018 and again in 2019. (You can watch video excerpts from his two Albany visits at those links.)

"Could The Satanic Verses be written today?” asked Akhtar in his introduction. “The answer is yes, if that writer is Salman Rushdie. He continues to stand for what this organization is fundamentally all about: freedom. Freedom to think, freedom to speak, freedom to inquire, freedom to make sense of reality without deference to dogma, irrespective of the consequences. He has enlarged the world’s imaginative capacities and at such great cost to himself.”

Excerpts from Salman Rushdie's remarks

“I wanted to say hi, everybody. It’s nice to be back. It’s nice to be back as opposed to not being back, which was also an option. And I’m pretty glad the dice rolled this way.”

“With regard to what happened, the event in Chautauqua, New York, on Aug. 12 of last year, I’m being awarded a Courage Award, but the true courage was not shown by me. After I was attacked, the first person who ran to defend me was Henry Reese of the City of Asylum project in Pittsburgh, who was onstage with me to discuss that project — excellent work on behalf of endangered writers. When he saw what was happening, Henry … a man in his 70s, ran at my assailant, who was 24 years old with a knife, and tackled him to the ground. Immediately after that, a substantial number of people in the front of the audience ran up to help him and jumped on top of my assailant, and held him down. And if it had not been for these people, I most certainly would not be standing here today.”

“Right now, we face a problem in this country. The attack on books, the attack on teaching, the attack on libraries in — how could I put this — Florida has never been more dangerous, never been more important to fight. I was really proud to hear yesterday that PEN America, together with my publisher, Penguin Random House, has taken this step of bringing a lawsuit in Florida. [It’s] colossally important. Let’s hope we win. We need to win.”

“So I accept this award … but I accept it primarily on behalf of those who came to my rescue and saved my life,” he said. “I was the target that day, but they were the heroes. The courage that day was all theirs. … Terrorism must not terrorize us. Violence must not deter us. As the old Marxists used to say, ‘La lutte continue. La lutta continua.’ The struggle goes on.”


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