Salman Rushdie made a surprise appearance — his first since a man attacked him last August — on Thursday night at the PEN America gala in Manhattan, where he accepted the organization’s Centenary Courage Award.
“I wanted to say hi, everybody,” he said during his nine-minute speech. “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.” The author, who released a new book, Victory City, earlier this year, will turn 76 next month.
He also addressed the attack, which occurred during a lecture Rushdie was giving at the Chautauqua Institution in Western New York. For decades, Rushdie has lived with the threat of attempts on his life ever since the late Ruhollah 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.
“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,” he said at the PEN America event. “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.”
“So I accept this award … but I accept it primarily on behalf of those who came to my rescue and saved my life,” he continued. “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.”
Rushdie recovered from the 2022 attack on a ventilator and now covers stab wounds over his right eye with a dark glasses lens. The suspect, 24-year-old Hadi Matar, an American of Lebanese descent, later said he did not like Rushdie’s beliefs about Islam; he’s charged with attempted murder and assault.
He also spent part of his speech praising the efforts of PEN America, for which he was once president, to fight book bans in Florida. The organization teamed this week with Penguin Random House to sue the state’s Escambia County School District for limiting accessibility to books that address themes of race, gender, and sexuality.
“Right now, we face a problem in this country,” he said. “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.”
Saturday Night Live’s Colin Jost hosted the event, which also honored SNL showrunner Lorne Michaels with the PEN/Audible Literary Service Award. Comic John Mulaney presented Michaels with the award. Also, the husband of Narges Mohammadi, an Iranian writer, and human rights activist, accepted the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award on her behalf. According to The New York Times, in a message read from the stage, Mohammadi called to end Iran’s “misogynist, oppressive and theocratic” regime.