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Salman Rushdie honored at PEN America gala, his first in-person appearance since stabbing

Salman Rushdie made an emotional and unexpected return to public life Thursday night, attending the annual gala of PEN America and giving the event’s final speech as he accepted a special prize, the PEN Centenary Courage Award, just nine months being after being stabbed repeatedly and hospitalized.

“It’s nice to be back — as opposed to not being back, which was also a possibility. I’m glad the dice rolled this way,” Rushdie, 75, told hundreds gathered at the American Museum of Natural History, where he received a standing ovation.

It was his first in-person appearance at a public event since he was attacked last August while on stage at a literary festival in Western New York.

Rushdie, whose attendance had not been announced beforehand, spoke briefly, and dedicated some of his remarks to those who came to his help at the Chautauqua Institution, a nonprofit education and retreat center. He cited a fellow attendee, Henry Reese of the City of Asylum project in Pittsburgh, for tackling the assailant and thanked audience members who also stepped in.

“I accept this award, therefore, on behalf of all those who came to my rescue. I was the target that day, but they were the heroes. The courage, that day, was all theirs, and I thank them for saving my life,” he said.

“And I have one last thing to add. It’s this: Terror must not terrorize us. Violence must not deter us. La lutte continue. La lutta continua. The struggle goes on.”

Rushdie was attacked and stabbed by a man who rushed the stage as he was about to give a lecture in Chautauqua, N.Y., on Aug. 12, 2022.AP file

Attacks against Rushdie have been feared since the late 1980s and the publication of his novel “The Satanic Verses,” which Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini condemned as blasphemous for passages referring to the Prophet Mohammad. The Ayatollah issued a decree calling for Rushdie’s death, forcing the author into hiding, although he had been traveling freely for years before the stabbing.

Since then he has since granted few interviews and otherwise communicated through his Twitter account and prepared remarks. Earlier this week, he delivered a video message to the British Book Awards, where he was given a Freedom to Publish prize.

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.

PEN galas have long been a combination of literature, politics, activism and celebrity, with attendees ranging from Alec Baldwin to Sen. Angus King of Maine. Other honorees Thursday included “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels and the imprisoned Iranian journalist and activist Narges Mohammadi, who was given the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award.

“Dear writers, thinkers, and sympathizers, I implore you to help the Iranian people free themselves from the grip of the Islamic Republic, or morally speaking, please help end the suffering of the Iranian people,” Mohammadi wrote from prison in a letter read aloud at the ceremony. “Let us prove the magic of global unity against authorities besotted with power and greed.”

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. He also referred briefly to the Hollywood writers strike, which has left “Saturday Night Live” off the air since early May, saying it was “disorienting” to spend the afternoon on a picket line and then show up “for the museum cocktail hour.”

PEN events are familiar settings for Rushdie, a former president of PEN, the literary rights organization for which freedom of speech is a core mission. He has attended many times in the past and is a co-founder of PEN’s World Voices Festival, an international gathering of author panels and interviews held around the time of the PEN gala.

Salman Rushdie at the 2023 PEN America Literary Gala on Thursday night in New York City. Jamie McCarthy / Getty Images for PEN America

Rushdie’s surprise appearance was the highlight of an eventful month for PEN, the literary and free expression organization that has been in the middle — by choice and otherwise — of various conflicts.

On Wednesday, PEN and Penguin Random House sued a Florida school district over its removal of books about race and LGBTQ+ identities. Earlier in the week, writer Masha Gessen disclosed she had resigned as vice president of the PEN board after a World Voices panel with Russian dissidents she was scheduled to moderate was called off amid objections to their presence from Ukrainians in town for a separate PEN event.

Last week, Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos announced he would not attend the gala, where he was to accept the PEN America Business Visionary Award. Sarandos cited the writers strike, during which Netflix has been a prime target of criticism among union members. But the company was cited Thursday night as a prime sponsor of the dinner ceremony.

Former SNL writer and performer John Mulaney presented Michaels with the PEN Literary Service Award, which has previously been given to Stephen King, Stephen Sondheim and Rushdie, who won in 2014 for his “unparalleled artistry and courage as a novelist and essayist.” Michaels has helped launched countless television and film stars, but on Thursday he dedicated his speech to writers and the writing room of SNL.

Writers, he explained, are associated with “paper airplanes” and “just fooling around” and the stereotypes “are not entirely wrong.” Writers are kind of like monkeys “because the monkeys are funny and you don’t really know what they’re going to do and they kind of remain us of us.” But they’re also some of the “most brilliant and sophisticated men and women I know,” he added, and the “beating heart” of “Saturday Night Live” is in the writers room.

“It’s a room you want to be in,” he said. “It has the slight whiff of freedom that you take in when you laugh.”

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