Sir Salman Rushdie has made an emotional and unexpected return to public life, attending the annual gala of PEN America and giving the literary event’s final speech as he accepted a special prize, the PEN Centenary Courage Award.
The event comes just nine months being after Sir Salman was stabbed repeatedly during an appearance in New York state.
Sir Salman, 75, received a standing ovation after telling hundreds gathered at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City: “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,”
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.
Sir Salman, 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 non-profit education and retreat centre.
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.
Sir Salman added: “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.
“And I have one last thing to add. It’s this: Terror must not terrorise us. Violence must not deter us. La lutte continue. La lutta continua. The struggle goes on.”
Attacks against Sir Salman 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 Mohammed.
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.
Sir Salman 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 senator Angus King of Maine.
Other honourees on 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.”
Sir Salman’s surprise appearance was the highlight of an eventful month for PEN, the literary and free expression organisation 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.