Author Salman Rushdie was honored by PEN America with the Centenary Courage Award at their 2023 Literary Gala Thursday. It was the first time the former PEN president was seen in public since he was severely wounded by a knife attack in August 2022. At 75 years old, the “Satanic Verses” author has survived numerous death threats and assassination attempts throughout the years in response to his literature.
Rushdie took the stage at the event held at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in front of 700 guests. He wore a pair of glasses with the right lens tinted black to protect his right eye, which was blinded in the knife attack. He began his speech with a lighthearted flare.
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“It’s also kind of terrifying to come on stage after Lorne Michaels, John Mulaney and Colin Jost. It would be a foolish person who tried to tell a joke,” he said, noting Michaels, who was among the night’s main honorees.
“I wanted to say, ‘Hi, everybody.’ It’s nice to be back, as opposed to not being back, which was also an option. But I’m pretty glad the dice rolled this way.”
Amidst cheers and applause from the crowd, Rushdie recognized PEN and the power and importance of the organization.
“The attack on books, the attack on teaching, the attack on libraries in, how can I put this—Florida—has never been more dangerous, never been more important to fight,” he said. Rushdie spoke about the recent lawsuit that Penguin Random House and PEN America have brought against a Florida School Districts.
Rushdie then addressed the 2022 attack, saying, “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,” he said. “Henry, a man in his seventies, ran at my assailant, who is 24 years old with a knife.” He went on to acknowledge the rest of the people that came to his rescue that day.
“The courage that day, was all theirs. I never knew their names, I never saw their faces, but that large group of people, I owe my life to.”
Rushdie ended his speech with a message: “Terrorism must not terrorize us. Violence must not deter us. As the old Marxists used to say, ‘The struggle goes on.’”
Suzanne Nossel, PEN America’s CEO, said about Rushdie, “To see him back, in action, at this event, with his PEN America family is a remarkable testament to his resilience and strength and a kind of emblem of our work—that in the face of lethal threats, the writer triumphs and the voice continues.”
The evening was hosted by Jost and also honored Michaels and the human rights defender and Iranian author Narges Mohammadi. She is currently jailed “on false charges of ‘spreading anti-state propaganda’ and defamation,” according to those speaking on her behalf. She was honored with the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, which is presented annually by PEN to an imprisoned writer.
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