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 in Manhattan, 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 last year 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.”
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 the attack, he has 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 PEN America 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 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.