Salman Rushdie walked onstage at PEN America’s annual gala on Thursday night, his first public appearance since he was stabbed and gravely wounded in an attack last August at a literary event in Western New York.
His appearance at the gala, which had not been announced, was a surprise. But no surprise, to those who know him, was that he began his speech with a joke.
“Well, hi everybody,” Rushdie said, as the crowd at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan greeted him with whoops and a standing ovation. “It’s nice to be back — as opposed to not being back, which was also an option. I’m pretty glad the dice rolled this way.”
His remarks, just a few minutes long, in accepting an award for courage may have been uncharacteristically terse. But Rushdie, who lost sight in one eye because of the attack, was his voluble self during the cocktail hour, for which he had slipped in through a side door before taking his place for a red-carpet photo op.
Flashbulbs popped. And as the crowd began to notice him, friends headed over for handshakes and hugs.
“I just thought if there’s a right thing to chose as a re-entry, it’s this,” he said in an interview. “It’s being part of the world of books, the fight against censorship and for human rights.”
The evening marked a triumphant return for a man who had not let the lingering threat from the Iranian government’s 1989 fatwa get in the way of being an exuberant fixture on the social scene of New York. But if the attack last year came as a shocking blast from the past, the gala underscored the high stakes of the current moment, where freedom of expression is under siege on many fronts, across the political spectrum, not just abroad but at home.
Over the past two years, PEN America has staked out a leading role in the fight against the spread of “educational gag orders,” as the organization calls laws restricting teaching on race, gender and other topics, as well as against book bans. This week, the group joined with Penguin Random House to file a lawsuit against a school district in Escambia County, Fla., arguing that its restrictions on books violate the Constitution.
But PEN America has also steered its way through increasingly pitched battles over the value of free speech itself. “Free speech” has become a rallying cry for many conservatives, including those imposing book bans. At the same time, some progressives, including younger ones, dismiss “free speech” as a tool of the powerful and support calls to “deplatform” speakers and works they find offensive.
“We see free speech threatened on all sides, from the left and the right,” Suzanne Nossel, who has been PEN America’s chief executive since 2013, said in an interview before the gala. “People question it, they don’t believe in it, they doubt it. But this is a really important time to shore it up as a cultural and constitutional value. That’s part of what the gala does.”
The gala itself has been affected by the complexities of the current moment. Ted Sarandos, the co-chief executive of Netflix, who last year invoked freedom of expression in defending the polarizing comedy specials of Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais on the streaming service, had been set to receive an award recognizing his commitment to literary adaptations. But he withdrew last week, citing the continuing Hollywood writers’ strike.
And earlier this week, the journalist Masha Gessen, vice president of PEN America’s board, resigned her position after a dispute over a panel at the recent PEN World Voices Festival featuring exiled Russian writers. The panel was canceled following a boycott threat from Ukrainian writers.
In her opening remarks, Nossel addressed the controversy head-on.
“As a free speech organization, we must go to the utmost lengths to avoid sidelining speech or being seen to do so,” she said. “We should have found a better approach.”
During the dinner under the museum’s 94-foot blue whale, the mood was festive but pointed.
The comedian Colin Jost, a head writer on “Saturday Night Live” and the co-anchor of its Weekend Update segment, got things started with a joke acknowledging the surprise guest. “Nothing puts you at ease at an event like seeing Salman Rushdie,” he said to titters.
Not to worry, he said, there were snipers in the balcony. “But that’s just in case a drag queen tries to read a child a story.”
Later, there was an award to Lorne Michaels, the creator and longtime executive producer of “Saturday Night Live.” PEN America recognized him for what it called “four decades of biting satire that has captured the tenor of the moment, probing the norms, restrictions and absurdities of our institutions and the powerful.”
Satire — and the right of comedians to offend — has become an increasingly charged issue in the United States. But the moral center of the evening was the struggle against government repression.
The annual Freedom to Write award went to Narges Mohammadi, an Iranian writer and human rights advocate who has been in and out of prison over the past decade. She is currently in Evin Prison in Tehran on charges of “spreading propaganda” and has been subjected to “prolonged solitary confinement and intense psychological torture,” according to PEN America.
Mohammadi’s husband, the journalist and activist Taghi Rahmani, who lives in Paris and has also been jailed in Iran, accepted the award on her behalf. (Of the 52 jailed writers who have received the award, PEN said, 46 were subsequently released in part because of the group’s efforts to highlight their cases.)
In a written message, which was read from the stage, Mohammadi called for an end to Iran’s “misogynist, oppressive and theocratic” regime. And she spoke of a fellow writer, Baktash Abtin, who died in prison of Covid last January, as well as of two men who had been charged with insulting the Prophet Muhammad and hanged.
“Don’t be mistaken,” Mohammadi said in the statement. “They had not written a book. They had not published an article. They had only exchanged a few messages on a Telegram chat room.”
The issue of the harms of free expression — and how to balance them against the right to speak — has been a fraught issue within PEN America itself. Before its 2015 gala, six members withdrew as literary hosts in protest of a Freedom of Expression Courage Award to the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, on the grounds that the award honored a magazine that published racist and Islamophobic cartoons.
At the time, Rushdie offered tart words for his fellow writers, saying, “I hope nobody ever comes after them.” This year, Rushdie received the same award.
He was introduced on Thursday by the playwright and novelist Ayad Akhtar, PEN America’s president, who spoke of growing up in a conservative Muslim community in Milwaukee. As a devout young man, Akhtar said, he “knew,” even without reading it, that Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses,” which had prompted the fatwa, was a dangerous and immoral book.
But after reading it, Akhtar (who writes extensively about the experience in his novel “Homeland Elegies”) wept. To say that reading “The Satanic Verses” transformed him, he said, was an understatement.
The attack on Rushdie, Akhtar said, had been a “profound and galvanizing moment for us at PEN” and decisively answered what for him had been a lingering, unresolved question.
“Is the harm caused by offensive speech a claim on us with equal weight as the freedom to speak, the freedom to imagine?” he said. “The answer is: Of course not. Of course not.”
After a short tribute video, the room went dark. And then Rushdie appeared.
It was an emotional moment. But it was not, Rushdie emphasized, only about him.
Rushdie, a former PEN America president, praised the group’s efforts on behalf of teachers, libraries and authors. And he hailed those who had rushed to restrain his attacker at the Chautauqua Institution last August and saved his life.
“I was the target that day, but they were the heroes,” Rushdie said. “The courage that day was all theirs.”
“Terrorism must not terrorize us,” he continued. “Violence must not deter us. As the old Marxists used to say, La lutte continue. La lutta continua. The struggle goes on.”