At the 2023 Literary Gala held at the American Museum of Natural History on Thursday, PEN America honored author Salman Rushdie, its former president, who accepted its Centenary Courage Award in person, his first public appearance since he was severely wounded in a knife attack last August. The evening was hosted by Saturday Night Live star Colin Jost.
Rushdie, speaking to 700 guests at the Upper West Side museum, said PEN America and its mission to protect free expression was never “more important” in a time of book bans and censorship.
It was an emotional return to the stage for Rushdie, who for decades has been a tireless defender of persecuted writers and the freedom to write while himself living under a death threat for his writing. Rushdie said he was accepting the award on behalf of the “heroes” who tackled his assailant after he was repeatedly stabbed last year. “If it had not been for these people, I most certainly would not be standing here today. I was the target that day, but they were the heroes. The courage, that day, was all theirs. I owe my life to them.”
PEN America’s current president, playwright and novelist Ayad Akhtar, said the organization was honoring him “because of what he stood for and continues to stand for, and what this organization is fundamentally all about. Freedom. Freedom to think, freedom to speak, freedom to inquire, freedom to make sense of reality without deference to dogma, irrespective of the consequences. He has enlarged the world’s imaginative capacities and at such great cost to himself.”
Rushdie, who turns 76 next month, began his close association with PEN America when the Booker Prize-winning author emerged after more than a decade in hiding as the result of a call for his death issued in 1989 by the Iranian theocracy over his novel The Satanic Verses.
“After the shock of the attack, there was a long period when we had real doubts about whether Salman was going to make it and what kind of shape he might be in if he did,” said PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel. “So 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.”
Earlier in the evening, PEN America honored Saturday Night Live creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels with the PEN/Audible Literary Service Award, which was presented to him by comedian John Mulaney.
The imprisoned Iranian writer and human rights defender Narges Mohammadi received the 2023 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award. Her husband, Taghi Rahmani, a journalist who himself has been jailed for his work, accepted on her behalf and spoke about their family’s heartbreaking sacrifices during her years of activism and imprisonment. “I cannot forget that my children have been tortured by the Iranian government and the prison authorities who have wilfully deprived them of even the sound of their mother’s voice. Our lives in the words of my daughter, Kiana, is like this, “When mom is there, dad isn’t. When dad is there, mom isn’t.”