Salman Rushdie Makes Surprise Appearance at PEN America Gala

Salman Rushdie took the stage at PEN America’s annual gala on Thursday night, his first public appearance since he was stabbed and seriously injured at a literary event in western New York last August. appeared.

His appearance at the gala, which was not announced, was a surprise. But to those who know him, it’s no surprise that he started his speech with a joke.

“Hello, everyone,” said Rushdie, as the crowd at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan greeted him with cheers and a standing ovation. “I was happy to be able to go back, as opposed to not being able to go back, but I also had the option of not going back.

His remarks during the mere minutes of receiving the Courage Award may have been unusually brief. However, Rushdie A man who lost one eye in an attackduring cocktail hour, he was his lively self, sneaking in through a side door before taking a seat for a photo shoot on the red carpet.

Flush bulb flew. And as crowds began to notice him, his friends flocked in for handshakes and hugs.

“I thought if there was one right thing to pick for re-entry, it would be this one,” he said in an interview. “It’s part of the world of books, the fight against censorship, and the fight for human rights.”

The night marked the triumphant return of a man who had not been hampered by the Iranian government’s lingering threat of a fatwa in 1989, preventing him from becoming a frenetic presence on New York’s social scene. But if last year’s attacks were a shocking event in the past, the celebrations are a reflection of the current situation, not only abroad but also at home, where freedom of expression across political frameworks is under siege on many fronts. exposed great risks.

Over the past two years, PEN America has played a leading role in fighting the epidemic. “Education Gag Ordinance” The group says it has enacted laws restricting bans on education and books on race, gender and other subjects. The group, along with Penguin Random House, filed a lawsuit this week against a school district in Escambia County, Florida, alleging that its restrictions on books were unconstitutional.

But Penn America, too, is steering itself in the escalating battle over the value of free speech itself. “Free speech” has become the rallying cry of many conservatives, including those imposing book bans. At the same time, some progressives, including young people, reject “free speech” as a tool of those in power and support calls to “off-platform” speakers and works they find offensive. .

Suzanne Nossel, who has been PEN America’s chief executive since 2013, said in an interview before the celebration, “We’re seeing freedom of speech being threatened from all sides, left and right.” said. “People question it, they don’t believe it, they doubt it. But now is a very important time to strengthen it as a cultural and constitutional value.

The celebration itself is affected by the current complex situation. Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos last year called for freedom of expression to defend a polarizing comedy special by Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais on the streaming service, but his refusal to literary adaptations. His efforts were recognized and he was expected to receive an award.but he withdrew last weekciting the ongoing strike of Hollywood writers.

And earlier this week, journalist Marsha Gessen, vice-president of the PEN American Board of Directors, resigned from her position after a controversy over a panel at the recent PEN World Voices Festival featuring Russian writers in exile. The panel was canceled following boycott threats by Ukrainian authors.

Mr. Nossel tackled this controversy head-on in his opening remarks.

“As a free speech organization, we must do our utmost to avoid being sidelined or seen as doing so,” she said. “I should have found a better approach.”

The atmosphere was festive but grim during dinner under the museum’s 94-foot-tall blue whale.

Comedian Colin Jost, Saturday Night Live’s head writer and co-anchor of the Weekend Update corner, kicked things off with a joke acknowledging a surprise guest. “There is nothing more reassuring at an event than meeting Salman Rushdie,” he said with a laugh.

Don’t worry, there are snipers on the balcony, he said. “But that’s just in case a drag queen tries to read a story to a child.”

The award was then presented to Saturday Night Live creator and longtime executive producer Lorne Michaels. Penn America credited him with “40 years of cutting-edge satire that explores the norms, limitations and absurdities of our institutions and those in power that capture the tide of the times.”

Satire, and the right of comedians to be offended, is a growing problem in the United States. But the moral focus of the night was the fight against government repression.

The annual “Freedom to Write” award winner was Narges Mohammadi, an Iranian writer and human rights advocate who has been in and out of prison for the past decade. She is currently being held in Tehran’s Evin Prison on charges of “spreading propaganda” and is undergoing “long solitary confinement and severe mental torture,” according to Penn America News Agency.

Mohammadi’s husband, journalist and activist Taghi Rahmani, who lives in Paris and has been imprisoned in Iran, accepted the award on her behalf. (According to Penn, 46 of the 52 imprisoned authors who won the award have since been released, thanks to the group’s efforts to address the case.)

In a written message read from the podium, Muhammadi called for an end to Iran’s “misogynistic, oppressive and theocratic” regime. And she talked about her fellow writers. Baktash Abtinwho died in prison from COVID-19 in January last year, as well as two men who were hanged after being accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Mohammadi said in a statement. “They didn’t write a book. They didn’t publish an article. They only exchanged a few messages in the Telegram chat room.”

The question of how to balance the harm of freedom of expression with the right to speak is a thorny issue within Penn America itself. Before the 2015 celebrations, French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s “Freedom of Expression Courage Award” recognizes magazines that publish racist and Islamophobic cartoons. , six members declined to serve as literary moderators.

At the time, Rushdie gave his fellow writers an acerbic note, saying, “I hope no one follows them.” This year, Rushdie won the same award.

He was introduced Thursday by playwright and novelist Ayad Akhtar, president of PEN America, and spoke about growing up in Milwaukee’s conservative Muslim community. A devout young man, Akhtar said he “knew” that Rushdie’s Satanic Verse, which inspired the fatwa, was dangerous and immoral without having read it.

But after reading it, Akhtar (who wrote more about the experience in his novel Lamentations to the Fatherland) cried. To say that reading The Satanic Verse changed him is an understatement, he says.

Akhtar said the attack on Rushdie was “a deep and vibrant moment for us at PEN” and gave a definitive answer to a lingering unanswered question for him.

“Should the harm caused by offensive speech be demanded of us with the same weight as freedom to speak and freedom to imagine?” he said. “The answer is, of course not. Of course not.”

After a short obituary video played, the room went dark. Then came Rushdie.

It was an emotional moment. But instead, Rushdie stressed, it was about him alone.

Former Penn America president Rushdie praised the group’s efforts on behalf of teachers, libraries and authors. And he praised those who rushed to detain the attacker at the Chautauqua Institute last August and saved his life.

“I was targeted that day, but they were heroes,” said Rushdie. “All the courage that day was theirs.”

“Terrorism must not terrorize us,” he continued. “Violence must not deter us. As the old Marxists used to say, La Rutte continues. La Lutta Continua. The struggle continues. ”

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