Among the passages and speeches renowned writers shared in front of a crowd at the New York Public Library on Friday was an excerpt from Salman Rushdie satanic verses, read aloud by writer Hari Kunzru. After the novel was published in 1988, Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death. The award-winning British-American writer has received death threats since, and earlier this month he suffered a severe blow: at a conference in New York, an assailant rushed onto the stage and the stabbed several times.
satanic verses placed a target on Rushdie’s back, but he also “became a symbol of free speech”, as writer Tope Folarin recounts Voiceit’s Jonathan Guyer. At Friday’s rally at the library, Kunzru’s reading elicited “perhaps the crowd’s most beloved response,” according to the New York Times“Sarah Lyall.
The rally, “Stand with Salman: Defend the Freedom to Write,” was organized by the library in conjunction with free speech nonprofit PEN America and Rushdie’s publisher, Penguin Random House. Notable writers including Paul Auster, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Andrea Elliot, Jeffrey Eugenides and Gay Talese delivered remarks to a crowd of hundreds at the hour-long event.
Rushdie’s own words were the focus of the rally. Novelist Siri Hustvedt read excerpts from his 2012 memoir Joseph Anthony; poet Roya Hakakian read an excerpt from his 1990 children’s novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories; author Colum McCann read excerpts from Rushdie’s 1992 New Yorker essay on his love for The Wizard of Oz; and actor Aasif Mandvi read a passage from the author’s forthcoming novel, city of victory.
Some members of the literary community have spoken of their personal relationship with Rushdie.
“I’ve been thinking about you every hour of every day for the past week,” Auster said, speaking directly to Rushdie via camera. “I love you like a brother and cherish the friendship we have built together over the past 30 years.”
Eugenides recounted how, as a young writer in London and a fan of Rushdie’s work, he found the famous writer’s address in the telephone book and drove to his house.
“It was the world we lived in, a world where the only madness a writer could visit was in the form of an overly rambunctious young reader showing up on his doorstep,” Eugenides said. “This world was called civilization. Let’s try to hang on to it.
Along with loving expressions of love and respect for Rushdie, speakers declared their fervent commitment to defending freedom of expression. Andrew Solmon, former president of PEN America, said the timing of the attack was no coincidence.
He continued: “We live in a time when the right to free speech is under constant attack from both left and right, where there have been library closures, books taken from schools, where everything that used to be signs of America’s free speech is under threat.
Kicking off Friday’s event, Suzane Nossel, Executive Director of PEN America, called on the audience: “At a time when book and program bans are spreading like wildfire across this country, where lies and misinformation is engulfing our politics…we must fight hard as if all our freedoms depend on it – because it does.
After the attack, Rushdie was initially placed on a ventilator. But he has since gotten rid of the fan and managed to say a few words, his son Zafar Rushdie said in a statement Last week. Nossel told the crowd that the author was aware of the event and planned to watch the live broadcast from his hospital room.
“Not even a blade to the throat,” she added, “could still Salman Rushdie’s voice.”