Among the passages and speeches that renowned writers shared before a crowd at the New York Public Library on Friday was an excerpt from Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, read aloud by writer Hari Kunzru. After the novel’s publication in 1988, Iran’s leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death. The award-winning British-American writer has received death threats ever since, and earlier this month, he experienced a close call: During a speaking event in New York, an attacker rushed onstage and stabbed him repeatedly.
The Satanic Verses placed a target on Rushdie’s back, but it has also “become a symbol of free speech,” as writer Tope Folarin tells Vox’s Jonathan Guyer. At Friday’s gathering at the library, Kunzru’s reading of it elicited “perhaps the most appreciative response from the crowd,” per the New York Times’ Sarah Lyall.
The gathering, “Stand with Salman: Defend the Freedom to Write,” was organized by the library in collaboration 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—gave remarks before a crowd of hundreds at the hour-long event.
Rushdie’s own words were at the center of the gathering. Novelist Siri Hustvedt read from his 2012 memoir Joseph Anton; poet Roya Hakakian read from his 1990 children’s novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories; author Colum McCann read from Rushdie’s 1992 New Yorker essay about his love for The Wizard of Oz; and actor Aasif Mandvi read a passage from the author’s forthcoming novel, Victory City.
Some members of the literary community spoke to their personal relationships with Rushdie.
“I have been thinking about you every hour of every day for the past week,” said Auster, speaking directly to Rushdie through the camera. “I love you as a brother and treasure the friendship we have built together over the past 30 years.”
Eugenides told a story about how, as a young writer in London and a fan of Rushdie’s work, he found the famous writer’s address in the phone book and went to his house.
“That was the world we used to live in, a world where the only craziness that might be visited upon a writer came in the form of a young, over-exuberant reader who showed up at his doorstep,” said Eugenides. “That world was called civilization. Let’s try to hang on to it.”
Alongside affectionate expressions of love and respect for Rushdie, speakers declared their fervent commitment to defending freedom of speech. Andrew Solmon, a former president of PEN America, said the timing of this attack was no coincidence.
He continued: “We are living at a time when the right of free speech has been under constant assault from both the left and the right, when there have been closures of libraries, books removed from schools, when everything that used to be tokens of America’s freedom of speech is under threat.”
Kicking off Friday’s event, Suzane Nossel, chief executive officer of PEN America, called on the audience: “At a time when book and curriculum bans are spreading like forest fires across this country, when lies and disinformation are engulfing our politics … we need to fight with vigor as if all our freedoms depended on it—because they do.”
After the attack, Rushdie was initially placed on a ventilator. But since then, he has come off the ventilator and has managed to say a few words, his son Zafar Rushdie said in a statement last week. Nossel told the crowd that the author knew about the event and planned to watch the livestream from his hospital room.
“Not even a blade to the throat,” she added, “could still the voice of Salman Rushdie.”