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Salman Rushdie says ‘attack on books’ in Florida ‘has never been more dangerous’

<i>Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for PEN America</i><br/>Honoree Salman Rushdie speaks on stage at the 2023 PEN America Literary Gala on May 18
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for PEN America
Honoree Salman Rushdie speaks on stage at the 2023 PEN America Literary Gala on May 18

By Melissa Alonso and Jackson Grigsby, CNN

(CNN) — Less than a year after an attempt on his life, author Salman Rushdie made a rare public appearance at an awards ceremony Thursday to warn of the dangers of banning books and of related movements in the US to roll back freedoms of expression.

“The attack on books, the attack on teaching, the attack on libraries, in – how can I put this – Florida, has never been more dangerous, never been more important to fight,” he said.

Rushdie spoke at the PEN America Gala in New York City, praising the literary and free speech advocacy group for its latest efforts to block politicians and local officials seeking to ban literature concerning race and gender identity.

PEN America, along with book publisher Penguin Random House and several parents and authors, filed a lawsuit on Wednesday challenging Florida’s Escambia County school district’s removal of certain books on race and LGBTQ issues from school libraries.

“I was really proud to hear yesterday that PEN America, together with my publisher Penguin Random House, has taken this step of bringing a lawsuit in Florida,” Rushdie said.

“Colossally important, and, well, let’s hope we win. We need to win,” he said.

At the event, Rushdie accepted the Freedom of Expression Courage Award “on behalf of those who came to my rescue and saved my life” after he was stabbed several times before his scheduled lecture at the Chautauqua Institution in New York in August.

Staff members and guests intervened during the attack, rushing onto the stage where Rushdie was being stabbed and held down the suspect before a state trooper assigned to the event took the man into custody, according to New York State Police.

Rushdie – the author of the 1988 novel “The Satanic Verses,” which some Muslims felt provided a sacrilegious look on Islam and led to Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini calling for Rushdie and others to be killed – underwent emergency surgery and lost sight in one eye as a result of the attack.

“The true courage was not shown by me,” Rushdie said, adding the people who rushed to save his life “were the heroes.”

“I don’t know their names, I never saw their faces, but, that large group of people, I owe my life to,” Rushdie said.

Rushdie had addressed the roaring applause that followed his introduction to the stage with a quip: “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.”

Rushdie, himself a former president of the organization, also acknowledged another PEN award recipient Thursday – Narges Mohammadi, a human rights activist who is currently imprisoned by the Iranian government.

“Tonight, we recognize the courage of an Iranian writer, and we’ve done so over and over (with) writers from all over the world. But right now, we face a problem in this country,” he said. “And PEN has to face that problem, head on, just as we have done in other countries.”

Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, told CNN after the gala that Rushdie’s speech “was an enormously powerful moment for all of our supporters and for free speech defenders from around the world.”

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CNN’s Samantha Beech contributed to this report.

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