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Two nights before the attack, Salman Rushdie dreamed he was stabbed onstage

Salman Rushdie says writing <em>Knife</em> allowed him to change his relationship to the attack. "Instead of just being the person who got stabbed, I now see myself as the person who wrote a book about getting stabbed," he says.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths
Penguin Random House
Salman Rushdie says writing Knife allowed him to change his relationship to the attack. "Instead of just being the person who got stabbed, I now see myself as the person who wrote a book about getting stabbed," he says.

Two nights before he was stabbed onstage at a literary event in 2022, Salman Rushdie had a nightmare. In his dream, Rushdie was in an ancient Roman amphitheater, rolling around on the ground while a gladiator with a spear stabbed down at him.

"It certainly felt very vivid and very actual and very scary," Rushdie says. "I was rolling about in bed and thrashing around, and my wife had to wake me up."

His immediate impulse was to cancel his upcoming appearance at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York, but then he rationalized his fear away: "People have dreams. You don't run your daily life because of having a bad dream. And so I decided I would go," Rushdie says.

Rushdie is no stranger to death threats. After his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses was published, Iran's leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, declared the book blasphemous in its treatment of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, and issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie's death. Faced with the threat, Rushdie, who grew up in India in a secular Muslim family, stayed out of public view for years.

But after years of being surrounded by security, Rushdie had resumed normal life. Then, on Aug. 12, 2022, a 24-year-old man in the audience rushed the stage at Chautauqua. In an attack lasting 27 seconds, the man stabbed Rushdie multiple times, severing all the tendons and most of the nerves in one hand and wounding his neck, chest, thigh and eye.

Lying in a "lake of blood," Rushdie believed he was about to die. He was hit with a feeling of loneliness: "Dying in the company of strangers — that was what was going through my mind," he says.

Rushdie says he's disinclined to believe in miracles, but he struggles with how else to explain his survival.

"Many of the doctors who I have been involved with in the last year and a half are not only surprised that I survived — which they are — but they're surprised that I have recovered to the degree that I have," he says. "Miracles are all around me, it seems."

In his new book, Knife, Rushdie writes about the attack, the damage to his body (including the loss of sight in one eye) and more existential questions about facing death and finding his identity in an altered body and state of mind. Rushdie says he was initially reluctant write about the Chautauqua incident, but he's glad he did.

"It changed my relationship to the event," he says. "Instead of just being the person who got stabbed, I now see myself as the person who wrote a book about getting stabbed. And so it feels like it's back in my own authorial space, and I feel more in charge of it. And that feels good."

Interview highlights

/ Random House
Random House

On how he had stopped worrying about the fatwa prior to the attack

I'd been living in New York City for close to 24 years, and during that time I'd done hundreds of literary events, readings, lectures, festivals, etc., and they had never been the faintest trace of a problem. So I'd kind of told myself that that time had gone, but sadly, I was wrong. All I ever wanted to do, Terry, was to write stories. And if I've got a few more years left to write a few more good stories, then that'll do for me.

On not holding onto anger about the attack

One of the things that I think has been very strange for me is that the emotion that I haven't really had in the aftermath of all this is anger. And it's as if something in my head tells me that anger would be a way of being stuck in the moment. It would be a way of not being able to get past it. And so I don't have anger. I guess somewhere deep down I am pretty furious with various people, notably the gentleman with the knife, but it doesn't seem productive to me to linger on anger.

On writing about both violence and hatred and healing and love

When I started thinking about writing this book, you know, I asked myself, "OK, there's obviously this attack and I want to talk about that. But beyond that, what's the book about?" And I came to feel that it was about myself being in between two forces. One is a force of violence and hatred, and the other is the force of love and healing. ...

The first force was obviously embodied in my assailant, and the second force was embodied in my wife, Eliza, the writer Rachel Eliza Griffiths. And I mean, since I didn't die, I'm able to say that the force of love and healing overcame the force of violence and hatred. But I felt that that triangle was what the book was about, that the book was about three people. It was about me and him and Eliza. And so I wanted to write about love, and in a more open and direct way than maybe that I've ever done before.

On the hallucinations he experienced while on a ventilator

I was hallucinating palaces made out of alphabets. ... I was seeing architecture, palatial architecture, of which the building blocks were all letters. ... There were letters floating in the air between me and other people in the room. I remember when the ventilator was taken out I said to Eliza and her family, I said, "Why are all these letters on your clothes?" ... It does indicate to me the extent to which the world of books is the world in which I live.

On how being attacked changed his understanding of death

I think what it did is two things that it, first of all, gave me a kind of familiarity with death. I kind of know how it goes now. I didn't get to the final note of the music, thank goodness. But I kind of understand how the tune goes. But also what it did, what it has done, is to give me an enormously increased appreciation of life. The reason I quoted, one point, a poem by Raymond Carver, written after he was told he had almost no time to live, and then he lived another 10 years and did some of his best work. And he said he felt like all that time that he wasn't supposed to have, he describes it as gravy. "Every day is gravy." And I kind of feel like that now. I feel like these are days I wasn't supposed to have, and yet here I am, having them, and every day is a blessing.

Sam Briger and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air

Terry Gross
Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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