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Salman Rushdie reflects on attack that changed his life in new memoir 'Knife'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: August 12, 2022, Salman Rushdie, one of the world's best-known writers, was attacked and nearly killed by a young man with a knife.

Now Rushdie has written of that harrowing day and all that's followed in a new book.

And he recently spoke to our Jeffrey Brown for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: As we sit here, a year, or a little more than a year-and-a-half after the attack, how are you?

Salman Rushdie, Author, "Knife": I'm surprisingly good, surprising to myself, certainly, but also actually surprising to quite a lot of the army of doctors that I have been involved with, many of whom have said that the recovery is much in excess of what they would have expected.

Jeffrey Brown: The knife attack, 15 stabs, came at the Chautauqua Institution in Western New York during a public talk on, of all things, the importance of keeping writers safe.

It left Salman Rushdie near death. He would lose the use of his right eye and suffer numerous other injuries to his hand, neck, and chest and abdomen, and undergo multiple surgeries, numerous setbacks, a painful, slow recovery.

When he decided to write about it, he says now the first word that came, the title, "Knife."

Salman Rushdie: At its most basic, it's the story of a knife attack.

But then I came to think of it in another way, a kind of more metaphorical way. I came to think, like, language is a kind of knife. It's a kind of — also a sort of tool which you could use to cut through things to the truth.

And I thought, well, that's my knife. You know, I don't — I don't — and if you're going to be in a knife fight, you may as well have a knife. So, in a funny way, I came to think that the book itself is a knife, but it's my knife. It's my way of fighting back.

Jeffrey Brown: Was this one harder to write than others, because it was so personal?

Salman Rushdie: I'll tell you what. The first chapter was very hard to write. The first chapter, which actually details the attack itself, that was really hard to write, to go back into that moment, and to try and be as honest and truthful about it as I could be, to get such a good look at the end.

You know? I mean, I had a really good look at it.

Jeffrey Brown: How did it look?

Salman Rushdie: Well, not great.


Salman Rushdie: On the one hand, it was quite prosaic, you know? I was lying there bleeding, and I — in a completely kind of neutral way, I found myself thinking, oh, I'm — this is — I'm dying, but like in that kind of tone of voice, nothing dramatic, because that's probably what's happening.

And then I felt very lonely, because I felt how sad it was to be dying amongst strangers, and…

Jeffrey Brown: You weren't at home.

Salman Rushdie: … and far away from people you love.

Jeffrey Brown: Most of all, his wife, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, a poet and novelist with whom he's been together since 2017.

"Knife," he wants us to know, is also a love story. Meeting us at the office of his longtime agent, Andrew Wylie, Rushdie, now 76, is still quick with jokes and wit. He's happy with his weight loss, he says, but doesn't recommend the route he took to drop the pounds.

He also showed us a photo on the wall from another dramatic time in his life, the publication of his novel "The Satanic Verses" in 1988. Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, denouncing the book as an insult to Islam, issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie's death. There were violent demonstrations in the Muslim world, and the book's Japanese translator was murdered in 1991.

Rushdie himself, then living in London, went into hiding with police protection for nine years. He would write about that period in his first memoir, "Joseph Anton."

Salman Rushdie: To my surprise, I have now written two autobiographical books.

When I became a writer, I had zero interest in autobiography. But then I acquired the problem of an interesting life.

Jeffrey Brown: But for the past 20 years, now in New York, he's lived a fairly normal life, often in public, including with us on the Staten Island Ferry when we talked of his 2015 novel, "Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights." He had moved on.

Salman Rushdie: And I thought, OK, this is behind me, and the world moves on, and so much else for me — for people to be upset about.

And, I mean, like this kid, 24, he wasn't even born at the time that that trouble happened.

Jeffrey Brown: This kid, Hadi Matar, born in California, living in New Jersey before the attack, now awaiting trial for attempted murder.

In his book, Rushdie chose not to name him, calling him "the A" for "my assailant, my would-be assassin, the asinine man who made assumptions about me." And in a very Rushdien twist, he imagines a series of talks with his attacker, a fictional section within this very nonfiction book.

You clearly had to address him or think about him as a person.

Salman Rushdie: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: But you also clearly, I think, had to make a decision how much of a character in your life, in your book, in your story?

Salman Rushdie: Yes, I mean, I think he obviously is a character in it.

But the reason I wanted to think about him imaginatively is that I think there's sort of a puzzle about him, which is that he was very, very young. And one of the things he must have known he was doing was to ruin his life by committing murder.

It would also be terrible catastrophe in his life, not just in mine. And why would somebody so young be so willing to sacrifice their own freedom and future?

Initially, I wanted to meet him to ask him. Then I thought, I'm not going to get anything useful out of that. I will just get a bunch of slogans. And then I thought, let me use what talent I have, which is, as you say, imagination and storytelling. Let me just try and imagine my way into him and try and fill that hole, so at least, to my satisfaction, I can construct a narrative that feels plausible.

Jeffrey Brown: Now do you — are you done with him?

Salman Rushdie: Yes, I kind of dealt with him as far as I'm concerned.

Jeffrey Brown: You know, you write at one point: "I understood that the strangenesses of my life had put me at the heart of a battle."

And that battle is between the book and the bomb, the word and now the knife?

Salman Rushdie: Yes, and kind of — and just between bigotry and tolerance, between openness and closedness, between humorlessness and humor.

I mean, it's not a battle that I picked. But given that I'm in it, it's the right battle. In the end, that's what writers can do. They can tell the story. And dictators, tyrants, powerful people can own the present, but I have always believed writers own the future.

Jeffrey Brown: And for you?

Salman Rushdie: I think, if you're my kind of writer, what you most want to do is to write books that will endure. You want them to outlast you.

I mean, my dear friend Martin Amis, we just lost, used to say that what you hope to leave behind you is a shelf of books. You want to be able to say, like from here to here, it's me, you know? And I would like — I mean, I have got 22 now, so that's a shelf.

Jeffrey Brown: That's a good shelf.

And now, for Salman Rushdie, no doubt a shelf that will continue to grow.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York.

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