Salman Rushdie chronicles his brush with death in new memoir 'Knife' : Consider This from NPR Salman Rushdie is probably most closely associated with his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, a book inspired by the life of the prophet Muhummad. The book was notorious not just for its contents but because of the intense backlash, and the threat it posed to his safety and wellbeing.

While Rushdie saw it as an exploration of Islamic culture, some Muslims saw it as blasphemous. The year after it published, Iran's supreme leader issued a fatwa, ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie.

Rushdie moved to New York in 2000, and was able to resume the public life of a popular author, but that all changed on August 12th, 2022 when a young man charged at Rushdie while he was on stage at an event, stabbing him at least a dozen times.

After two years, he has chronicled his brush with death, and the aftermath in his new memoir 'KNIFE'.

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What happened when the threat of danger became Salman Rushdie's reality?

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SALMAN RUSHDIE: When a big, new idea comes into the world, it must answer two challenges. One is the challenge of, how do you behave when you're weak, and the other, how do you behave when you're strong?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

That is the writer Salman Rushdie. It was his second novel, "Midnight's Children," published in 1981, that won him critical acclaim and international recognition. But Rushdie is probably most closely associated with his 1988 novel "The Satanic Verses," because it put him in grave danger.

RUSHDIE: I think, ironically, one of the sad things about this whole affair is that this book could actually have done something to introduce Western readers not just to the literal details of the life of the prophet, but to the spirit of a different culture and of a different way of looking at things.

KELLY: Rushdie's book was inspired by the life of the Prophet Muhammad, but some Muslims viewed the work as blasphemous. Iran's supreme leader issued a fatwa the following year, ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie. Rushdie lived in hiding for years. He had armed guards around the clock. He had to use an alias.

RUSHDIE: I retreated into literature and chose this name from the first names of Conrad and Chekhov. Joseph Conrad, Anton Chekhov equals Joseph Anton. I had to be invisible. And this name - the name is all that could be visible.

KELLY: Rushdie lived with this fatwa hanging over him for more than 30 years. But around the turn of the century, he says the Iranians, quote, "called off the dogs."

RUSHDIE: And ever since then, there really hasn't been much risk.

KELLY: For the last several decades, Rushdie lived in relative freedom here in the U.S.

RUSHDIE: I came to live in New York early in the year 2000, and I've been here ever since. And I've done hundreds of public events - you know, talks, readings, lectures, discussions - without there ever being the faintest murmur of a problem. And so I had really come to feel that, OK, this is ancient history.

KELLY: But on that day, your first thought was, OK, it's you. You're here, finally.

RUSHDIE: Yeah, here you are. It felt like it - I say in the book something to the effect that it felt like he was a time traveler, somebody emerging out of the past.

KELLY: The day he's talking about is August 12, 2022, when he was attacked.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Salman Rushdie was stabbed in the neck Friday.

DAVID MUIR: A man stabbing him repeatedly before being tackled by police.

ANDREA MITCHELL: It was a scene of chaos, a shocking attack at a nearly 150-year-old artist retreat in upstate New York.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: I'm at the amphitheater. A presenter was just attacked on the stage. I need EMS.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: Now, Salman Rushdie is a storyteller, so when you ask him to tell the story of that day when he was nearly killed by a young man with a knife, he paints a vivid picture.

RUSHDIE: I saw this man rise out of the audience.

KELLY: You're at the lectern at this point. You stepped on the stage?

RUSHDIE: No, we were sitting in chairs on the stage with a little table between us. And this man got up out of the audience and came towards the stage. There's a few steps up. And then he started sprinting. He just sprinted up the steps and came at me. And I immediately thought, oh, it's actually happening.

KELLY: Rushdie suffered multiple stab wounds, a damaged liver, severed nerves in his hand. He had to be on a ventilator. He lost an eye. Well, now, nearly two years after the attack, Rushdie chronicles his brush with death and the aftermath in his memoir, out this week, titled "Knife."

RUSHDIE: I got myself into a knife fight somehow, and I had to have a knife of my own.

KELLY: CONSIDER THIS - Salman Rushdie lived with a threat to his life for some three decades, and just when it seemed that threat had receded, could almost be forgotten, the danger became reality.

From NPR, I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. When I met Salman Rushdie in our New York bureau the other day to talk about his new memoir, "Knife," he wore glasses that obscured his right eye, which was blinded in the stabbing.

RUSHDIE: I thought he hit me. I never saw the knife. I didn't realize that there was a weapon in his hand until I saw the blood coming out.

KELLY: How many times did he stab you?

RUSHDIE: I've been trying to work it out. I mean, I think it's at least 12. It might be 13 or 14. I keep trying to count them and I lose count.

KELLY: You describe lying on the floor - you're in a huge pool of your own blood - and that your overwhelming emotion, it wasn't fear, it wasn't pain, it was extreme loneliness.

RUSHDIE: Yeah, because I thought, you know, here I am in the middle of, I mean, upstate New York, almost in Canada, very far from everyone I love dying, as I thought. I thought I was dying, dying in the company of strangers. And that felt...

KELLY: On a stage.

RUSHDIE: On a stage.

KELLY: (Laughter) I mean it's - yeah.

RUSHDIE: Yeah. That felt worse than the dying. And, I mean, I'm lucky that I got away with it. I think I'm very lucky that I got away with it. I mean, I was lucky from the start that there was this trauma hospital just across the state line in Pennsylvania that - and a helicopter was quite close. I mean, I was lucky that it was a sunny day. If it had been rainy and stormy, the helicopter would not have been able to fly. And then I'd be dead.

KELLY: There's something so odd about hearing you describe anything about that day as lucky, but yes.

RUSHDIE: Yeah, I mean, one of the surgeons who had operated on me said - he said, you know, first you were very unlucky, and then you were very lucky. And I said, well, what's the lucky part? (Laughter) And he said the lucky part is that the man who attacked you had no idea how to kill a man with a knife. And it's true. I mean, if you look at the injuries, they were - basically, he was flailing around, just putting the knife everywhere he could think of. I mean, he came very close to killing me, but he didn't.

KELLY: You never used his name...

RUSHDIE: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Either now or in the book. You call him the A for - what? - the attacker, the assassin.

RUSHDIE: The attacker, the assailant, the adversary and ruder words that begin with A.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: OK. Leave that to people's imaginations.

RUSHDIE: I think most people could imagine it.

KELLY: You recount in the book, and I'll leave it to people to read the long two steps forward, one step back of your recovery. You're sitting before me now.

RUSHDIE: Yeah.

KELLY: April 2024. How are you?

RUSHDIE: I'm not so bad. Thank you. I mean, there are things that are not going to get better. Like, I mean, my right eye is not coming back.

KELLY: That was the worst of your wounds...

RUSHDIE: That was - yes, because...

KELLY: ...Which is saying something.

RUSHDIE: ...The wound - because the knife went, I mean, went all the way to the optic nerve. And if you damage the optic nerve, there's nothing to be done. And the left hand, I mean, it's better in the sense that I've got a lot of movement back.

KELLY: Yeah. You're opening...

RUSHDIE: Yeah, yeah.

KELLY: ...And closing your fingers.

RUSHDIE: Yeah, I can do that. But there's still, like, almost no feeling in my middle two fingers yet.

KELLY: So you're alive.

RUSHDIE: I'm alive. This is...

KELLY: Your wounds were such that, as you have already suggested, you maybe shouldn't be.

RUSHDIE: Yeah.

KELLY: How does that have you thinking? I mean, it's a miracle in a way. And you're someone who has...

RUSHDIE: Never believed in miracles.

KELLY: Exactly. Where does that leave you?

RUSHDIE: Except my books believe in them. My books are full of them. So maybe my books allowed the miracles to cross over from fiction into fact.

KELLY: Has it changed your thinking at all in terms of faith, God? Is there a higher power out there that made sure I would get through this?

RUSHDIE: No, ma'am. I mean, one of the things that is interesting about what - about that near-death experience is that there was nothing supernatural about it. No choirs of angels, no tunnel of light. Nothing like that. It was just somebody physically lying on the ground, bleeding to death. So I thought, well, that suggests to me that maybe I'm not wrong. What it does do, getting that close to death and then coming back from it is it gives you an immensely increased sense of the value of every day of life.

KELLY: Yeah. I can imagine.

RUSHDIE: Just immensely. Just wake up in the morning and you think, still here.

KELLY: Go back to your writing again. Because, as people who have read your fiction will know well, all kinds of magical things do happen in your writing. Your characters do things that do not align in any way with reality or science. Why do you let yourself do things in writing that you don't allow yourself to believe in, in life?

RUSHDIE: Well, because I think that realism as a literary form is not a sufficient way to describe the craziness of the world. The world is insane, as we see every day on the news. And realism is a wonderful form, but it doesn't allow you to accept that the world is now not realistic. The world is surreal. And surrealism seems to me to be closer to the real. That's what I think I'm doing.

KELLY: Is this you using what you do best, using language as your own knife in a way?

RUSHDIE: Yes, exactly. That's why the book is called "Knife," not only because it's about a knife, but because it is a knife. It's, you know, I got myself into a knife fight somehow. I had to have a knife of my own.

KELLY: Salman Rushdie talking with us about his new memoir "Knife: Meditations After An Attempted Murder."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: There is a clear villain in Rushdie's memoir. It's that young man who wielded a knife and stabbed him at least a dozen times. There's also a clear hero to the story - Rushdie's wife, Eliza, who took care of him as he healed. Now, Eliza was not with Rushdie on that nearly fatal day, but 13 months later, when he revisited the site of the attack, Eliza came with him.

RUSHDIE: Yeah. She said you're not going by yourself. But I was absolutely determined to do it. And when I was standing on the stage, and I shouldn't tell you because it spoils the end of the book, but when I was standing on the stage, I had this physical sense of somebody lifting a weight from my shoulders. I felt like somebody has came and lifted a burden off me. And I said to Eliza, I said, you know, I don't know why, but actually I feel lighter. And that's more than I had hoped that it would do. But that's what it did.

KELLY: I love, too, you just told me you wanted to stand where you had fallen down.

RUSHDIE: Yeah.

KELLY: You also talked about how alone you felt in the moment of the stabbing and to go back and not be alone.

RUSHDIE: Not be alone was very important because Eliza had never been there, you know, so she didn't know what it looked like. So she'd had to imagine it. So for her to see it for real, that was difficult for her, also. For both of us, I think it was an important moment.

KELLY: You can hear part two of my interview with Salman Rushdie on the next All Things Considered. And one more thing before we go. You can now enjoy the CONSIDER THIS newsletter. We still help you break down a major story of the day, but you'll also get to know our producers and hosts and some moments of joy from the All Things Considered team. You can sign up at npr.org/considerthisnewsletter. This episode of CONSIDER THIS was produced by Megan Lim and Brianna Scott. It was edited by William Troop and Courtney Dorning. Our executive producer is Sami Yenigun.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

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