Sir Salman Rushdie: I have the power back after writing about knife attack

Sir Salman Rushdie has said writing a book about his knife attack was a device to give him back “power” over his own life.

The 76-year-old Indian-born author lost sight in his right eye after the on-stage attack at the Chautauqua Institution in New York state.

He discussed his experience of suffering severe and life-changing injuries at a Southbank event on Sunday while promoting the memoir Knife: Meditations After An Attempted Murder, which was released on Tuesday.

Alicia Keys’ Black Ball – London
Sir Salman Rushdie lost an eye as a result of the attack (Ian Nicholson/PA)

Sir Salman, who was educated at Rugby School in Warwickshire and King’s College, Cambridge and lived for some of his life in the UK, spoke via video from his home in the US.

The Booker Prize-winning writer said: “I have a very good therapist who actually was helpful and who (I) had discussed this book with as I was doing it.

“So amongst the many things… it’s the only book I’ve ever written with the help of a therapist.

“But what it did do, I feel, is it gave me back control of the narrative. So instead of being a man lying on stage in a pool of blood, I’m a man writing a book about a man lying on the stage of the pool and that felt like (it) gave me back the power… (because it is now) my story that I’m telling in my way and that felt good.

“The power literature has is the power to describe events in a way that the books then own those events.”

He recalled the length of the incident, saying that 27 seconds is a “long time when someone has a knife” but said he never saw the weapon during the attack.

Recalling how he felt at the time, Sir Salman added: “There’s a very strange disconnect, which is that people who were there have said afterwards that I was making a lot of noise and (was) screaming with pain, (but) inside my head I was not aware of the pain, and I think something about deep shock takes over.

“I had a kind of approximate awareness of what was going on but not an exact one.”

Sir Salman also said that without the “pile of bodies” coming in to stop the attacker, he would not be alive and able to recover.

He says that the book is also about turning his life “back into a love story” – pointing to the relationship with his wife, the poet Rachel Eliza Griffiths, who he credits with giving him “colossal strength” while staying with him in the hospital.

“When she needed to cry or scream, she did that not in my company so you know, I owe her a lot,” Sir Salman said.

“I guess this is a book with a happy ending.”

He also spoke about his views on free speech, saying: “I’m not exactly sure how things are in the UK.

“But over here (in the US), you feel there’s a younger generation that’s kind of forgetting the value of that and often, for reasons they would believe to be virtuous, are prepared to suppress kinds of speech with which they don’t sympathise.

“It’s a slippery slope is all I’m saying and look out because the person slipping down that slope could be you.”

The author added that he has “never had a single experience of that kind of somebody feeling offended by a text or wanting a trigger warning” while teaching graduate classes at New York University (NYU) and has a theory that people grow out of those views.

Investitures at Windsor Castle
Sir Salman Rushdie was made Servant of the Companions of Honour at Windsor (Andrew Matthews/PA)

“I know that the academy (learned institutions) in America is in serious trouble right now because of colossal political divisions,” Sir Salman said.

“Everybody’s so angry that it seems very difficult to find the commonplace.”

He also said that the world has moved away from realism to “surrealism”, citing Boris Johnson and Donald Trump becoming leaders in the UK and US, respectively, in recent years.

Following the attack in August 2022 in the small town of Chautauqua, Hadi Matar was charged with attempted murder and assault.

The 24-year-old from New Jersey is awaiting trial and has pled not guilty.

Since the publication of The Satanic Verses, about the life of the prophet Muhammad, which is considered blasphemous by some Muslims, Sir Salman has faced death threats and attempts on his life.

Copies of the novel were publicly burnt on the streets of Bradford, West Yorkshire and in 1989, Iran’s former ruler Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for Sir Salman’s death.

Support for the death sentence was withdrawn in 1998 by the Iranian government.