Salman Rushdie is the author of fourteen novels, has written collections of fiction and non-fiction, and in 2012 published his memoir Joseph Anton. His second novel, Midnight's Children, won the Booker Prize in 1981 and was named "Best of the Booker" in 1993 and again in 2008. His fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, was published in 1988 and contained a variation on a story of Muhammad adding verses to the Koran. The book ignited a huge controversy in the Islamic world, leading to Ayatollah Khomeini's infamous fatwa calling for Rushdie's assassination.
At the time, Rushdie explained that The Satanic Verses presents a conflict between the secular and the religious view of the world, particularly between texts claiming to be divinely inspired and texts that are imaginatively inspired. "I distrust people who claim to know the whole truth and who seek to orchestrate the world in line with that one true truth. I think that's a very dangerous position in the world," he said on ABC's Nightline. "It needs to be challenged constantly in all sorts of ways, and that's what I tried to do."
Rushdie is the recipient of countless prestigious writing prizes and honors. He's served as the president of the PEN American Center and helped create the PEN World Voices International Literary Festival. In 2007 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth and in 2008 became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He's also on the advisory board of the Secular Coalition for America, a patron of Humanists UK, and a Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism. Rushdie is currently a distinguished writer in residence at New York University.
In both his fiction and his commentary, Salman Rushdie has been called courageous, controversial, erudite, irreverent, fabulistic, cosmopolitan, and more. His books have been translated into over forty languages, and move between nations, cultures, religions, nationalities, languages, and creeds, much like humanist thought itself.
In a New York Times column on February 14, 1999, the tenth anniversary of the fatwah, Rushdie posed this question:
Amid the cacophony of the professionally opinionated and the professionally offended, may a voice still be heard celebrating literature, highest of arts, its passionate, dispassionate inquiry into life on earth, its naked journey across the frontierless human terrain, its fierce-minded rebuke to dogma and power, and its trespassers' fearless daring? In naming Rushdie the 2019 Humanist of the Year, the American Humanist Association answers that question with a resounding "Yes." Such a voice is needed. I was honored to present Rushdie with the award at his NYU office on April 30. His acceptance remarks and our interview are adapted here with his permission.
Jennifer Bardi: Salman Rushdie, you join a long, illustrious list of Humanists of the Year, including fellow novelists Margaret Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut, Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Walker, Isaac Asimov, and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Do you feel a kinship with this group of humanists?
Salman Rushdie: Well, many of them have been good friends of mine. I've known Margaret Atwood since we were children. And Kurt Vonnegut was very, very nice to me when I first came to America in 1981 for the publication of Midnight's Children. He actually came along to this pathetic little book party that was given for me, and invited me out to spend the weekend with him in Long Island. He was very generous, and I've always...