Salman Rushdie walked onstage at PEN America’s annual gala on Thursday evening, his first public look since he was stabbed and gravely wounded in an assault final August at a literary occasion in Western New York.

His look on the gala, which had not been introduced, was a shock. However no shock, to those that know him, was that he started his speech with a joke.

“Effectively, hello everyone,” Rushdie stated, as the gang on the American Museum of Pure Historical past in Manhattan greeted him with whoops and a standing ovation. “It’s good to be again — versus not being again, which was additionally an choice. I’m fairly glad the cube rolled this manner.”

His remarks, just some minutes lengthy, in accepting an award for braveness could have been uncharacteristically terse. However Rushdie, who misplaced sight in a single eye due to the assault, was his voluble self throughout the cocktail hour, for which he had slipped in via a aspect door earlier than taking his place for a red-carpet picture op.

Flashbulbs popped. And because the crowd started to note him, buddies headed over for handshakes and hugs.

“I simply thought if there’s a proper factor to selected as a re-entry, it’s this,” he stated in an interview. “It’s being a part of the world of books, the battle towards censorship and for human rights.”

The night marked a triumphant return for a person who had not let the lingering menace from the Iranian authorities’s 1989 fatwa get in the way in which of being an exuberant fixture on the social scene of New York. But when the assault final 12 months got here as a stunning blast from the previous, the gala underscored the excessive stakes of the present second, the place freedom of expression is beneath siege on many fronts, throughout the political spectrum, not simply overseas however at dwelling.

Over the previous two years, PEN America has staked out a number one function within the battle towards the unfold of “instructional gag orders,” because the group calls legal guidelines proscribing educating on race, gender and different matters, in addition to towards e book bans. This week, the group joined with Penguin Random Home to file a lawsuit towards a college district in Escambia County, Fla., arguing that its restrictions on books violate the Structure.

However PEN America has additionally steered its method via more and more pitched battles over the worth of free speech itself. “Free speech” has turn out to be a rallying cry for a lot of conservatives, together with these imposing e book bans. On the similar time, some progressives, together with youthful ones, dismiss “free speech” as a instrument of the highly effective and help calls to “deplatform” audio system and works they discover offensive.

“We see free speech threatened on all sides, from the left and the best,” Suzanne Nossel, who has been PEN America’s chief govt since 2013, stated in an interview earlier than the gala. “Individuals query it, they don’t imagine in it, they doubt it. However this can be a actually essential time to shore it up as a cultural and constitutional worth. That’s a part of what the gala does.”

The gala itself has been affected by the complexities of the present second. Ted Sarandos, the co-chief govt of Netflix, who final 12 months invoked freedom of expression in defending the polarizing comedy specials of Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais on the streaming service, had been set to obtain an award recognizing his dedication to literary variations. However he withdrew final week, citing the persevering with Hollywood writers’ strike.

And earlier this week, the journalist Masha Gessen, vp of PEN America’s board, resigned her place after a dispute over a panel on the current PEN World Voices Pageant that includes exiled Russian writers. The panel was canceled following a boycott menace from Ukrainian writers.

In her opening remarks, Nossel addressed the controversy head-on.

“As a free speech group, we should go to the utmost lengths to keep away from sidelining speech or being seen to take action,” she stated. “We must always have discovered a greater strategy.”

Throughout the dinner beneath the museum’s 94-foot blue whale, the temper was festive however pointed.

The comic Colin Jost, a head author on “Saturday Night time Stay” and the co-anchor of its Weekend Replace phase, received issues began with a joke acknowledging the shock visitor. “Nothing places you relaxed at an occasion like seeing Salman Rushdie,” he stated to titters.

To not fear, he stated, there have been snipers within the balcony. “However that’s simply in case a drag queen tries to learn a baby a narrative.”

Later, there was an award to Lorne Michaels, the creator and longtime govt producer of “Saturday Night time Stay.” PEN America acknowledged him for what it known as “4 a long time of biting satire that has captured the tenor of the second, probing the norms, restrictions and absurdities of our establishments and the highly effective.”

Satire — and the best of comedians to offend — has turn out to be an more and more charged subject in the US. However the ethical middle of the night was the wrestle towards authorities repression.

The annual Freedom to Write award went to Narges Mohammadi, an Iranian author and human rights advocate who has been out and in of jail over the previous decade. She is presently in Evin Jail in Tehran on fees of “spreading propaganda” and has been subjected to “extended solitary confinement and intense psychological torture,” in response to PEN America.

Mohammadi’s husband, the journalist and activist Taghi Rahmani, who lives in Paris and has additionally been jailed in Iran, accepted the award on her behalf. (Of the 52 jailed writers who’ve acquired the award, PEN stated, 46 had been subsequently launched partially due to the group’s efforts to focus on their circumstances.)

In a written message, which was learn from the stage, Mohammadi known as for an finish to Iran’s “misogynist, oppressive and theocratic” regime. And he or she spoke of a fellow author, Baktash Abtin, who died in jail of Covid final January, in addition to of two males who had been charged with insulting the Prophet Muhammad and hanged.

“Don’t be mistaken,” Mohammadi stated within the assertion. “They’d not written a e book. They’d not revealed an article. They’d solely exchanged just a few messages on a Telegram chat room.”

The problem of the harms of free expression — and stability them towards the best to talk — has been a fraught subject inside PEN America itself. Earlier than its 2015 gala, six members withdrew as literary hosts in protest of a Freedom of Expression Braveness Award to the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo, on the grounds that the award honored {a magazine} that revealed racist and Islamophobic cartoons.

On the time, Rushdie provided tart phrases for his fellow writers, saying, “I hope no person ever comes after them.” This 12 months, Rushdie acquired the identical award.

He was launched on Thursday by the playwright and novelist Ayad Akhtar, PEN America’s president, who spoke of rising up in a conservative Muslim neighborhood in Milwaukee. As a religious younger man, Akhtar stated, he “knew,” even with out studying it, that Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses,” which had prompted the fatwa, was a harmful and immoral e book.

However after studying it, Akhtar (who writes extensively in regards to the expertise in his novel “Homeland Elegies”) wept. To say that studying “The Satanic Verses” reworked him, he stated, was an understatement.

The assault on Rushdie, Akhtar stated, had been a “profound and galvanizing second for us at PEN” and decisively answered what for him had been a lingering, unresolved query.

“Is the hurt attributable to offensive speech a declare on us with equal weight as the liberty to talk, the liberty to think about?” he stated. “The reply is: In fact not. In fact not.”

After a brief tribute video, the room went darkish. After which Rushdie appeared.

It was an emotional second. But it surely was not, Rushdie emphasised, solely about him.

Rushdie, a former PEN America president, praised the group’s efforts on behalf of academics, libraries and authors. And he hailed those that had rushed to restrain his attacker on the Chautauqua Establishment final August and saved his life.

“I used to be the goal that day, however they had been the heroes,” Rushdie stated. “The braveness that day was all theirs.”

“Terrorism should not terrorize us,” he continued. “Violence should not deter us. Because the outdated Marxists used to say, La lutte proceed. La lutta continua. The wrestle goes on.”