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Novelist Salman Rushdie is on a ventilator after being stabbed at a speaking event

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

Renowned novelist Salman Rushdie is in the hospital after being attacked yesterday in western New York. The 75-year-old writer was on stage to give a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution when witnesses say a man rushed up and stabbed him repeatedly. Rushdie's agent says the author is on a ventilator with a damaged liver and severed nerves in his arm. His agent says Rushdie could lose an eye. Police identified the suspect as 24-year-old Hadi Matar of Fairview, N.J. They've charged him with attempted murder and assault. There's been no word on a motive for the attack. NPR's Mandalit del Barco has more on the life and career of Salman Rushdie.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Salman Rushdie was born in India in 1947, in what was then known as Bombay, and he grew up in England. His fiction, combining magical realism, myths and legend with history, earned him many prestigious international writing prizes. But his writing also made him the target of a fatwa or edict calling for his death. That came in response to his 1988 novel, "The Satanic Verses," which some Muslims considered to be blasphemous. Rushdie told NPR in 2012 that book had been inspired by the life of the Prophet Muhammad.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SALMAN RUSHDIE: My purpose was not to write only about Islam. It was to talk about the nature of revelation and also to suggest that 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?

DEL BARCO: "The Satanic Verses" sparked violent street protests around the world. The novel was banned in Iran, where the Ayatollah Khomeini offered a bounty of more than $3 million to anyone to kill Rushdie. Translators and others linked with the book were attacked, even murdered, and Rushdie went into hiding for years. In his 2012 memoir, "Joseph Anton," he wrote about having been forced underground, moving from house to house under a British government protection program. And he had armed guards around the clock. That year, he told NPR, the police asked him for an alias.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

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. Nobody thought that this was going to last very long. They said, just lie low for a few days and let the diplomats and politicians do their work, and this will be resolved. Instead, in the end, it took almost 12 years.

DEL BARCO: Slowly, Joseph Anton emerged from seclusion as Salman Rushdie, and he continued writing about many subjects, including human nature. He lived freely in New York, and he continued to champion free speech.

SUZANNE NOSSEL: It's horrifying to just think that someone got to him in this way and that the idea that his voice could be silenced in this way is just beyond imagination.

DEL BARCO: Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of PEN America. She says that while there are constant attacks of writers throughout the world, this stabbing is without precedent in the U.S. She says Rushdie was prolific and lived without fear.

NOSSEL: I've gotten to know him over the last 10 years, and he has been anything but a person in hiding. He's been forthright, very much in the arena, fearless in terms of public debates, standing up for other writers who come under withering scorn and attack and assault for what they say. His life has been kind of an act of defiance.

DEL BARCO: Nossel says just hours before he was attacked, Rushdie had emailed her to ask how to help Ukrainian writers take shelter in the U.S.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.
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