On September 12, 2022, the free speech advocacy organization PEN America hosted a conference in New York City, a highlight of the group’s centenary celebrations. Featured speakers at the Words on Fire: Writing, Freedom, and the Future symposium included Margaret Atwood, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Dave Eggers, Jennifer Finney Boylan, and Ayad Akhtar. Neil Gaiman, Tom Stoppard, and Paul Auster, all acclaimed writers, were also spotted in the audience.

Yet, despite the band of literary luminaries in attendance both on and off stage, conversation kept circling back to a man who wasn’t there. The celebrated novelist Salman Rushdie—whose absence at the conference was a fresh, painful reminder of the consequences of censorship—was stabbed onstage on August 12, 2022, at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York, where he was set to speak about the United States as a safe haven for exiled writers. The brutal attack resulted in multiple critical wounds for Rushdie, who is 75. Currently, Rushdie remains hospitalized and at risk of losing an eye that has been badly damaged. News of this horrific event has shaken the literary community and beyond. 

Salman Rushdie was placed under a fatwa, a religious edict mandating his death, by the Iranian government six months after the publication of his controversial 1989 novel The Satanic Verses, which included fictional portrayals of the life of the Prophet Muhammad that many Muslims deemed blasphemous and offensive. The speaker event in August was Rushdie’s first public appearance after more than a decade in hiding. Rushdie’s 24 year old assailant reportedly only read two pages of The Satanic Verses prior to assaulting its author.

This seemingly singular episode of utter, unthinkable violence, however, was far from singular, or unthinkable. Nor was it a mere “episode” in history, an erroneous blip in the “usual” or “correct” course of things, as we so desperately want to assert. In order to fully comprehend the grave risks that public intellectuals face around the globe, we have to first grasp the sheer scale of the oppression leveled upon those who speak up, ask questions, tell truths, and push back against the powerful. PEN America’s international Writers at Risk Database currently lists 785 writers, journalists, and artists known to have been under threat, detained, imprisoned, exiled, or murdered. 785 is just one number compiled by one database, which was only established some 30 years ago. Consider the unreported cases. Then consider the crusade to ban books, gaining momentum anywhere the written word is branded a threat—which is to say, everywhere. From July 2021 to June 2022, PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans tracked 2,532 instances of book titles being banned across the US. In the span of less than a year, 1,648 distinct titles have disappeared from the shelves of schools and libraries throughout the country. The list stretches on and on.

Where, then, does this leave us? At an institution like Concord Academy, it is extremely easy for us to overlook—to take for granted—the privilege of having at our disposal a great wealth of knowledge and resource, of perspective and discourse. In a reality marred by divisiveness, corruption, and censorship, fathoming the actual statistic of writers in danger is getting increasingly difficult, let alone doing something about it—but the burden of defending free expression falls on all of our shoulders. We need not to forget the power of words; we don’t ever have to know what it is like to live under the gloom of blacked-out ink.

Banned Books Week will have long passed by the time this piece is published, but that’s no reason to stand idly by. Writers and readers everywhere keep the embers of imagination, free expression, and truth alive. We can choose to pick up a book, to educate ourselves. We have the power to start a conversation. That is power enough.