Defiance is the most common virtue that has been used to celebrate Sir Salman Rushdie and his 30 years of work under threat. True bravery is often only visible in acute vulnerability. But for an artist to be called to defend their creative endeavours or expressions is a different country from the remote, raw, lonely and often desperately fragile place one must retreat to in order to begin to summon a distinct integral voice. 

This is challenging in the first place amid a world of distractions, but particularly when one’s own committee of critics are always the first to arrive at any credible artist’s internal borders to defame, ridicule and harm. Most of us however have never had to also bear the unthinkable burden of having to put your life at stake to do so.

“But artists should never be too comfortable” AA Gill said to me the last time I saw him as we travelled back from a literary event together.

Some artists dig into their wounds to make them work. As Beckett said “Grip tight to your despair and let it sing for us.” Others use their injuries like fuel to transcend them.

No artist I know has or had an objective to offend. As artists our only focus is our offering. However, asking art not to offend us is akin to asking to live in the world without all the quintessential expressive elements of sunlight, rain and wind, for fear of their droughts, gusts and storms.

To deny yourself the opportunity to be stirred, moved in the direction of offence is to deny yourself the good it can do you. Art in its essence is meant to provoke, stir, tickle and defy, inviting us to question ourselves and others and thus encourage us to engage further in the world and with each other; to embolden and expand our our own boundaries and sense of self.

Often when I have been offended by what someone has said or written, I have, over time, realised, more often than not, it was a phantom injury or even better I have been introduced more deeply to what it is I hold dear. The greatest offences have given me the profound inspiration and need to respectfully consider and offer something of my own. 

Rushdie digs into his own sense of dislocation to create in his work an utterly distinct and multi-disciplinary, melded form. With breathtaking verbal dexterity and expansiveness, he offers us a universe that both reflects our reality and stretches it beyond the confines of what is possible; it is both deeply human and fantastically so.


I first met Salman in the late 90’s at a small intimate party in Dublin. When I showed up at my friend’s gates the Special Branch were standing outside with machine guns. Inside there was a gregarious Salman Rushdie brilliantly mimicking some of Sacha Baron Cohen’s subversive characters. He was warm and welcoming, charming and absolutely hilarious.

A few years later, I was asked to introduce him on stage at the Hay Literary Festival. There was, at that event, both security present and bag searches and although the thought did cross my mind, ‘It would just take one’, my primary anxiety that day was how to talk about him without any mention at all of the wider political impact. I had the sense as he turned up in the green room in a muddy field in Wales with his young family in tow that he wanted his work to be divorced from the Fatwa. As he said in an interview, “It destroys my individuality as a person and a writer. I’m not a geopolitical entity, I’m someone writing in my room.”

In 2007 I was asked to interview Rushdie in a very different room. This time it was in his capacity as president of American PEN and the World Voices festival in New York which he founded. Through a series of micro disasters we ended up filming the interview together in a small toilet which he accepted with his customary grace and good humour.  This time there was no security or awkwardness. 

Having had his security removed in Britain in 2002, Salman sought refuge in the US and would have been well forgiven for solely luxuriating in the anonymity that New York can paradoxically provide. Instead he quickly used his own freedom to occupy a deeply furious, committed position supporting his fellow writers around the world to express themselves freely. This support was not merely or even primarily academic or didactic or dedicated simply to other writers; It was human and constant, not merely as an example, but as tireless advocate. And in my case, and countless others, a dear unwavering friend.

Salman was deeply appreciative and passionate about the freedoms and the opportunities that the America of that time promised and was keen to share it. When I admitted that I was hoping to move to New York he identified with a similar sense of search and homelessness and immediately said ‘The great thing about New York, is you are a New Yorker when you say you are a New Yorker.” 

From that point on he threw his beloved adopted city open to me – sharing his favourite restaurants, bookshops and friends. We walked for miles through Soho, Noho & West Village, over the Highline to Chelsea. He was, as always, a fount of knowledge, from poetry to mysticism and an infectious encyclopaedic passion for film. He wrote letters of support for my artistic visa, he helped me find an apartment, find an accountant, shop for kitchenware, celebrate my birthdays, rush backstage to celebrate or commiserate on opening nights. When I was alone at Christmas, he invited me to join his fellow refuseniks at his favourite restaurant and laugh loneliness away into the evening, but most of all he was always a strong advocate and supporter of my work.

The night I was opening my Beckett Trilogy in Manhattan, Salman was due to interview me on stage. However that night the set had not been secured properly and a 10 foot wooden board fell with my head attached to it, nearly breaking my neck in the process. Salman held my hand while I trembled on and off stage as the set was being rebuilt. He encouraged me to carry on with my performance. He was also the first to check on me once the adrenaline had subsided the following morning and the pain had set in.

When I did one of my most ambitious one-woman shows at the Old Vic in London, he was the first to rush back stage and celebrate my tender offering, yet he was also at my door the next morning to hold my hand while I confronted my reviews. “You can read everything once” he told me, “and then you must forget it all including the good ones.” When we came across a snide personal jibe, he said cheerfully, “You know such and such has been trying for a very long time to become the Daily Mail, and I think they have finally succeeded”.

When I eventually bought my own home and had my first real base in my life, he was at the centre of my house warming, and now as he lays recovering from the most senseless horrific and life changing injuries, he occupies the centre of my heart.

During the early pandemic he face-timed me so I wouldn’t be alone. We chewed over an idea which we might work together on. It was during these discussions that he demonstrated to me in an early work-in-process, the costs of being true to your own artistic path as he has always encouraged me to do. This is the commitment he has consistently embodied more than any other writer I know. The cold paradox of the 30 or so years of persecution that he and those close to him have suffered is that many of his offended critics have probably never read a single word of his, much to their own loss.

Now more than ever we must respect and celebrate that difficult commitment. We must honour his bravery, his integrity and most importantly his outstanding work. Then we can inhabit the values that he has almost – yet mercifully not – paid the ultimate price in gifting us with.