Indian-born British author Salman Rushdie has been conferred this year’s PEN/Pinter Prize in recognition of his support for freedom of speech and helping other writers.

Announced by the prize judges on June 20, Rushdie receives the award — named in honour of the late playwright Harold Pinter, who was an ardent advocate of human rights and a fighter for social causes — from the British branch of the worldwide writers’ association.

“This prize is English PEN’s way of thanking Salman Rushdie not just for his books and his many years of speaking out for freedom of expression, but also for his countless private acts of kindness,” novelist and journalist Maureen Freely, chair of judges, said in a statement.

Freely’s statement also said: “When he sees writers unjustly vilified, prosecuted, or forced into exile, he takes a personal interest. I think he would be the first to say that it was Harold Pinter who set the example in this regard: the engaged writer never sleeps.”

Rushdie, in the statement, is quoted as saying: “It’s very moving to receive an award named after my friend Harold Pinter, whose literary genius was matched by his passion for social justice, and to follow in the distinguished footsteps of the previous recipients, Tony Harrison, Hanif Kureishi, David Hare, Carol Ann Duffy and Tom Stoppard.”

According to the statement by PEN, the prize will be awarded at a ceremony in London on Oct 9 at the British Library, during which Rushdie is expected to deliver a speech.

Writer under siege

Rushdie, 67, a prolific novelist, essayist and public speaker, rose to international prominence when he won the prestigious Booker Prize in 1981 for his second novel, Midnight’s Children.

The same novel was awarded a special Booker of Bookers prize in 1993, judged as the best novel among the winners in its first 25 years. In 2008, it was given Best of the Bookers, voted by readers, on the 40th anniversary of the literary prize.

But he is probably best known for his 1988 book The Satanic Verses which outraged the Islamic world and forced him to take special security precautions after death threats were made against him, including a fatwa issued by Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

In 2012, he published a memoir titled Joseph Anton, chronicling the 10 years when he went into hiding because of the fatwa. The title of the memoir is actually the pseudonym he used while in hiding and Rushdie came up with it by combining the first names of two other well-known writers: Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov.

While Rushdie lived to write about his ordeal, a few associates who had a hand in either publishing or translating the novel didn’t fare so well.

On July 3, 1991, the novel’s Italian translator Ettore Capriolo was seriously injured in a stabbing incident in Milan. Nine days later, the Japanese translator Hitoshi was found in his office dead from repeated stab wounds. The Norwegian publisher William Nygaard survived three bullets in an attempted assassination in Oslo, in Oct 1993.

Meanwhile, on July 2, 1993, an enraged mob set fire to a hotel in the city of Sivas where Turkish translator Aziz Nesin was attending a cultural event. Nesin escaped but the fire claimed 37 lives. The incident has since been known as the Sivas Massacre. — Reuters