PEN celebrates 20th anniversary of Salman Rushdie benefit

Salman Rushdie 1992 benefit, Ric Young, Salman Rushdie, Louise Dennys, and Michael Ondaatje

On December 7, 1992 PEN Canada held a benefit for Salman Rushdie at which then-Ontario premier Bob Rae became the first head of government to welcome Rushdie in a public forum anywhere in the world. Writing about himself in the third person in Joseph Anton, his memoir of the fatwa years, Rushdie later described the evening as one “he would never forget.” Here are some backstage photographs from the benefit, and extracts from our subsequent newsletter about the entertainment and speeches given that evening.


Adrienne Clarkson and John Ralston Saul with Salman Rusdhie
With Adrienne Clarkson and John Ralston Saul

Our performance set the tone for the whole evening, one of there’s no telling what in the world might happen around here

I joined PEN in February 1989, which is when the Ayatollah Khomeini announced the fatwa offering a million dollar bounty and eternity in paradise to anyone who killed the novelist Salman Rushdie. I was furious and filled with dread — well, I don’t think I have any real need to describe the complex set of emotions I felt, as they are no doubt shared by the entire membership. It was desire to do something to help Mr. Rushdie, and in a way I achieved this goal. At the annual PEN Benefit in December 1992, Margaret Atwood, Timothy Findley and I performed a country-and-western medley, lyrics by Atwood. At that same PEN Benefit, Mr. Rushdie made an appearance, walking on stage to thunderous applause. I believe that our performance set the tone for the whole evening, one of there’s no telling what in the world might happen around here.
Paul Quarrington, Letter from the Editor) 


Backstage at the Benefit, December 7, 1992: Front row (l to right) Nino Ricci, Paul Quarrington, Alison Gordon, Adrienne Clarkson; middle row: Alexander Ross, Sandra Martin, Salmsn Rushdie, Marian Botsford Fraser, and Louise Dennys; back row: Cecil Foster, Connie Rooke.

It was a night of superb readings and music; Bruce Cockburn did three terrific songs (his next stop the Clinton inauguration); Sara Botsford and Sandi Ross read from Rushdie’s charming children’s book Haroun; Nicole Brossard gave us witty Gertrude Stein; Billy Merasty did Marquez and John Ralston Saul, Tolstoy; Dionne Brand gave us James Baldwin; Ronald Wright read from Eduardo Galeano’s trilogy Memory of Fire; Michael Ondaatje invoked James Agee, and Don McKellar brought down the house with a brilliant reading from the script of Johnny Guitar. And the once and never more C&W trio, Their Nibs, The Scribs (Margaret Atwood, Timothy Findley and Paul Quarrington), wailed and railed their way through a medley of writin’ hurtin’ tunes such as “Ghost Writers in the Sky.”

When the curtain rose on the second act, Pierre Berton delivered a rousing condemnation of the fatwa and a call to action for Canadians. He was followed by John Irving with a moving, intimate story of his own discovery of Salman the writer, and then a host of writers took us through the chronology of events in the persecution of Rushdie: the day of the Benefit was day 1,392 of the fatwa. Finally, Margaret Atwood asked the audience to welcome “to the PEN Benefit, to Canada, Salman Rushdie”. He spoke for a little while.

Premier Bob Rae and Salman Rushdie
Meeting Premier Bob Rae

Then – a writer again – he read a story.
(Marian Botsford Fraser, Notes from the Third Annual PEN Benefit)


“Somebody said to me in the wings just now, it’s a hell of a bar mitzvah you’re having. I said yes, but it’s a very beautiful one. And so it is and thank you for that extraordinary reception. And thank you all. It’s wonderful to be amongst writers again for a moment.

A warm welcome from the Premier

And I have to start by thanking Canadian PEN and I know there are a number of people here who have worked flat out for weeks in conditions of fantastic secrecy to bring this about. And it’s wonderful that they did so that I could be here just for this brief moment, and I’d like to thank them very much. And it’s Louise Dennys’ birthday, so I guess I’m her birthday present.

I was going to say the trouble with bounties is it becomes dangerous coming into gatherings of writers, doesn’t it, because by and large they have overdrafts. Still, so far, so good.

Salman Rushdie kisses Premier Bob Rae
The feeling is mutual

The trouble with bounties is it becomes dangerous coming into gatherings of writers, doesn’t it, because by and large they have overdrafts.

I don’t know what’s to say. I wanted to talk to you a little about witchcraft. It’s interesting to ask yourself what a witch is in your mind’s eye. A witch is a woman who wears a pointy hat. She has a broomstick; she has a cat. She has, traditionally, a mole on or around her breast. She’s usually crochety; she’s kind of oddball. A number of people writing about the phenomenon of the witch hunt have pointed out that these objects – the hat, the broomstick, the cat, the mole – wound be found in almost any house. These are domestic objects. A mole is a common or garden ailment. That’s to say, anybody’s a witch if you point at them and say they are. And that, of course, was the purpose and the nature of the witch hunt.
(Salman Rushdie, Salman Speaks)

Further reading

The audience, it was widely reported, gasped in collective disbelief.” ,  PEN Canada President, Charlie Foran, remembers Rushdie’s appearance in Salman Rushdie, Under Fatwa, Onstage, an essay for Hazlitt, Random House of Canada’s online magazine.

Twenty Years Ago, Salman Rushdie Surprised Toronto – an account of the evening in The Torontoist.

All photo credits: Jean-Marc Desrochers Photography