Salman Rushdie re-introduced himself as a writer -- not the onetime global target of Muslim hit men -- Thursday evening at the University at Buffalo.
In doing so, he made a case for writers to take a political stand not only in their writings but in their public lives.
"Pretty weird choice you've made -- coming out to listen to a writer speak," said Rushdie, 57, author of many popular novels since his "The Satanic Verses" played with the Quran and drew a death sentence from Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989.
"There's no reason on earth why writers should be able to do this," he told more than 3,000 listeners in UB's Alumni Arena. "Writers didn't used to come out -- Shakespeare never did."
Rushdie said the speaking tour for novelists was popularized by Charles Dickens, who incidentally died after overextending himself on a tour of the United States.
"So here I am, risking my life," he quipped. "Not for the first time."
Earlier, Rushdie told reporters that he moves about freely in Manhattan and hasn't taken unusual precautions against assassination for the past seven years. But during the early 1990s he hid because of the Ayatollah's death sentence.
"Let me point out that today, one of us is dead," he said, to laughter and applause. "So I need to re-introduce myself."
Rushdie was born and raised in India in a nonreligious Sunni Muslim family and was educated in Britain, clinching his British accent.
"I never saw myself as a religious writer," he said.
"This thing that came after me was dark, obscure, theological and incomprehensible," Rushdie said of the death threat, "and people assumed that my writing must have been dark, obscure, theological and incomprehensible."
Actually, he said, a lot of "The Satanic Verses" was funny.
During his interview with reporters, Rushdie said he still sees himself primarily as a novelist -- who only happens to be interested in politics.
"Many novelists were interested in being part of the public conversation about society," he said, recalling his formative years during the 1960s social revolution. "It's much less the case in America today -- but it's much more the case in the rest of the world.
"There's still an assumption in Europe that creative artists have something to say about the electoral process," he explained. "That doesn't happen here. Here, the only creative artists allowed to have a role in the political process are movie stars."
But Rushdie dares to hope that this is changing.
"If I look at young writers in this country, many of them were very involved in the last election at the grass-roots level of arranging meetings and so on. So it may just be that it's coming back in the next generation."
Rushdie published "The Moor's Last Sigh" and "The Ground Beneath Her Feet" during his exile. "Step Across this Line: Collected Non-Fiction, 1992-2002," explored his reactions to the death threats.
His new novel, "Shalimar, The Clown" is to be published in September.