Best-selling author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a prominent critic of Islam, said it's difficult living in isolation because of death threats from Muslims offended by her work.
The Somali-born Hirsi Ali made a surprise appearance at the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony Thursday to accept an award for her book "Infidel: My Life."
Security was tight, and she left with armed guards.
Hirsi Ali, a 38-year-old former Dutch lawmaker, lives under protection in Washington.
"Yes, it is a lonely journey," she said later in an interview with The Plain Dealer. "But you overcome it. If you get to the plateau where you no longer have to survive and can start living again — meet people, exchange stories — a bit of that loneliness is relieved. And you appreciate life even more."
Ronn Richard, executive director of the Cleveland Foundation, which administers the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, said Hirsi Ali's prize was kept secret to protect both her and members of the audience.
Some of the 600 audience members gasped at Hirsi Ali's appearance, then rose to encircle her with applause.
In "Infidel," Hirsi Ali writes how she was subjected to genital mutilation in Somalia and later forced into an unwanted marriage that led her to flee to the Netherlands. She also argues that some tenets of Islam are inherently violent and must be rejected.