On Banned Books and their Writers

I love banned books. I love reading them, I love teaching them. My contrary streak may have begun in my conservative high school, in which we got to read some banned books, but with the bad words slyly redacted in black Sharpie. Or maybe with my mom’s throwing out my copy of Siddhartha, because it was based loosely on the life of the Buddha. Or it could be the hilarious scowls I got riding the high-speed rail in Portland while reading The Satanic Verses.  Whatever made me a rogue reader, all someone has to say to me is that a book is banned, and I am off to the bookstore to buy myself a copy.

In honor of banned books week at the end of September, I had my 9th and 10th graders take a look at a list of books we’ve read together, and that they’ve enjoyed: The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Lord of the Flies, Night, Wise Blood, A Separate Peace–the list went on and on. When I told them what the books had in common, that people in various locations across the country and the world cannot access these books because a school system of a library has deemed them dangerous and immoral, they were perplexed.

They wanted to know what could possibly be so awful about The Great Gatsby. I explained that some people didn’t think students could handle reading about Jay Gatsby trying to win the affections of a married woman. “But,” they said (I paraphrase), “that leads to his downfall. Why would anyone decide to act the way he does if he ends up getting shot?” As for The Lord of the Flies, they could see how the violence might put some people off, but recognized that the entire point of the novel is that the baser instincts of violence and a lust for power have to be controlled, not indulged. They got it. They understand that literature is there to make us wiser people, and to learn from the consequences of human behavior. To make us better people.

It’s easy to scoff at book banners, especially now that great literature is available to so many of us online and in free formats outside the academy and the public library. It’s easy to thumb our noses at those who would restrict others from reading. But the fact remains that, across the world, reading or writing banned books isn’t safe. It’s common knowledge that Salman Rushdie had, for many years, a price on his head for having written book offensive to Islam. While I read The Satanic Verses on the train, readers in Venezuela faced incarceration. Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator of the novel, was stabbed to death. Ettore Capriolo and William Nygaard, the book’s Italian and Norwegian translators, respectively, were both seriously injured in similar attacks.

This year, Amnesty International, a non-profit worth your time, attention, and donations, brought attention to the cases of Nguyen Van Ly, a jailed publisher in Vietnam; Abuzar Al Amin, a detained newspaper editor in Sudan; Prageeth Eknaligoda, a disappeared journalist in Sri Lanka; Lydia Cacho Ribeiro, a threatened journalist in Mexico; Isa Saharkhiz, an imprisoned journalist in Iran, Nurmemet Yasin, an imprisoned writer in China; and Aayat Alqormozi, a conditionally-released poet in Bahrain. All of these members of the global writing community are under attack for their work.

Those of us whose worst brushes with censorship involve having a favorite book thrown in the garbage have a duty, I believe, to advocate on behalf of these writers. I hope you’ll join me in supporting Amnesty International in their efforts to free these writers. Learn more here.

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5 thoughts on “On Banned Books and their Writers

  1. Excellent reminder. And I just received my LA Review, wherein I learned about Ishmael Reed’s book: “Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media” and how it was taken to a Canadian publisher because all the American ones passed. Another type of repression, more subtle but just as dangerous. (btw, “Ishmael Reed: Cowboy of Revolution” is a terrific read. Love the allusion to cowboys, since many aren’t aware that the Old West was populated by many cowboys of African descent.)

  2. Hi Claire! Are you saying that an author in the US who can’t find a publisher is in “just as dangerous” a situation as an author imprisoned in another country?

  3. Hi Steve. Hardly. I am saying that repression of writing comes in many forms. Book banning is one way, a way that is difficult to keep from public scrutiny. Less easily measured are publishing industry decisions to steer clear of controversial voices. Repression of writing by mprisoning authors and publishers — another thing entirely. Sorry if my remarks were misleading.

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