When I was 14, I was asked not to read Betsy by Harold Robbins. I did, of course, read the book right away, hiding it within my chemistry textbook. I remember Betsy having daring material on sex and drugs, but what was most thrilling was the fact that I was reading a forbidden book.
From the time my daughter Kavya was 12 she has been eager to read Nabokov’s Lolita. “Isn’t the title character about my age?” I recall her asking. After numerous discussions I settled on “later” as the age when I thought she would be better able to deal with the mature contents of the book. I realize that my Betsy is her Lolita.
As parents we often decide what our children can and cannot read, motivated by the desire to protect their innocence, shield them from harsh realities, and limit their exposure to controversial religious and cultural issues. These intentions are not dissimilar to the rationale used by authority figures throughout history in their attempt to sway public opinion, suppress dissent, and perpetuate ideology. This is true even of the world prior to 1440 AD, when Gutenberg invented the printing press.
History of Censorship
Historically, religious and cultural disagreements have driven emperors, religious leaders, and members of the ruling class to curtail readership. Greek thinker Protagoras’ works were burned in the 5th century because he was agnostic. Roman Emperor Diocletian ordered the burning of Christian works and, during the Qin Dynasty (213-206 BC) in China, history books were burned and hundreds of Confucian scholars were buried alive for their ideological differences with the rulers.
According to University of California, San Diego, Professor of Communication and Science Studies, Chandra Mukerji, censorship was used during the Reformation in Europe as a tactic “to control poor people from thinking about issues that threatened elites.” As the Western world became more and more literate, new ideas and thoughts began to find their way to the printed page. “Political personhood,” Mukerji emphasizes, “was shaped and molded because of “access to books.”
Indeed, a large portion of our intellectual heritage comes from books, art, movies, artifacts, and word-of-mouth stories and anecdotes. They provide shades to our concepts, outlines to our ideas, and color to our thoughts. Yet, countries, states and governments exercise censorship, some more violently than others.
India and its Great Soul
The holy cows of religion and patriotism have usually driven censorship efforts in India. Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was banned for its supposed attacks on Islam. Books on Shivaji have drawn the ire of activists who cherished the hagiographic memories of the Maharashtrian warrior king. More recently, a biography of Dhirubhai Ambani (the business magnate who founded Reliance Industries) termed The Polyester Prince, came under fire.
The latest controversy has been over Joseph Lelyveld’s book, Great Soul—Mahatma Gandhi and his struggle with India. The Pulitzer prize winning author highlights Gandhi’s “erotically charged friendship” with a German-Jewish architect named Herman Kallenbach.
The Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, denounced the book, stating, “The perversion shown in the writings not only deserves to be condemned in the strongest possible terms but cannot be tolerated. I know that the members of this august house share my feelings.” He was referring to the Gujarat State Assembly, which summarily banned the “publication, printing and publication” of the book in Gujarat, even though the book had not been released in India as yet and had most likely not been read by its denouncers.
The author, Lelyveld, “damns Gandhi not with direct attacks but with an overdose of skepticism,” reprimands Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of Mohandas Gandhi, in his Hindustan Times essay of March 30, 2011, yet also submitting that it is a mistake to ban the book, especially “in the light of Gandhi’s commitment to freedom of speech.”
Columnist and peace activist, Praful Bidwai, criticizes India’s “knee-jerk instinct to prohibit, ban, punish and censor,” calling it a “huge flaw in India’s democracy.”
Since the British era, several Indian writers have faced the wrath of authority. The great Hindi writer and social thinker, Premchand, came under literary scrutiny in 1910, when the British government banned his collection of short stories, Soz-e-Watan, claiming it was seditious in content. The book consisted of five stories that sought to inspire patriotism and political freedom.
Even though Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s government banned The Satanic Verses, Gandhi said that the ban “did not detract from the literary and artistic merit of Rushdie’s work.” To which, Rushdie retorted acerbically in an open letter to the Prime Minister, “thanks for the good review.”
In 2010, the Shiv Sena, a fundamentalist regional party, coerced Bombay University’s Vice Chancellor, Rajan Weluka, into removing Canadian-Indian writer Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey, from the University’s literary curriculum. The reason given: it contained some derogatory comments about Shiv Sena and its leader, Bal Thackeray.
“I just don’t understand the secularism practiced in India,” argues Belgian writer Koenraad Elst, saying that these so-called secularists “arrogate the right to decide for others what they can see and read, and what not.”
The United States’ Challenge
In the United States, Sept 24 to Oct 1, 2011, has been designated the Banned Books Week. This yearly event celebrates the freedom to read and, during this commemorative period, libraries and book stores put together a display of books that have been “challenged,” according to Los Altos Teen Services Librarian, Sarah Neeri, who adds that, “a lot of books that are challenged are children’s books.” “Challenge” is the new politically judicious word for censorship. There have been 4659 challenges reported, according to the American Library Association (ALA) website and about 48% of these challenges were initiated by parents.
On occasion, though, the rationale is stupefying. Consider Shel Silverstein’s lighthearted poem, A Light in the Attic, which was banned in 1985 in Cunningham Elementary School in Wisconsin. The official ALA records indicate that this is because it “encourages children to break dishes so they won’t have to dry them.” Could the fact that Silverstein’s prior profession as a Playboycartoonist have had anything to do with the edict, I wonder.
“Well, I do hope they don’t provide sex books to young children. That’s all I ask,” says Althea Anderson, a diminutive woman with a big smile who works as a volunteer at the Friends of Palo Alto Bookstore.
Menlo Park Kepler’s bookstore employee, Amis Maldonado, dismisses the issue of book banning as “really irrelevant.” Then after a few moments of consideration, “If I were to think of any books that should be on the list, I’d say the one that describes how to be a safe pedophile. It created some controversy on Amazon.”
The book Maldonado refers to is a self-published book, titled, The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure: A Child-Lover’s Code of Conduct by Phillip R. Greaves II, which was made available on Oct 28, 2010. I did a quick search for the title and found that Amazon has since removed it from its database.
Suruchi, a high school junior, shakes her head at my question of whether any book should be censored, “Reading a banned book is cool but why should books be banned,
even if they have inappropriate content? It’s a question of freedom of speech, not morals and values.”
At the library, an older gentleman proceeds to tell me about the book Hit Man, published by Paladin Press in 1983. “All existing copies of the book with the publisher were destroyed since it described how to become a hit man; a contract killer. I have a copy of the book,” he tells me excitedly, refusing to divulge his name, for obvious reasons!
The book Hit Man became a paperback guide to an actual triple murder in 1993, leading to a lawsuit. But despite that, Googling the book, leads me to these words, “This file has been stored on the publisher’s virtual drive on 4shared.com (online file storage service). The file is shared for public access and downloading. The publisher is responsible for the content of the file.”
“Book censorship is not really effective,” affirms Mukerji, “and even more so now because of the Internet. Banning books often makes people more interested in them, and affects publishers more than readers.”
My 9th grader, Prianca, concurs with Mukerji: “If a book is banned I’m more compelled to read it for its forbidden value.”
Nasrin Jafarey, owner of Books N Bits in Cerritos, contends that as a bookseller she doesn’t take sides in this debate. “It’s a business,” she says, “and I’m a practical person,” explaining that if there are books that people want to read, she is happy to supply them. “As a mother, though,” Jafarey muses, “There are books that should be banned for kids.” Though, when pressed for names of these books, she demurs, saying she cannot recall the titles or the authors. This exposes the nebulous fear that censorship exploits—our belief that there are some materials that go beyond the pale. But since where that line is drawn is so subjective, it questions the very foundations of free speech.
A Distinguished List
Many august writers have made it to the banned list in the United States: Harper Lee, William Faulkner, Joseph Heller, Aldous Huxley, John Steinbeck, Walt Whitman, J.D. Salinger, William Shakespeare, and even the wildly successful J.K.Rowling, whose Harry Potter series has been challenged or banned in several states because it allegedly “promoted withcraft!”
A number of Nobel Prize winning authors have faced censure from their countries or people for their views: Turkish Orhan Pamuk, South African Nadine Gordimer, Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz, Chinese Gao Xingjian and Polish Wisawa Szymborska.
In Ray Bradbury’s brilliant, futuristic book, Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953, society is controlled by censorship. The title refers to the supposed temperature at which a book disintegrates. Fahrenheit 451 describes an anti-intellectual climate where academics and erudition are anathematic and accursed (harbinger of today’s political climate?)
In a supremely ironic turn of events, Fahrenheit 451 was itself banned and censored for containing the words, “damn,” and “hell.” An incensed Bradbury wrote a scathing criticism in a published coda to Fahrenheit 451. “In sum, do not insult me with the beheadings, finger-choppings or the lung-deflations you plan for my works. I need my head to shake or nod, my hand to wave or make into a fist, my lungs to shout or whisper with. I will not go gently onto a shelf, degutted, to become a non-book.”
Why are Books Banned?
In the United States, books are usually removed from shelves because the contents are considered lewd, indecent, or obscene—Fanny Hill, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lolita. Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer was banned in the United States for almost three decades starting in 1930 for explicit sexual content. Ulysses by James Joyce was also banned temporarily for its sexual content. The issue went to court and the ban was overturned in 1933 in a landmark case, United States v One Book Called Ulysses.
During times of war, national interest and security become barometers of judgment. Operation Dark Heart, written by Anthony Shaffer, was banned in the United States in 2010 because it contained compromising classified information. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe was prohibited in the South during the Civil War for promoting anti-slavery sentiment. More recently, Bradley Manning’s incarceration for leaking classified government documents has made him a cause celebré for anti-censorship activists.
But if authority can seek to censor ideas, people power can successfully reverse the suppression. Librarians, teachers, booksellers, and members of the community have fought to restore banned or challenged books to shelves. Never has the effort been more inspiring than at the Tahrir Square Book Fair, held in early April, after the peaceful revolutions in the Arab world. “Everyone around the globe now associates Tahrir Square with freedom and revolution,” proclaimed Trevor Naylor of the American University, one of the organizers of the book fair, stating that the book fair “celebrates what happened here.” In Tunisia too,
with the ousting of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, books that were previously banned are now openly on sale in bookshops. Each suppressed title now on view adds a freedom stripe to the sleeves of democracy.
When authoritarian regimes ban books it’s often a validation of an author’s influence, a writer’s rite of passage. It is when democratic countries stifle opinion that there is a breakdown in the equipoise of the governing process. Censorship is assuredly an action that negates debate. Difference of opinion is neither a cause nor a criterion for elimination. It is just a convenient way out of intellectual engagement. If we remove displeasing ideas, motives, and morals from our vocabulary are we not creating prototypes of conformity?
I heard novelist Ayelet Waldman on the radio, recently, talking about her book,Bad Mother. This is the same author who wrote a revelatory and famously criticized essay titled, Truly, Madly, Guiltily in the New York Times, in which she declared that she desired her husband’s company more than that of her children, confessing that it is not her children but her husband’s face “that inspires in me paroxysms of infatuated devotion.” I admit, I was startled yet taken by both Waldman’s essay and the premise of her book, just as I am with Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Both authors test my slant and persuasion. But in everything that I don’t believe, there’s an analysis I’ve missed, a truth I’ve glossed over, or a stereotype I’ve succumbed to.
As I write this article, I realize that the time may have come to loosen a few parental strictures; it’s time to help my children discover and learn the moral responsibilities of freedom. Armed with a copy of Lolita, I approach my daughter’s door, framing the words to a singular teachable moment.
Jaya Padmanabhan is a prize-winning fiction writer.
Hypocrisy in the Arab World
An Arab bookshop in Geneva has capitalized on literary proscription by selling banned Arabic books. Zaytouna Arabic Bookshop’s owner, Alain Bittar, was quoted in Gulf News as saying that his clientele consists of Arab leaders, government officials and royalty, eager to purchase books that are not available in their countries. Bittar offers an anecdote of a royal personage calling him and asking whether he had any books that were banned in her country. Upon his affirmative response, he was asked to put all of them in a bag and wait for her driver to collect them.
Suppression in China
Within China, Falun Gong literature has been systematically destroyed and several authors who’ve given voice to civic unhappiness have found themselves behind bars.
Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, Ran Yunfei and countless others are currently in prison for voicing their thoughts, while the citizens of the world watch, mute and helpless.
Articles, stories, poems, readings and even references to and on Tibet appear to be a red flag to the Chinese government. When Adrienne Mong, NBC News producer, moved to Beijing, Chinese customs impounded her books on Tibet. In her blog, she wrote, “A few days after my books finally arrived in China, the shipping agent sent an email, “Please be kindly advised there is a book named Tibet which is confiscated by customs when they are inspecting your books within your shipment. As they thought the content of the book break one China’s principle (sic).”
A Chinese American Santa Clara physician, who requested anonymity, states plainly, “they (the Chinese government) don’t want to hear different voices.” He stresses that most Chinese living in China have the same views that he does. “They talk about it, make jokes about the government and relate stories about corruption, within their own private worlds.”
The Flight of Taslima Nasreen
The very act of banning can make a decent writer a high priest of literature. Take the case of Taslima Nasreen, an anesthesiologist-turned-author. Her novel Lajja, revolving around the revenge rape of a young Hindu girl in the backlash against the Babri Masjid demolition in India, created such an uproar in Bangladesh that she was forced to flee to India.
Despite questionable literary merit, Nasreen received several awards for her work and even published a self-indulgent memoir about her sexual experiences. Eventually, growing opposition to her anti-religious views forced her into exile from India. Today, she lives in Sweden and works to build support for secular humanism, freedom of thought, equality for women, and human rights.
Book Banning in Iran
San Carlos resident Mozhi Habibi is an active member of the Association of Iranian American Writers (iranianamericanwriters.org), which raises funds to support authors that are banned or jailed in Iran. According to Habibi, banning in Iran follows no real pattern, and can be broadly applied to “anything that smells of western culture, sex, female empowerment, non-religious ideas, revolutionary ideas, democracy, separation of religion and politics regardless of the country of origin of the author.” Habibi discloses that there are ways to get around the ban. “You just have to know which bookstore to go to and it is usually ‘in the back.’”