Hey, You Can’t Write That!

banned booksOver the centuries that books have been published, certain titles have incited self-appointed morals committees to assign them a “banned” badge. It only takes a quick jog on the Internet to find lists of books deemed at one time unsuited for public access, for reasons of sexual erotica, salacious language, unpopular political viewpoint, sadistic violence, extreme politics, cultish religious persuasion, heinous crimes, bizarre mores, or other “inappropriate” activities. Sometimes it’s just irreverence for someone else’s venerated principles. This is especially true when outcast pursuits are sympathetically promoted by the author. Salmon Rushdie’s name comes to mind when I think of censorship. His book The Satanic Verses so inflamed some in the Islamic world that religious extremists put a contract on his life, and he was forced to keep his whereabouts secret for years.

Rushdie is in good company with Alice Walker for The Color Purple, Ray Bradbury for Fahrenheit 451, Toni Morrison for Beloved, F. Scott Fitzgerald for The Great Gatsby, Harper Lee for To Kill a Mockingbird, Robert Cormier for The Chocolate War, Maya Angelou for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Mark Twain for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Boris Pasternak for Dr. Zhivago, John Steinbeck for The Grapes of Wrath, Katherine Paterson for Bridge to Terabithia, John Steinbeck for Of Mice and Men, J.D. Salinger for Catcher in the Rye, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn for One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Malcolm X and Alex Haley for The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Vladimir Nabokov for Lolita, Aldous Huxley for Brave New World, Joseph Heller for Catch-22, and Aristophanes for Lysistrata. These share the honors for banned books and are also considered literary classics. The Bible, both Jewish and Christian versions, made it too. If your favorite banned book isn’t on this list, it may be because I have not read your selection, and you’d be reading only the titles until next year’s Banned Books Week.

We sneer now about many of the original judgments, but we are privileged to live in a society that (mostly) accepts all manner of writing. Incendiary or bigoted work raises eyebrows and may draw intense attention, as does outlandish historical distortion and manipulation of documented facts, but it still gets published. As a free society, we are open to all viewpoints. Despicable work allows us opportunity to present the other side of the coin and argue for consideration.

Still, I suspect that some writers look over their shoulders to be sure “no one” is offended by what they write, “no one” being perhaps an employer or family member or someone with an ax to grind and a wallet thick enough to pursue a lawsuit. With everyone only a key click away from public comments about anything, with misinterpretation and misinformation a frequent flag waver of rash opinions, and the word “viral” familiar even to young children, it doesn’t take much to understand why a writer, especially a “new” writer, might exercise caution.

We should balance how appropriately a controversial topic or unpopular position contributes to our stories more than whether or not to include it. If writing is salacious, provocative, or seductive, does it generate salivating readers or promote thoughts about difficult ideas among thinking people? Words have the power to incite rage. They instigate sympathy, tempt action, or ask insightful questions. To struggle with what challenges us is to confront what holds us back. The danger of shying away from controversy that might be banned is that the result might be a warm mush of boredom.

The primary theme of my own books concerns family relationships. I’ve included aspects of abortion, child abuse, physical abuse, sex, homosexuality, murder, violence, and borderline psychotic behavior. Not just a sentence about a woman who got an abortion, or a comment that someone had sex, or a mention of a character who was gay, but fully descriptive passages as they’ve suited my stories. Am I brave or foolish? Not sure, but my biggest concern involves how well written these passages are, not whether I should have included them at all. If readers are uncomfortably stirred, well then, life is like that. Books, especially fiction, should be a safe place to explore controversial material even if we prickle or blush as we read. I suggest that writers focus on good writing, whatever their topic or genre. We should all be so recognized on the same podium as the authors listed here.

September 27 to October 3, 2015 was Banned Books Week. Libraries and book stores featured the titles of books that once made the infamous cut. Banned Books Week celebrates not only the freedom to read, but also the freedom to write our concepts of truth, to plumb what is dangerous, and to expose what horrifies us. Censorship stems from fear of the unknown, hatred of other allegiances, marginalization of those who are different, and jealousy of universal vision. A just world will be borne on the flight of daring ideas. It’s the world I strive for.

May you find a way to celebrate Banned Books Week that is true to your spirit, whether reading a book once on the list or writing something from the other side of the safety net. Be daring. Read outside your comfort zone. Write well no matter what.

Censorship: External and Internal

When I look back at the writing I have done in the past 20 years, I see that a lot of what I write has to do with my relationships, as well as interesting women, both famous and infamous. I have written about my broken heart, my happy heart, the failings of both myself and my friends and lovers, and various women whose stories I happened across in arbitrary, lazy Sunday afternoon Google searches.

By American standards, what I’ve chosen to write about is relatively vanilla: not taboo. Lots of people write about their feelings and their relationships. Lots of people write about historical figures. I don’t write Hunger Games-style, dystopic literature. I don’t write Orwellian subtext, or Bradbury-esque social commentary. I am, in short, not controversial.

In my view, that is.

Having grown up in this culture, I am used to my freedom of speech, and more than that, I rarely give a thought to my freedom of speech. It just is. I do not have to hide my art. I do not worry about being censored by others, though my self-censorship can rear its head from time to time.

In a previous post of mine, “Baring it All: The Challenge of Short Poems,” I mentioned a Pashtun poetry form called landay, which is written by Afghan women. What I didn’t mention then was that this type of poetry is typically written in secret. Women are punished for their self-expression. A handful of years ago, one such woman, Zarmina, was beaten by her brothers for sharing her landays on the radio. In protest of their violent disapproval, she set herself on fire, and later died. A horrific ending to what seems, to me, to be a fairly commonplace act of recording—simply put—feelings.

Zarmina and other women working in this form of poetry are writing about their feelings. They are writing about their experiences, their relationships, their joys, and their sorrows. To give you a sense of the content, here is one landay that was collected by journalist Eliza Griswold:

Your eyes aren’t eyes. They’re bees.
I can find no cure for their sting.

This is a poem about suffering at the hands of another; it’s potentially about rejection, anger, or perhaps even violence. From my vantage point, it is not a controversial poem. It is stark and striking, to be sure, but it is not something that warrants censorship or is particularly controversial. But that’s from my vantage point. For the Afghan woman who wrote this poem, this was most certainly a controversial poem; not only was the content controversial, but the act of writing itself was controversial. Punishable, even.

These women are writing, despite the potential for punishment, about their lives. When I think about my poetry, and I see that I am also writing about my life, I have to remember that it is a gift to be allowed free reign to write about it. And not only because of where I grew up, but also because of the time in which I grew up. Had I tried to write about my feelings some 150 years ago, or even 60 years ago, I would have found similar censorship as the women writing their landays, and potentially similar punishment.

As an offshoot to all of this, I also realize that self-censorship, which I would also call self-doubt, becomes an almost decadent and foolish thing to allow myself in my current situation, given what I know about the censorship that exists in other cultures. Self-censorship, whether because of fear or concern over who might be offended by my perspective, only really flourishes in a society that allows freedom of speech to begin with. To use a somewhat crude comparison, it’s like going on a diet: you can only do this when food is bountiful.

Disallowing and discouraging self-censorship (since I don’t typically have to deal with the external version of it) in myself, is one small way of asserting my voice and joining it with those who are experiencing the kind of censorship that is externally enforced and often accompanied by violence.

The Writers Circle: Censorship

One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

Think about the privileges of living in a relatively free and diverse culture. How has your writing benefited by not having to worry about censorship? What topics have you tackled that might generate debate or controversy? Have you written about other times or places where what one writes or states could get them thrown into prison, shunned from society or even killed?

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.