The Right to Write: Censorship and Literature

For those of you who are frequenters of The Book Habit, my odd references to a life outside of literature may come as something of a surprise. Reading is, amazingly, only a part-time gig for me. Most of my week is in fact spent finishing up an MSc Human Rights at the LSE and getting ready to enter the truly terrifying world of the PhD. While I generally find that my two major interests fall into fairly distinct and separate boxes, there is the odd occasion when they happen to coincide. And today is one of those days. As anyone who knows me (you lucky, lucky people) will verify, I have a tendency to get a little carried away when talking about a topic on which I’m particularly passionate. For blogging purposes (mostly in an effort not to scare you all away), I try to keep my rants to a minimum. But I am breaking away from this self-control for the purposes of this post and can only apologise in advance, hoping that you might at least find my words semi-informative.

While not my focus area, writing and researching in human rights has naturally forced me to consider the issues associated with censorship. We have all heard stories of journalists working to cast a light on oppressive regimes and combatting efforts to keep them quiet. And we have all come across accounts of attempts to prevent the sale of literature deemed subversive or inappropriate at various historical points. Yet the continuing prevalence of censorship is intensely problematic and an issue about which I believe all bibliophiles should try to raise their consciousness. It is all too easy to suppose that this is a problem confined to ‘other’ countries – after all, who is massively surprised that George Orwell’s Animal Farm remains banned in Cuba, China, and North Korea? But the fact that To Kill A Mockingbird and The Kite Runner remain among America’s most challenged books should send shivers down the spine. With regards to journalism, the various issues currently plaguing the UK regarding media censorship are also cause for concern. Wherever you come down on these questions and debates, censorship is everywhere and impacts the lives of us all.

My first brush with censorship was at secondary school when I entered a public speaking competition, choosing to give my speech on the subject of attempts to ban Harry Potter from schools and libraries. I have not since been able to shake the sense of catastrophe and disappointment that accompanies any tale of efforts to ban a book from public consumption. And when we recall that the most historically censored works are among the greatest and most insightful ever produced, we must be hyperaware of all efforts to remove literature from our shelves. After all, where would we be without the likes of Catch-22, The Grapes of Wrath, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? And as writers continue to remain one of the world’s most threatened and unprotected groups, we should all appreciate the availability of ‘subversive’ literature in our nation’s bookshops.

Fortunately, there are a number of organisations working to combat the global trend of censorship. Based in London but executing both national and international projects, English PEN is focussed on the removal of all obstacles to free expression. It has campaigned on both the detention and censorship of the band Pussy Riot in Russia and on the issue of literary persecution in China. Currently focussed on freedom of expression in Turkey and working to challenge the imprisonment of writers in the country, English PEN is highlighting the global risks associated with attempts to exercise the Right to Write. If you’re looking to stay informed on the topic or are interested in associated volunteer opportunities, I would seriously recommend following their work.* Words Without Borders is a similarly fantastic organisation. Promoting the translation and dissemination of international literature, Words Without Borders has done some great work in highlighting the literature of North Korean defectors. It also consistently features the works of authors writing in exile – a valuable insight for anyone looking to better understand the issues associated with censorship.

Censorship is an enormously troubling problem to consider. I think that much of this is owed to our tendency to consign the issue to the realms of history – to consider it an archaic tool of the worst and most suppressive regimes. Yet reality indicates that this is very much not the case. As someone who writes about books and spends her days studying human rights, I still find it all too easy to forget that the battle for freedom of expression is ongoing and widely fought. It is an issue everywhere – in Europe, the US, Asia, Africa. And it is undoubtedly a problem that invites a response of helplessness, given its scale. But I think that simply in increasing our own knowledge and attempting to raise some awareness (whether through chatting with a friend or taking a more activist approach), we are doing something. And we are doing something even in just reminding ourselves that so many of the books we browse through in the local bookshop have fought for their right to be read.

* The English PEN membership is also a really fantastic way to support the organisation and the fight for freedom of expression. As a charity, their campaigns are run entirely on donations. So, if this is an issue that you feel passionately about and would like to support, I would highly recommend visiting the English PEN Membership page. A student budget well spent in my case!

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