In Elif Shafak’s excellent TED talk on the ways in which fiction can combat the restrictions of culturally-boundaried identity, the author discusses her own history of literary controversy and its intersection with political censorship. Shafak – a Turkish author, whose most recent work deals with the story of a murdered sex worker – is no stranger to official attempts to censor her fiction. Her novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, led to her prosecution on charges of “insulting Turkishness,” through her discussion of Turkish culpability in the Armenian genocide. Her most recent works have invited a similarly vitriolic response, with calls to prosecute her attempt to examine the nature and dangers of sex work. This is something that Shafak discusses in an interview with The Guardian, in which the author calls on activists, creators, and the international community at large to act on censorship in Turkey. Shafak points to the officially-sanctioned crackdown on fiction writers who deal with sensitive topics. She mentions the case against author Abdullah Sevki and his publisher Alaattin Topcu, facing potential charges of child abuse and inciting criminal acts, for a fictional scene in one of Sevki’s works where a paedophile details acts of sexual abuse committed against a child. Charging an author with the acts committed by their fictional characters – and for the way in which their fiction could “incite” similar crimes – points to a very real threat faced by fiction writers across the globe. In addition to censoring journalists, academics, and activists, authoritarian (and, in some cases, superficially democratic) regimes are turning their attention to authors as sources of inconvenient truth.
Throughout history, authoritarian states have attempted to systematically eradicate those whose knowledge or skill posits a threat to the work of official narratives. George Orwell’s efforts to imagine a nation in which the government has absolute control of truth, through the enforcement of ‘doublethink’, is not so far from the way that totalitarianism is currently practiced. In countries, such as Turkey, the threat posed by the truths spoken via fiction and journalism represent an act of destabilisation requiring control and censorship. Attempts to prosecute and imprison authors such as Shafak and Sevki describe a reality in which attention to social issues is effectively prohibited. This is a problem with which we all must be concerned. As readers and global citizens – living in countries where political and social norms are in constant flux – the example set by governments, like that in Turkey, are of incredible import. These governments offer a demonstration of how it is possible to purport to democratic standards, whilst simultaneously prohibiting the rights to criticism and free speech upon which democracy rests.
With the advent of social media and the problems surrounding ‘cancel’ culture, we are all actors in the space of censorship. The dialogue that we enter into online matters, as does the voice that we lend to global issues. I highly suggest that anyone interested in the campaigns against censorship take a look at the activity of English PEN and Index on Censorship. Attempts to eradicate controversial fiction and prosecute its writers are a testament to the power of novels as a tool of social and political change. That literary censorship is inextricably tied to efforts at governmental control is clear and how we utilise our voices to spread awareness of this persecution is of vital concern. The internet has given us all the power to speak on these issues, with the voices of which so many authors are being robbed.