Banned Books Week: Celebrating diversity

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This year’s Banned Books Week is promoting reading diversely. But what exactly is diversity? Campaigning organization We Need Diverse Books says:

“We recognize all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities*, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.

“* We subscribe to a broad definition of disability, which includes but is not limited to physical, sensory, cognitive, intellectual, or developmental disabilities, chronic conditions, and mental illnesses (this may also include addiction). Furthermore, we subscribe to a social model of disability, which presents disability as created by barriers in the social environment, due to lack of equal access, stereotyping, and other forms of marginalization.”

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Banned Books Week 25 September – 1 October

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Banned Books Week is here again, and this year’s theme is “celebrating diversity”. This is an American coalition, launched in 1982 to create awareness of the freedom to read and the problem of censorship. This isn’t about (for the most part) censorship at a national level, which even historically has happened very rarely. It’s more about local censorship: town libraries, school reading lists, even bookshops.

Frequently banned books are often really good books, important books that offer different perspectives on the world, that challenge readers to think outside of their own experience. Common reasons given for calls to ban books include homosexuality, religion, politics, sex and suitability for age group. However, an unspoken factor behind the stated reason is the avoidance of diversity.

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A peek inside

Censoring an Iranian Love Story
by Shahriar Mandanipour
translated from Farsi by Sara Khalili

This is a complicated book to explain, and indeed to read and form a reaction to. But it’s also an illuminating look into a world we in the West don’t get to see in detail: modern-day Iran.

Mandanipour tells the story of an author (called Mandanipour, in a postmodern manner) who is trying to write a simple love story for publication in Iran. The problem is that censorship is so strict in Iran that he keeps having to delete or change sentences or whole scenes, compromising his art. So in this novel we get both his love story and his thought process about it inbetween, including his flashbacks to previous encounters with the chief censor, Mr Petrovich, and imagined future ones.

There are many complications to writing a love story in Iran, not least of which is how your characters can possibly meet. Unmarried men and women should never be alone with or speak to members of the opposite sex outside of their family. This is controlled both in reality – by a combination of genuine religious belief and militia – and in the arts, by censorship.

It’s a very eye-opening, important story to tell but the problem is that by using this two-layer technique, by explaining where the ideas for the characters come from and rewriting scenes as you try to follow them, it’s hard to get involved in the love story. But you also don’t really get to know the author as a character, so you are left at a distance from it all. This doesn’t stop it being readable and enjoyable even, but it did prevent it from being absorbing.

The love story is that of Sara and Dara (named after characters in now-banned learning-to-read books well known in Iran), a young pair whose love story begins with books, in particular banned or heavily censored books. The author explains how the books are either edited by hand with a black marker pen or printed with ellipses all over the place and how this leads the ellipsis to have an almost magical, often erotic, quality. He also explains the various methods Iranian authors use to evade censorship, including heavy use of allusion and metaphor, which he feels makes a story harder to read and less true to its art.

Dara is knowledgeable about great works of literature and film, and both he and the author reference both heavily, almost as though they are secret code, which I suppose for them they are. Dara has a “political past” which means that he can never earn a great deal or risk stepping out of line. Sara is young and nervous about breaking rules or letting down her family, though she does have a passionate nature that can get her into trouble.

What makes this book occasionally hard to follow is that Mandanipour blurs the line between the two stories, so that sometimes Sara or Dara speaks directly to the author, or an anecdote the author tells about his life merges into their story. But even without this, the story isn’t straightforward. There is some toying with magical realism and the fantastical, there is a recurring character who is a street pedlar selling spells and love potions, and there’s a dead dwarf who keeps popping up.

However, it isn’t a struggle to read because what shines through all the complexity of plot is a love of language and a playful humour. For all his frustration, the author loves his country and its rich history and references many Persian poets that I had never heard of. He introduces characters and stories from Persian literature, sometimes veering off again and again from his original point so that it is a jolt to come back to Sara and Dara.

Though he has been writing for decades, this was Mandanipour’s first full-length work to be translated into English. I would be interested to read more (and will look out for the short stories his bio implies are out there somewhere in translation).

First published in Great Britain in 2009 by Little, Brown.
Paperback published in 2011 by Abacus.

Celebrate your freedom to read

This week is Banned Books Week in US and UK libraries, with the aim of raising awareness of the freedom to read, hopefully with an added bonus of getting people talking about censorship and its ramifications. I don’t know how big an event it is outside of getting book bloggers excited. There’s nothing on my local library’s website about it. But even if it’s just a series of articles in the Guardian, I hope that it does get this issue talked about.

I have certainly seen plenty of mentions on Twitter, and books blogs For Books’ Sake and Books on the Nightstand have some interesting things to say. For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts.

These days censorship mostly seems to centre (at least in the UK and US, to my knowledge) around children’s books, or books that are deemed as being aimed at children. There’s a whole range of objections that stem from the viewpoint that parents know best – and not just for their own children but for all children. I understand a parent who knows their own child worrying that a particular book may be wrong for their child at that time and gently suggesting that they wait a year or three, but to insist that any book is banned from a school or public library is denying other children the opportunity to read a book, often classics. It is making the arrogant assumption that you know better than other people. And what does it achieve?

I believe in reading as wide a range of books as possible, especially as a child. In a privileged sheltered life reading is your greatest opportunity to learn more about the world, how other people think and live. While I would prefer that children not have to see a dead body until they’re grown up, I do think they should learn about death and reading is a good way of doing that. I also don’t see any point in hiding them from knowledge of war, prejudice, disability, disfigurement because they will find out that those things exist and wouldn’t it be nice if they were able to come to terms with that in the safety and comfort of their own bedroom? I definitely think children should learn about the normalities of life that aren’t talked about much with the young like what puberty is really like, relationships, sex, masturbation, religion, class/money, and books are the best way to learn about things like that.

I think children are often underestimated, that they understand and can cope with far more than adults give them credit for. I also think it’s important to expose children to lots of different concepts and viewpoints to prevent prejudices growing from not knowing anyone who’s black/gay/Mormon/whatever or indeed from believing playground talk, where “gay” and “spaz” are often accepted pejoratives. And if that child does think they might have different religious beliefs from their parents or want to stop eating meat (or start!) or stop wearing skirts even though they’re a girl won’t that be easier to talk about in the real world if they’ve encountered it in a few books and seen how it can work out?

Yes, there are some people who will write books that to most other people are hate-inciting, prejudiced, dangerous even. But the problem with any level of censorship is that someone, with their own personal set of morals, gets to choose what is and isn’t acceptable and to me that is a far more dangerous position. If I can read a story with an anti-Semitic narrator I can decide for myself that I don’t agree with their views but also learn a little about why they think that way, what exactly it is they believe and, being widely read, I will probably figure out that their hate is based on lies/misinformation/assumptions made with no basis. By not letting that person speak all we have is a hatred that no-one understands and therefore no-one talks about. And by letting someone choose what is and isn’t acceptable we risk letting books about important issues be banned because that person is in the small minority who don’t want children to hear the word sex before they turn 21. But that’s a whole different matter…

I have rambled on a bit, haven’t I? But this is important. Read everything! Let children read everything! And then teach them that the written word is not always the truth, even if it sounds like a fact. If they haven’t already figured that out from reading so much.