Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Banned Books - Savita Kalhan

Offending a vocal minority, or arguably even a hostile majority, in the areas of politics, religion and morality can result in your book finding itself on the banned list. Banned Books week, launched by the American Libraries Association, ALA, to celebrate the freedom to read and to highlight the dangers of book censorship, has just come to an end. When I read Anne Rooney’s piece, "Banned: The Hidden Censorship of Children’s Books", it all brought back memories of what it was like living in a society where 95% of published books were banned.
For most of us in the UK, it’s an alien concept. Yes, we know that in the distant past books have been banned here, but not in modern times. We’ve got used to the choice, knowing that if a book is out there, the librarian or bookseller only needs the ISBN number and, hey presto, the book will arrive in the library, or in the bookshop, or through your letterbox in a matter of days.

Imagine a place where there are no books, no fiction to speak of, no poetry, no comics, no magazines, unless they have been vetted and deemed suitable by the Ministry of Information. It’s a terrible vision, too awful to contemplate.
For several years I lived in a country where there were no public libraries to speak of and only one bookshop. It would be two or three years later before the second bookshop opened.
This was back in 1991. Most books were banned. You could pick up the work of a few lucky authors – but the choice was limited. I remember John Grisham being stocked, but I think the covers of his books were pretty uncontroversial. If you wanted to read a half-decent book you had to bring it in to the country yourself. And that was a tall order. You had to smuggle it in.

So, my once or twice yearly trip to the UK involved buying lots and lots of books, and when I went through a phase of reading fantasy epics, well, you can imagine the problems that that caused. The trilogy was out of favour. Several thick books in a series were common. Yes, it gave me headaches, and I hadn’t even got as far as thinking about how heavy my suitcases would end up, the excess baggage payment, or the sweaty-palmed dread as I walked towards customs at the other end.
I spent several years hiding books in the lining of my suitcases, folding them inside clothes and secreting them about my person, so having to wear the voluminous black abayas did have a use! It was no laughing matter. A few hundred pounds of books were hidden away in our bags, and so much more. To be caught red-handed meant the books would in all probability be confiscated. If you were lucky you would get some of them back. It really depended on the covers, the book title and the mood of the customs man. If he found some of your books and he wasn’t feeling magnanimous, they would be sent straight to the Ministry of Information, where they disappeared in a bureaucratic black-hole while you desperately applied for the books to be returned to you. To be caught meant being deprived of several months of reading and that was a horror that I didn’t want to contemplate. It was a situation that faced us each time we disembarked with our bags and headed towards customs.

We shared our books with our friends. It was the kids I felt sorry for. If they didn’t go to the International School, then there was nothing out there for them. We left just before my son was one. It was the same with the local television. There was a dubbed children’s programme that had been cut to such an extent that the original half hour programme barely lasted ten minutes. As soon as satellite television became available, people installed it as fast as possible and from then on no one watched the local television stations.

Almost twenty years later and I can say there has been a change for the better. There are quite a few bookshops now and they stock a wide variety of books from crime to classics, and instead of taking up a small corner at the back of a shop and the rest of it being devoted to stationery, books now take up half a floor or more. There is still no teen or young adult fiction, so teens there still have to make the leap from children’s fiction to adult – much the same as we did here thirty, forty years ago. And there is even a lovely bookshop for younger children. That’s real progress, but it has taken time and perseverance to achieve that state.

My son will be studying To Kill a Mockingbird at school this year, which if he was in a certain state in the US he would be denied. He’s twelve. This summer he read, amongst several other books, The Hunger Games trilogy, Killing God, and White Tiger, the latter falling firmly into adult fiction. He’s a wide reader. Lots of kids are. He also knows when he’d rather put a book down and leave it for another year or two. He uses his mind and tries to think for himself. He wouldn’t stand a chance in the bible-belt.
Take a look at the banned books of 2010, not banned in the UK of course:- http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/gallery/2010/sep/24/censorship-libraries#/?picture=367015209&index=9

So, why oh why would anyone want to slam doors shut when books are meant to open doors and open minds? One can only hope that over time, those people who like bashing the good book, will have their minds opened.
Go back to the days of censorship? Never.
(Apologies for the late posting! I got the day wrong...)


Lucy Coats said...

Well worth waiting for, Savita. Thank you for sharing this--it's a timely reminder of how very lucky we are here. As I have been reminded all too often this week, books are lifelines in many kinds of ways--windows on the world outside, escape mechanisms, comfort zones or just simply a way of helping us to know that we aren't alone. I felt horribly guilty the one time I went through customs with some extra booze. I can't imagine how I would have got through with suitcases full of illicit books.

Elaine AM Smith said...

Thanks for posting this, Savita. How much more exciting and essential to read are the books someone says should be banned? Sometimes the classification creates a pool of avid readers.

catdownunder said...

Oh how I feel for children in such places - and especially for girls who often have an even more limited education than boys. I have a cousin who vets everything her children read - and it shows. Yet, compared with children in some places, they have a wealth of books at their disposal. Those who can read English also have a far greater choice than those who cannot.
I hope the children where you came from will one day have that same choice.

Penny Dolan said...

Savita, an excellent post which certainly made me think - and reflect on the many contrasts between bookshops here and any bookshops elsewhere. Thank you!

Savita Kalhan said...

Apologies again for the late posting. The galling thing is that this blog was so important to me that I had it ready for posting a week ago, but then managed to confuse myself into thinking 5th October was Thursday!
@Lucy - Yes, you're so right! Books are lifelines in so many ways and have always been an invaluable lifeline for me since I first learnt to read.
@Elaine - that's so true. But banning books from a library is such a worrying trend.
@catdownunder - The good news is that the situation over there is changing. The bad news is that change progresses at the pace of a very lazy snail!
@Penny - Yes, we are truly blessed here whether we realise it or not!

Katherine Langrish said...

The idea of having to smuggle in books makes one shudder! I wonder if here really IS a use for ebooks? It's hard to imagine customs officials bothering to check what you have stored on an ebook, surely...?

Stroppy Author said...

Thank you for using my Zombies cover and linking to my article, Savita. It's horrifying that you had to smuggle books again and again in order to get something to read.

I remember importing books into Albania during the Communist years - and that was only for one fairly brief stay. The official looked at every page even though he didn't speak English. If he decided he didn't like the book, it was taken away. If he decided a book was subversive, the person carrying it was taken away. Very scary, even as just a visitor. Thank you for sharing this.

Katherine - a state can put a limit on what can be downloaded, and book apps for Apple devices are limited in much the same way as paper books. Except, perhaps even more worryingly, they are censored by Apple, so just reflect the sensibilities of one man.