A controversy in New Zealand has this month brought the issue of banning books to many bibliophiles’ attention around the world. At the centre of the storm is Ted Dawe’s award-winning Into the River, a Young Adult novel that follows a Maori teenager who wins a scholarship at an exclusive Auckland boarding school.
The book has been out for two years, but on September 3 it was withdrawn from bookshops and libraries after a Christian group objected to its sexually explicit content and portrayal of drug use. While New Zealand’s Film and Literature Board of Review decides whether or not to issue a permanent ban, any company caught distributing the book in the nation faces a fine of up to NZ$10,000. It is the first time a title has been restricted in this way in the country for around two decades.
As censorship was a big issue I encountered during my year of reading the world, the story threw up several interesting points for me. The first was the curious and counter-intuitive effect that bans like this tend to have in much of the English-speaking world. Although such steps are rare in New Zealand, there have been attempts to restrict certain titles in other Anglophone nations in recent years, with the Harry Potter books, To Kill a Mocking Bird and even The Diary of Anne Frank drawing challenges.
What’s interesting about such episodes is that they almost invariably result in precisely the surge of publicity and sales that these works’ opponents would most like to avoid. Although NZ librarians reported borrowing rates for Dawe’s novel dropped when it was first given a warning sticker in December 2013, the latest events have brought Into the River international renown. My first action on hearing about the ban was to order a copy – something I would probably not have if the book were freely available, given that it is aimed at teenage boys.
Granted, the restrictions on distribution may hamper sales inside New Zealand in the short-term, but the widespread media coverage will fix Dawe’s name in many minds for a long time to come and will no doubt drive sales of his other titles, whether Into the River returns to the shelves or not.
The second thought for me was how sharply this situation contrasts with the issues facing authors working in many other languages and under much more restrictive regimes, where the media does not have the ability to challenge similar decisions and hold authorities to account in the same way. Throughout my project, I came across a number of writers whose careers had been stunted and sometimes cut short by often brutal attempts to limit their freedom to write what they felt they must.
When I researched my book Reading the World, I interviewed several of them at length, in particular Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov and Turkmen writer Ak Welsapar. They had both been forced to flee their home countries in fear of their safety and even their lives.
As they explained to me, rebuilding your career in another language is a huge challenge for an exiled author. Welsapar, who now lives in Sweden, even went so far as to call it a tragedy – not surprising when you consider that the unpublished translation I read of his novel The Tale of Aypi remains without a publishing deal, despite it being the first book ever translated directly from Turkmen into English.
More than 20 years after they fled their homelands, Ismailov and Welsapar have nevertheless made admirable progress. Ismailov has had several works published, most recently his acclaimed novella The Dead Lake, and was writer in residence at the BBC World Service for several years. Meanwhile, Welsapar has been published in Swedish and Russian, and he was the Turkmen poet at Poetry Parnassus, a cultural event organised to complement the London 2012 Olympic Games.
I was particularly delighted that both writers had short stories featured in the summer 2015 issue of the excellent Index on Censorship magazine.
For Welsapar this represented almost the first prose work he has ever had published in English. Not comparable to the worldwide attention Ted Dawe’s novel has received over the past few weeks. But at least it’s a start.
Picture by Samuele Ghilardi