Friday, 23 September 2016

Lessons from "banned books"

Sunday is the start of Banned Books Week (25 September - 1 October), an annual US-based initiative that celebrates "our freedom to read". To mark the event, I have decided to review the lessons I have learnt from reading banned books. To be honest, not all of the books below have been banned but they are all about societies in which freedom (and by extension, reading) was repressed in someway. And in keeping with the 2016 Banned Books Week' theme of diversity, I am focusing books that are about cultures and experiences different from my own.

Chairman Mao - in his own way - was just as bad as Hitler 
Prior to reading Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's biography Mao: The Unknown Story (banned in China) I didn't really know much about communist China under Mao. Having read Chang's family memoir Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (also banned in China), I knew the Cultural Revolution was a "bad thing", but I didn't quite understand quite how ruthless Mao was or how dire life could be for those who fell foul of him. After reading this book, I realised how appalling it is that some people seem to think a bag with Mao on it is a kooky or kitschy thing to have. No one (of sane political mind) would think walking round with Hitler on their bag would be an acceptable thing to do, would they?

Survival is a combination of luck and ingenuity
The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman depicts, in the form of a graphic novel, Spiegelman's father's (Vladek) - a Polish Jew (or mouse in this book) - struggle to survive the Nazis during the 30s and the Second World War. What quickly becomes clear is how utterly powerless someone like Vladek is against the relentless might of a force like the Nazis. He does what he can to avoid being taken to the camps but it's only through being in the right place at the right time (or rather, not being in the wrong place at the wrong time) that he manages to avoid them for so long - ie, in other words, it's not necessarily the bravest or the brightest who survive; it's the luckiest.
Obviously, "luck" is very much a relative term as the book also shows the damaging lifelong effects of living through an experience like the Holocaust on not only the person who survived but also on those around them. Vladek is portrayed as a difficult character who has strained relationships with both Art and his second wife. You do wonder who he would have been were it not for the Holocaust.

Don't judge a nation on its Government
Iranians don't have a great reputation - judging by your average Hollywood blockbuster (and a fair bit of Western media), they're either fanatical terrorists (men) or submissive, uneducated simpletons (women). That stereotype, of course, is completely and utterly wrong. It's no more accurate than the idea that English people can only be posh toffs or "cor blimey guv'nor" cockneys (only much more offensive). Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novel, shows just how diverse and cultured a people the Iranians are. It also shows how, despite the repressive regime they live under, they have just the same everyday concerns as everyone else in the world. As a teenager, Satrapi had posters on her wall just like any other girl her age - even if her parents did have to go to extreme lengths to smuggle the said posters into the country (ingenious use of a coat when coming back from trip abroad).
Persepolis is banned in Iran funnily enough but somewhat bizarrely found itself on the 2014 American Library Association 10 most frequently challenged books list (well so Wikipedia says anyway). 

To ask myself  "And what are you doing about injustice?"
Given that I was only 10 when Nelson Mandela was released, I am going to let myself off for not wearing a Free Nelson Mandela T-shirt or making a fuss if my Mum bought Cape Granny Smith apples (my older sister made a fuss to be fair). But reading Mandela's autobiography A Long Walk to Freedom (not banned, obvs, as it was published when he was president) did make me question what I would do if I was faced with a terrible injustice? Would I, as Mandela did, risk everything to make a stand? Probably not; I am a complete coward. But being white and British, it's highly unlikely I will ever be faced with the type of repression that Mandela and other black people (or, in fact, pretty much anyone who wasn't white) had to deal with on a daily basis during Apartheid. Therefore, a more important and more relevant question is what I am doing to help those who are currently being repressed? The shameful answer is not much apart from a small monthly donation to Amnesty International* and the odd email to a head of state about a political prisoner. I am not sure what else I can do to be honest - sometimes there seems to be so much injustice in the world, knowing what campaigns to get involved in is difficult - but I do think I have a responsibility to help give a "voice to the voiceless".

One thing I can definitely do is read more books about repressed communities. For example, I do feel rather remiss about the fact I've never really read a book about the effect of the British empire on the nations it conquered. Therefore, I've added Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe to my "to read" list. Not sure if I will get round to reading it, but I definitely think I should read something about the damaging consequences of my country thinking it had the right to rule the waves. After all, I benefit from living in a prosperous country so I really ought to understand the negative consequences of what it did to become that prosperous.

* = I am aware that Amnesty, controversially didn't fight for Mandela's freedom because they did not consider him to be a prisoner of conscience, but that doesn't mean they don't do good work.

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