“Censorship is to art as lynching is to justice.”
-Henry Lois Gates Jr.
Courage Day is celebrated on the 15th November. When I initially saw ‘Courage Day’ on the list of impending key dates, the first thing to pop in my head was the scene from the Return of the King where Sam heaves Frodo up on to his shoulders and staggers up the slopes of Mount Doom towards the exploding crater. Great. Literature is full of courageous deeds. But turns out, Courage Day is really a celebration of courage displayed by those on the other end of the pen – writers who defend the human right to free speech – as well as those who are oppressed, killed or imprisoned for their work. Writing can be a dangerous business indeed.
In fact, Courage Day is the New Zealand term for what is known globally as the ‘International Day of the Imprisoned Writer.’ The New Zealand Society of Authors, which is affiliated to PEN, named the event jointly after James Courage and his grandmother Sarah Courage. Read more about the history of Courage Day on our website. Courage Day is held on the 15th November each year, as has been the case since 1981.
You can read Sarah Courage’s book: Lights and Shadows of Colonial Life.
Whilst many throughout history have turned to writing to express their views (however outrageous), Courage Day honours writers who have been outspoken about social or human rights issues and in doing so have placed their own personal safety or freedom at great risk. Courage Day encourages us to consider the politics surrounding freedom of speech and expression.
Contentious hot topics indeed.
History and current events show us that not all governments support free speech, and across time there have been some hiccups. When we read books by authors who have been penalised for their words, our world is expanded as we become aware of issues, and even atrocities, that we might not otherwise have fully realised. This would not be possible were it not for the fortitude of a very few who would risk their livelihood.
So here is a short list of books and the authors behind them who have been persecuted for expressing their views. Some have been imprisoned, forced into labour, or expelled from their countries and a lucky few have simply had their books burned.
Books by Persecuted Writers
Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago contained criticisms of the Bolshevik party. For this he was threatened with expulsion from the USSR. Due to this unfortunate threat, he turned down a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958.
The Satanic Verses resulted in a fatwa (ruling) being issued against Rushdie for “insulting Islam.” In a horrifying twist, the following occurred. Several bookshops in the UK stocking his book were firebombed; his Japanese translator was assassinated; his Italian translator stabbed (escaped, with injury) and his Norwegian publisher shot (survived, injured). An alarming display of extremism.
Mikhail’s anti-war sentiments manifested in her journalism, poetry, and in her book ‘Diary of a Wave,’ all of which were banned in Iraq. She was warned by authorities that her life would be at risk should she continue publishing anti-war messages, and so she fled Iraq, claiming asylum in the US. The Beekeeper of Sinjar is her latest offering about endurance and hope against the backdrop of ISIS extremism. No doubt the authorities would disapprove.
J.M. Coetzee is a South African author and Nobel laureate whose novels contain anti-apartheid sentiments. His novel In the Heart of the Country was consequently banned in apartheid South Africa.
Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in 1962 for conspiring to overthrow South Africa’s apartheid government. His book Conversations With Myself contains notes and diary entries from his subsequent 27 year stint in prison.
Wild Swans by Jung Chang has been banned in China since its publication in 1991. It details life under the rule of Mao’s Communist party.
Oscar Wilde was imprisoned in the 1890s, after evidence of his homosexuality was brought before the courts. His poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol was written about his experience of prison.
“The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame.”
What exactly are we afraid of? The books that a country decides to ban are less a reflection on the author than on the system or society which banishes them.
Censorship is another contentious issue, and over time many books have been banned for a wealth of reasons. This has happened in New Zealand too. It could be that they challenged the moral or political ideologies of the time, or were considered too outrageous or offensive for public consumption.
Personally, discovering that a book is part of a banned books list merely increases my determination to get my hands on a copy. Like when my parents tried to stop me from reading scary books as a kid. Ha, cause that worked…
Here are some previously banned or restricted books that are now available to borrow at Christchurch City Libraries.
See more banned books on our catalogue.