As feminist book lovers there is nothing quite so disturbing as the thought of precious works being censored, banned or even burnt. Yet, while we clutch our precious hardbacks in horror, we must recognise that so many of our much-loved classics have had to stubbornly overcome struggles in order to win the fight for freedom of speech.
It seems odd to suggest that such an onerous crime against literature and freedom of speech can in fact served a purpose. But, the banning of a book can lend the opportunity to unroot the start of a movement. The change to light a spark so desperately needed, a time to question and stand up.
Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness was banned on the 16th November under The Obscene Publications Act of 1857.
The novel is centred around the bildungsroman of Stephen Gordon, born into a wealthy noble family, and yet different to her female companions as a result of what Hall labels as sexual inversion. Exploration of sexual inversion and lesbianism during this period was most commonly discussed in scientific fields. Having taken inspiration from the ideas of sexologists Richard von Krafft-Ebbing and Havelock Ellis, Hall pushed ideas that were previously only welcomed in scientific fields: the notion that homosexuality is an inborn and unalterable trait. No longer limited to scientific research, Hall had forced these ideas into the public sphere, for the very first time grabbing the attention of everyday people.
Editor of The Sunday Times, James Douglas led the campaign against the novel from the perspective of a staunch moralist. His outrage at what he saw as degenerate and unnatural behaviour went as far as deeming it to be a form of leprosy. Despite the support of literary figures such as Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster at the trial, any remaining copies of Hall’s novel were ordered to be destroyed.
In writing the novel Hall very much focused on putting her ‘pen at the service of some of the most misunderstood people in the world’. While Hall identified as a lesbian, she by no means identified as an expert. In making this distinction, and through the trial’s publicity, Hall opened up an opportunity for a community to start re-defining itself.
While modern day understanding of homosexuality has greatly shifted from Hall’s initial ideas, it is undeniable that she used her heightened publicity to help pave the way for those who now identify as lesbian to continue to critique and re-design the way in which we characterise sexual orientation.
The fight against banned books still remains rooted in our present; how we choose to react, and whether we choose to mobilise, counts as much.
Elif Shafak has published seventeen works, eleven of which are fiction. Her novels centre around her activism, and as a Turkish writer she takes great responsibility in holding a mirror to Turkish society and their authorities. Despite her latest novel, Ten Minutes and 38 Seconds in This Strange World being one of six books shortlisted for The 2019 Booker Prize, she still finds herself under immense scrutiny and pressure from the Turkish government.
Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul was her second novel written in English. She daringly chose to directly address Turkish responsibility for the atrocities of The Armenian Genocide. Following
publication, Shafak was prosecuted for “insulting Turkishness”, and faced up to three years in jail for discussing the genocide which Turkey persistently denies.
In 2019, following the publication of Ten Minutes and 38 Seconds in This Strange World, Shafak found herself once again caught up in an investigation. This time, the Turkish police found fault in her very real exploration of child abuse and sexual violence.
Elif Shafak article for The Guardian details her fightback against Turkish censorship, detailing her fightback towards Turkey’s war on freedom of speech. She notes how since an attempted coup in 2016, a total 29 publishing houses have been closed down and 135,000 books have been banned from public libraries.
She talks of how ‘anti-intellectualism goes hand in hand with anti-feminism’. She notes how for a fifth year in a row Istanbul’s Pride Events have been cancelled, and specifically recognises the danger freedom of speech faces if women are encouraged to revert back to more submissively traditional roles.
As intersectional feminists it is our role, no, it is more our duty, to stand up for the liberation and freedom of speech of those around the world. The banning of books is more than a tragedy. We must recognise it as a powerful wake up call. A time in which we must step out of our bubble of privilege and directly address the global clause that need our support most
Written by Issie Levin