Two-hundred years before Christ, the Chinese emperor, Shih Huang Ti, summoned 460 writers to his palace and put them on trial. They were all found guilty and buried alive. Then the emperor gathered one copy of every book that existed and stored it in the Imperial Library and had all other manuscripts destroyed. From then onwards, anyone caught with a book was executed.
This was one of the earliest examples of the persecution of writers and of book banning.
Fast forward a couple of thousand years and not much has changed. Tyrants are still trying to silence writers. If you write negatively about the government in, say, Turkey or China or Egypt, you’ll be locked up or worse. But silencing writers is harder than you’d think.
The Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o famously wrote his novel Devil on the Cross while in prison on state-issued toilet paper because he’d been locked up by his government.
The Egyptian writer and feminist Nawal el Saadawi hid a pen and paper under the floor of her prison cell in Cairo and wrote her book Memoirs from the Women’s Prison there.
Hundreds of memoirs, essays, and novels emerged from Stalin’s gulags and Mao’s reeducation camps. The Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, who Stalin imprisoned, wrote, “you left me my lips and they shape words even in silence.” It’s just really hard to clamp down completely on artistic expression because humans need it and will sacrifice everything for it.
The most famous modern case of the persecution of writers is that of the British novelist Salman Rushdie. In 1988 he published a novel called The Satanic Verses. The novel included a depiction of the prophet Mohamed, the founder of Islam, which didn’t go down well with many Muslims. A year later, the leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwah, a proclamation sentencing Rushdie to death. Rushdie spent the next ten years in hiding. When Khomeini died, Rushdie came out of hiding and lived a normal life. But on August 12, 2022, a religious fanatic attacked him while he was on stage, stabbing him repeatedly.
This type of vicious attack on a writer is extremely rare in the West. We generally don’t lock up our journalists. There are no gulags for naughty novelists.
Here in the U.S., we ban books. Book banning has accelerated rapidly in the U.S. According to PEN America, in the school year 2021-22 books have been banned in over 5000 schools affecting nearly 4 million students. Overwhelmingly, the banned books are about race and racism and LGBTQ issues.
Why do the authorities want to ban books? With dictators, it’s because they fear the truth. They have to maintain the web of lies that keeps them in power, and of course real writers tell the truth. Here in the United States, books and literacy in general have always been terrifying to conservatives, because books contain ideas. Books open your mind, which is exactly the opposite of what conservatives want. There’s a reason slaves weren’t allowed to learn how to read. It’s because when you read, you become aware of alternative ways of thinking. You learn about how the world could be and you learn to dream of another life.
One final thing: writing fiction is the practice of freedom. Fiction can do anything. If you want to suddenly insert a talking rabbit into your story, you can. If you want to put a whole world inside a wardrobe complete with battles, witches, fauns and talking lions, you can. The only limitations are the limitations of the imagination and the limitations of language. This freedom, to me, is something worth celebrating and something worth fighting for.