By Rachel Ireland, Contributor
Banned Books Week (held in the last week of September each year) is a week in which writers and readers celebrate books which have, in the past or surprisingly recently, been deemed inappropriate, taboo, unreadable. Schools, libraries and bookshops often have events and promotions celebrating banned books and kickstarting conversations about censorship and why certain books are banned. For Banned Books Week 2016, Waterstones bookshop in Belfast took part in the celebrations by selling some banned books with a twist, and I, armed with my purse and a few eager friends, had to take a look.
There was a stand full of books wrapped in brown paper with only the ISBN and the reason the book was banned, which made choosing a book very difficult, but all the more exciting. Reasons ranged from “extreme violence” to “critical of the regime”. After much deliberation, I bought a book that was banned because of “sexual politics” which turned out to be This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson, a transgender author mainly known for her YA books. The book is a guide for young people on being LGBT+ and discusses the whole process of identity, coming out and living as an LGBT+ person. The book was published only three years ago in 2014, but was criticised heavily by parents in some American states and was even taken out of some libraries.
It was surprising to find such a recently published book could be banned, but remembering how recently the blood ban, or the ban on gay marriage was overturned, suddenly it didn’t seem so strange. This Book is Gay focuses on the lack of sex education provided on LGBT+ issues, including safer sex, but parents in Alaska referred to it as “borderline pedophilia” and requested that it be taken off shelves. In response, Dawson said that while she has “always thought it’d be quite rock’n’roll to be a ‘challenged book’, actually it’s just left a bitter taste”. (From The Guardian ‘James Dawson criticises parents who attacked his LGBT guide for children’).
It is important to question why books are banned, to talk about the reasons why and to think critically about censorship. Banned Books Week is a starting point for these conversations, and I’d encourage everyone to pick up a banned book and start learning. When we think of banned books, our minds often jump to the most obvious titles such as George Orwell’s 1984 or the ever infamous Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov as books that are explicit and deliberately subversive, but this is not always the case. For example, seemingly harmless books such as Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are widely available in bookstores across the globe now, but the books were banned for portrayal of early Marxism and anthropomorphising animals respectively.
Books are banned for a variety of reasons and in nearly every country at some point. D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s lover was banned in the UK until the 1960s, for example, and many books are still banned in China, Russia or North Korea. Banned books represent the fears and anxieties of the cultures in which they were/are banned, meaning it is important to contextualise them, but not excuse the problematic reasons for banning them. The main thing we can learn from events like Banned Books Week is to keep asking questions, keep having conversations about “taboo” issues and, most importantly, keep reading!