To mark Banned Books Week, we are sharing a collection of articles and interviews from Contemporary Literature journal featuring writers whose work has been censored, or who have faced government persecution in response to their writing.
Chinese writer Ha Jin came to the United States to complete doctoral studies in American literature and opted to emigrate permanently following the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. From studying literature, he turned to writing poetry and then fiction, and to date he has published eight novels, seven books of poetry, and four short story collections.
In a New York Times op-ed, published a few days before the twentieth anniversary of Tiananmen Square, he explains his decision to write in English: “if I wrote in Chinese, my audience would be in China and I would therefore have to publish there and be at the mercy of its censorship. To preserve the integrity of my work, I had no choice but to write in English.” He continues, “To some Chinese, my choice of English is a kind of betrayal. But loyalty is a two-way street. I feel I have been betrayed by China, which has suppressed its people and made artistic freedom unavailable. I have tried to write honestly about China and preserve its real history. As a result, most of my work cannot be published in China.”
In this Contemporary Literature interview, conducted by Jerry A. Varsava, Ha Jin discusses growing up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, when books were burned and schools were shuttered, as well as his decision to join the “great [English literary] tradition where nonnative writers [have become] essential writers.”
Read the interview, freely available for the rest of September: “An Interview with Ha Jin”
Niyi Osundare is a Nigerian poet known as “The People’s Poet” for his commitment to making poetry accessible to all and reflective of common life. He uses elements of the Yoruba oral tradition, which he transmits through his English-language writing.
In this 2000 interview with Cynthia Hogue and Nancy Easterlin for Contemporary Literature, Osundare describes the struggle of the artist writing under a dictatorship, summing up the situation with this parable: “once an English writer came to an African colleague and complained about the apparent irrelevance of Western writers. The African then told the Western artist, ‘Well, when we talk in Africa, the government listens, but that is not the end of the story. The government listens in a different way. They put us in jail.’”
But democracy also hampers the artist in certain ways, Osundare finds, having emigrated to the US in 1997. Comparing US literature and African literature, he notes, “Democracy leads to the flowering of free opinions, of public consciousness, and, without this, creativity cannot really take place. But democracy also leads to a kind of complacency which may undermine that dissonance and eliminate that kick in the stomach that is necessary for every creative activity. . . . If our own literature in Africa is too political, then I think the literature of the U.S. is too apolitical.”
Osundare believes in a “golden mean” that writers should strive for. And while Osundare’s work often has political themes, Isidore Diala argues in this Contemporary Literature article that the poet’s work contains a “vibrant and sustained global humanistic vision” that has been overlooked by critics who focus too narrowly on the poems’ Nigeria-specific social and political commentary.
Read the article, freely available for the rest of September: “Burden of the Visionary Artist: Niyi Osundare’s Poetry,” by Isidore Diala
And read the interview on JSTOR: “An Interview with Niyi Osundare”
In 1973, Filipina writer Ninotchka Rosca was imprisoned under the Marcos dictatorship for her antigovernmental journalism. Later, from exile in the U.S., she wrote a short story collection, The Monsoon Collection, and a novel, State of War, about life during the Marcos regime. In the outlines of Rosca’s biography, argues Jini Kim Watson in her article “Stories of the State: Literary Form and Authoritarianism in Ninotchka Rosca’s State of War,” we find that the “repressive, unchecked (usually third-world) dictatorial state is conceived of in inherent opposition to the freedom and free speech of committed writers.” This vision of the relationship between the writer and the authoritarian state is seen, for example, in the literary and humanitarian organization PEN International, which fights for freedom of expression and strives to protect writers from state persecution.
While writers do face very real persecution, Watson argues that it is dangerous to oversimplify the dynamic between writers and the authoritarian state, since this could imply that third-world states are simply “tyrannical and backwards”—a judgment that privileges Western norms of “good” government and ignores the agency of individual citizens. “How might we think about postcolonial state formation and literary form together?” Watson asks. “Can we determine a relationship between them that goes beyond that of simple opposition?” Watson puts these questions to Rosca’s State of War, examining the ways the novel confounds a simplistic view of state tyranny through formal experimentation and a nuanced narrative.
Read the article, freely available for the rest of September: “Stories of the State: Literary Form and Authoritarianism in Ninotchka Rosca’s State of War,” by Jini Kim Watson