Although book censorship has been around for a long time, it has been on the rise in the United States lately. The removal of over 400 books in a school in Texas, following a request from a Republican lawmaker to review the content of 850 books, made rounds in the book world. Last year, Texas governor Greg Abbott also called for censorship of school library books, even calling them “pornography.”
From June to December 2021 alone, there were 155 recorded book censorship attempts in U.S. libraries. Even then, that’s only the number of cases directly reported to the American Library Association, so the actual number is likely much higher.
But like the COVID-19 virus, literary censorship is not only a problem in America — it’s also happening in other parts of the world.
Book Censorship in Asia
China and Hong Kong
In China, it is known fact that materials, includes books, that criticize the Chinese Communist Party are always banned. Beijing, the seat of the Chinese government, has been doing massive censorship of media for decades. When it comes to books, the censorship in modern China is proactive rather than reactive. Before a book’s publication, the content is vetted. In fact, there’s a list of words that publishers need to avoid. According to the non-profit organization Organization for World Peace:
“This list includes any mention of so-called political incidents, including pro-democracy protests, independence movements or the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests along with ‘anything relating to Chinese political icons in recent history.’ Any book that breaks these strict rules will be subject to ‘prohibition’ by the CPD [Communist Party’s Central Publicity Department].”
Said directive is independent of other censorship policies concerning “sensitive” topics such as religion, sexual objects, and Chinese locations.
When China passed the controversial security law in 2020, many have protested in neighboring Hong Kong, China’s independent territory. In a way, the CCP’s influence even extended to the city-state.
During the Hong Kong Book Fair last year, many booksellers practiced self-censorship to skirt the security law; they reduced the number of books that might be deemed as “politically sensitive” in their catalogs. One publisher, speaking to The New York Times, said that every vendor would look at the books they bring to the fair to avoid causing trouble.
In nearby Singapore, a book on censorship of political cartoons was blocked from publication in November 2020 for having “offensive images that denigrate religions.” The book in question has satirical cartoons that appeared in the French magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2006, which provoked deadly attacks from terrorist Islamic groups in France in 2015.
In 2007, however, a French court had already ruled in favor of Charlie Hebdo, throwing out cases filed by Islamic groups that accused the publication of inciting “hatred against Muslims.”
In the Philippines, meanwhile, a government agency issued a memorandum to universities and colleges in October 2021 to remove “subversive materials” from libraries and online services. The country has an enduring problem with insurgency groups, and many have equated any form of student-led activism as terrorism.
According to the government agency, the materials they want removed are “literatures, references, publications, resources, and items that contain pervasive ideologies of the Communist-Terrorist Groups,” implying that they might “radicalize the mind” of Filipino citizens. This was met with criticism by local rights groups, and was likened to censorship during the Martial Law in the ’80s.
In Myanmar, which was seized by the military junta and where violent protests occurred last year, there’s also a different kind of censorship taking place. Poets are being jailed, and some were even murdered. Because the local poets write to criticize the dictatorial rule of the junta, they are being hunted, according to a New York Times report.
The Middle East
Moving to Western Asia, Saudi Arabia has allowed to exhibit traditionally banned books at the Riyadh International Book Fair in October last year.
The Middle East and the rest of the Arab world, especially Saudi Arabia, are known to be ultraconservative. And since the Saudi government doesn’t want “taboo subjects” that are “considered un-Islamic,” a large-scale censorship that affects art is prevalent. Aside from internet restriction, films, books, or anything that might break stringent laws don’t see the light of day.
At this festival, however, there were books about Sufism and Atheism, according to one resident. There were also books from western male writers like Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and George Orwell, which may have been once considered “taboo”: Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky for their “realism and bias against the working class and the poor” and Orwell for his political novels on dictatorship. In an ideal world, their books shouldn’t have been banned in the first place, considering their significant themes about freedom and society. Unfortunately, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a known human rights violator, had other opinions.
Despite the surprising news, the lifting of the ban is just a drop in the bucket as the Middle East may not actually doing better in terms of literary censorship. The Riyadh International Book Fair banned hundreds of books in 2014, and just last year, many publishers still practiced self-censorship. The two rare cases aforementioned are only according to the information that I was able to find available in English. We don’t know what’s being hidden or banned from the media altogether, making it hard to get a full picture.
Book Censorship in Africa
In the neighboring continent of Africa, massive literary censorship of anti-Apartheid books was widespread until the ’90s in South Africa. This was the period in which Black people were heavily oppressed due to racial segregation. I wasn’t able to find recent African book banning news available in English, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.
Book Censorship in Europe
Europe is no stranger to literary censorship. From Protestant Reformation and Spanish Inquisition, to Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, Europe’s book bannings and burnings span over millennia.
And it looks like the censorship hasn’t come to an end yet.
In June 2021, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban passed the controversial anti-LGBTQ law. But even before that, attacks against the LGBTQ community were already rising. In 2020, Meseorszag mindenkie (or A Fairy Tale for Everyone in English), a fairytale retelling anthology featuring LGBTQ characters, was targeted by far-right politicians. In a press conference, one even individually tore the pages of said book and called it “homosexual propaganda,” according to TIME.
In 2021, Reuters reported that bookshops were ordered by the Hungarian government to seal and wrap all books (for people under 18) that promote homosexuality, gender transition, or contain “explicit” portrayals of sexuality before sale. In the same year, a distributor was penalized for a children’s book that includes families with same-sex parents.
Meanwhile, in Italy in 2015, a conservative mayor tried banning LGBTQ-themed books in Venice’s preschool libraries. Fortunately, the local book community came together to thwart his plan, even though the effort only lowered the number of banned books to two. Said mayor, who once banned Gay Pride parades, still holds the same office.
And don’t let me even start with Russia, which is plagued with various forms of censorship, echoing its Soviet past. From 2010 onwards, Russia censored an LGBTQ-themed children’s book and banned a religious title, among other things. Beginning in 2014, books with swear words would also have to be sealed and marked with “obscenity” warnings before putting on shelves.
These cases are not, of course, a definitive recount of the country’s literary censorship. With Putin running unchecked for decades, it may just be the tip of the iceberg.
Book Censorship in North America
The United States of America’s neighbor to the north also has recent literary censorship.
In Canada, the French school board Conseil scolaire catholique burned about 30 books for “educational purposes” in 2019. The ashes from the books were used as a fertilizer. Over 4,700 books were also pulled off from library shelves of some 30 schools, even destroying them, according to Canada’s The National Post.
In a report by CTV News, the school board said it burned the books because of their “outdated content” and for carrying “negative stereotypes” about several Indigenous groups. However, it was recently found out that one of the people deeply involved in the effort doesn’t have status with Indigenous Services Canada despite claiming that she did. This certainly invites a lot of questions.
All the same, right-wing book banning efforts in Canada are more concerning. For instance, in 2018, there were protests against SOGI 123, a school program that promotes education about sexual orientation and gender identity by providing LGBTQ-inclusive classroom resources to teachers. What’s troubling here is that these Canadian alt-right protesters use a lot of the same anti-LGBTQ rhetoric as their counterparts in the U.S.
Book Censorship in Latin America
In Latin America, another form of censorship arises — not really banning books outright but vilifying the leading book fair in the region.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been attacking the Guadalajara International Book Fair (Feria Internacional del Libro de Guadalajara in Spanish), which is one of the most important book fairs in the Spanish-speaking publishing world. López Obrador went as far as cutting the fair’s budget in the first year in his term. He even once called publishing “elitist,” according to Publishers Weekly.
When the book fair won the Princess of Asturias Award for Communication and Humanities in Spain in 2020, Raúl Padilla López, its president, didn’t mince words:
“The books and in general, the printed word, feed on freedom and at the same time expand it. Political modernity appeared with the press’s freedom, with the right to write and publish without restrictions. Let us defend this fundamental value, all the more so against the populist governments that today threaten our liberal management and put democracy at risk.”
López Obrador, in return, said in one of his infamous mañaneras (conferences) that the previous celebrations of the book fair are “dedicated against us.”
Book Censorship in Oceania
Australia, the biggest country in Oceania, is no different from the other countries in the Anglosphere. One librarian told The Canberra Times that majority of the books banned in the past have something to do with the “idea of women taking charge” to which men find “uncomfortable.” Likewise, majority of the challenges, according to them, came from parents and religious groups.
At present, there are still quite a few books banned in the Land Down Under. This includes one about euthanasia, which is illegal in some states and territories, and another one that may pose a danger to the country’s national security (but is protected by the First Amendment in the U.S.)
In New Zealand, it’s a different story. Literary censorship seems more rigorous than that of its closest neighbor. In 2015, the award-winning young adult book Into the River was banned following a complaint by a conservative Christian group. Anyone who would distribute the book at the time would also be heavily fined. The book’s ban was first for New Zealand after 22 years. Fortunately, it was eventually lifted.
It’s a bit absurd that literary censorship still finds a place in modern society. Looking at the series of book censorships that came about lately, politics seems to be the key driver behind them, like in the case of Mexico.
The majority are also introduced by people from a traditional and/or conservative background. For instance, the outdated “Asian values” are still common in Asia. In the case of the U.S. and some European countries, most book censorships are sponsored by staunch right-wing conservatives who frequently target books by and about LGBTQ and authors of color. Groups like Moms for Liberty, which, among other things, clamors for school book bans; Parents Defending Education, which aims to prevent activists from “imposing harmful agendas” in schools; and No Left Turn in Education, which co-leads anti–critical race theory education, seem to be backed by well-to-do conservatives.
Still, censorship attempts can be challenged in the U.S. Supporting local journalism, acting as a watchdog, and getting deeply involved with community issues, among others, are essential components of an anti-censorship tool kit.
If you’re an ordinary citizen, attend school board and library board meetings to keep abreast of the goings-on in your community. If you’re not familiar with how public libraries work and unaware of the importance of getting involved in your library board, here’s a great piece explaining everything you need to know.
Outside the U.S., there’s also a long way to go. Censorship often goes unopposed in parts of the world where democracy is on shaky ground. Authoritarian governments love to impose censorships to stay in power and continuously oppress those they perceive as “different” and “other.”
But while many find silver lining as book bannings make headlines and push titles on top of bestseller lists, the point seems to be getting lost. What’s going on around the world is not only about books and sales and press coverage. This is not only about the book publishing industry in general. No matter where and how book censorship takes place, it all boils down to democracy and human rights.
Censorship, literary or otherwise, threatens diversity and puts those in the marginalized communities at a disadvantage. The only way to put a nail on its coffin is to actively fight it.
For more book censorship coverage, keep up with Book Riot’s weekly censorship round up.