Crime fiction writer and Executive VP of South African PEN Margie Orford chimes in on censorship and the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference.
Censorship is a recent and painful memory for South Africans. In an event organized for the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiabo, several of the writers invited to read in his honour had been imprisoned for writing things the state did not like and seen their works banned. Many of the books I wished to read as a student at the University of Cape Town were banned. One needed special permission to read certain or you needed to travel to places where knowledge and imagination breathed easier. Being in possession of banned books carried heavy jail penalties.
Many individuals were banned too. This meant they could not be with more than one person at a time. It struck me then how much a repressive state fears its citizens when they talk to each other and when they turn, as a collective, to address the State. The most recent example of this was the power of social media and of crowds during the Arab Spring. The aftermath of the fall of corrupt and authoritarian governments is proving more complex to manage. Attempts to once more police freedom of expression and association – especially for women – in the wake of elections in Egypt and Tunisia, amongst other places have been met with shock and resistance
Censorship means the selective criminalization of thought, of reading, of enquiry, and of association. It is patently bad. It imprisons people, it burns books, and it curtails the political and the personal life of individuals and of nations. Censorship has other pernicious effects. It stifles creativity because it attempts to police the imagination by making people afraid to write, read, talk and think freely. Censorship, authoritarian, hierarchical and usually patriarchal, infantilizes people because the state usurps the individual’s responsibility for deciding what they read, writes, think and say.