In search of banned books

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 18, 2014

Banned books fascinate me, so I recently hunted down some ostracised titles at local libraries and bookstores.

Readers will be pleased to know that recent tomes on some seriously hot-button themes are available for sale here, including The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger, which was recently banned in India. Another is The Evolution Of A Muslim Democrat: The Life Of Malaysia's Anwar Ibrahim by Charles Allers, which is reportedly not being carried by certain chain bookstores in Malaysia.

Banned books and movies fascinate most of us, I imagine. There is the titillating thrill of going against authority, the heart-pounding anticipation of becoming privy to some dirty, exotic secret.

When I look for banned books or movies, it is also because they tell me so much about the societies and regimes up in arms against their content.

The Hindus by Doniger is a 779-page history and, in the author's words, "narrative account" of those marginalised by high-caste Hindu males. Groups represented here include "people of other religions, or cultures, castes or species (animals), or gender (women)". The court case against the book was filed by a Hindu, Mr Dinanath Batra. He cites Doniger's "Christian missionary zeal" in allegedly attacking his religion - she is Jewish - and accuses her of having a "hidden agenda to denigrate Hindus and show their religion in a poor light". As for banning a book in which an opposition figure features prominently, this is a tactic espoused by many political regimes in the hope that their story will be remembered and repeated while other points of view are forgotten.

Such tactics might have worked in previous eras. Today, in the high-tech age, so many people have access to recording and broadcasting devices in their smartphones, so many eyes are potentially watching, recording, commenting and perhaps even acting on events not just in their backyards but also a thousand miles away, that heavy-handed tactics such as bans are silly and counterproductive.

With online shopping and e-bookstores, bans are far more likely to raise the sales of a book and awareness of its message than depress them.

Penguin India fought a four-year legal battle to keep The Hindus on shelves and when it had to concede, it did so with this public statement: "A publishing company has the same obligation as any other organisation to respect the laws of the land in which it operates, however intolerant and restrictive those laws may be."

But after the ban and resulting media blitz, sales soared. As for Doniger, she wrote of The Hindus in a March 5 column for The New York Times: "You cannot ban a book in the age of the Internet. Its sales rank on Amazon has been in single-digit heaven. 'Banned in Boston' is a selling label." At print time, her book was a No. 1 bestseller on Amazon.

Ban a book in China and publishers around the world race to translate the volume into English and sell it internationally. Chan Koonchung's thriller, The Fat Years, available here, achieved cult status only after China banned it in 2009.

Take Fifty Shades Of Grey off library shelves, as the National Library Board did here in 2012, and booksellers let out a resounding hurrah because now everyone wants to read the book to see what all the fuss is about. The book by E.L. James was on The Straits Times bestseller lists for two solid years and is bound to creep back on the lists this year with all the hoo-ha over the movie adaptation - which might eventually end up being banned too in local cinemas, providing another shot in the arm for retailers.

There are books I want so badly to ban. Reading Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is like being throttled by a pervert and I would like to sweep every copy of it off the shelves and scrub my mind clean of the lingering smears left by narrator Humbert Humbert. But it is impossible to forcibly prevent people from reading any book in these times, so it is better to open conversations about the author's themes rather than lock away his books.

That is exactly what Iranian academic Azar Nafisi did, as her literary career and favourite books were restricted by the Ayatollah regime. The result was a mesmerising 2003 memoir about the semi-illegal book club she started, Reading Lolita In Teheran.

I sympathise wholeheartedly with the protagonists of novels-turned-movies such as Markus Zusak's The Book Thief and Japanese series Library Wars by Hiro Arikawa, in which women and men put their lives in danger to preserve, rescue and read books which others seek to destroy.

To discount ideas deemed dangerous, it would be better to keep books in circulation and dialogue. Better yet, call them "classics". D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover was considered obscene and unfit for the public eye until the 1960s in Britain. Today, it is reprinted as a "modern classic" by publisher Penguin Books. Easily available at any bookstore here, it is, I suspect, avoided by the very teen demographic which, in earlier decades, would have panted for a copy.

So Singapore stores carry several books which were banned here years ago and are banned in other countries. But what of the country's own narratives?

Writers and publishers here often tell me that the official ruling-party version of history long drowned out others in literature and non-fiction. Indeed, readers' appetites remain strong for books by Lee Kuan Yew or about him. From last August to January this year, Straits Times Press Books' One Man's View Of The World by Lee Kuan Yew outsold all other best-selling books in that period, fiction or non-fiction, by a factor of five, figures submitted by bookstores showed.

Eyeing the stacks of books around me now, I see an increasing variety of perspectives in local fiction and nonfiction. In January, there was Dissident Voices by Clement Mesenas, brought out by Marshall Cavendish Editions, which featured 10 political figures such as student leader-turned-political exile Tan Wah Piow and dissident lawyer Francis Seow. The same publisher also brought out If I Could Tell You by Lee Jing-Jing last year, a poignant tale of the disorienting loneliness felt by Housing Board dwellers who lose their homes in upgrading exercises widely touted as popular.

Last year, The River's Song by Suchen Christine Lim, published by Aurora Metro, looked at the human cost of cleaning up the Singapore River in the 1970s, rather than considering it solely as a triumph. I am looking forward to Buy My Beloved Country by Lee Chiu San, a novel to be published by Ethos Books next month, which explores the idea of what might happen if Singaporeans were offered unimaginable amounts of money to sell their stake in Singapore.

Some of these books are tear-jerkers, but it makes me happy to read different versions of the Singapore story. It matters that these points of view are being articulated.

I just wonder why Singapore readers are not buying these books at the same rate that they bought the much less well written Fifty Shades Of Grey trilogy. Or must some form of official wrath be incurred before readers pay attention?

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 18, 2014

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