Traversing the Forbidden: A Journey Through Prohibited Literatures

Banned literature offers us the opportunity to gain valuable insight, no matter how controversial.

For literature lovers, it is no secret that a great deal of our favorite titles have been—or still are—banned from the public. In this following essay by Anna Wang, Graphic Designer at Asymptote, she takes us around the multifarious and wide-ranging cartography of vital, yet blacklisted, titles from around the globe, from a novella that metaphorically depicts the persecuted Uyghurs of China, to an infamous work of revolutionary author Boris Pasternak. In realizing the context and culture in which these pertinent titles arose, we may in turn acknowledge both the price, and the power, of the truth.

In a speech given by Ralph Waldo Emerson entitled “The American Scholar,” Emerson gave both praise and warning to the power of literature, stating: “Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst.” Emerson was right. Books have the ability to persuade, influence, and inspire—an ability which many have found threatening. Time and time again, figures of authority have attempted to reign in or block out literature that challenges their agenda. In celebration of banned literature in the history of world literature, let’s take a look at some of the most impactful banned texts throughout time, why they were banned, and what we can learn from them. 

Wild Pigeon, by Nurmuhemmet Yasin 

Wild Pigeon is a novella originally published in Uyghur between the pages of the 2004 Kashgar Literature Magazine. Written by a young freelance writer, Nurmuhemmet Yasin, it quickly gained widespread acclaim among the Uyghur people in China. The work, written in Uyghur, is a political allegory that tells the story of a young pigeon who is the son of a dead king. While he is looking for a new home, he is trapped by a group of humans. His struggle for freedom and his eventual shocking decision has been interpreted by many as a criticism of the Chinese government for its treatment of its Uyghur population. 

The Uyghurs are a minority Turkic ethnic group of Muslim faith, originally from the general region of Central and East Asia. Today, they are native to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China, where they face persecution along with other Muslim minorities including the Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kyrgyz, and the Hui. In recent years, the Chinese government has invested in sophisticated surveillance technology and a greater police force, all of which have led to the arbitrary arrests and imprisonments of the Uyghur people. It is estimated that about one million Uyghurs have been detained in what China refers to as “vocational training centers.” However, human rights concerns have been raised amidst recent reports of deaths in custody and forced labor within these centers.

Shortly after Wild Pigeon gained popularity amongst minority groups in China, Yasin was detained by authorities on account of the novella’s allegorical portrayal of a group deeply unhappy with life under Chinese rule. He was then sentenced to ten years in prison for “inciting Uyghur separatism” through his work. The government has since banned the book in the country.

Nurmehemmet Yasin’s incredible bravery and the message of his novella is valuable in so many ways; it represents a courageous fight for freedom and expression in a society of persecution, discrimination, and oppression. Literature has the ability to shine light on current events, politics, and society, and Yasin’s powerful statement is sure to inspire audiences around the world. 

Read Wild Pigeon here.

The Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio 

We travel back in time to 1353 to the completion of The Decameron, a collection of related novellas by Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio. Originally transcribed in Italian, the novellas in the collection touch upon the various themes of satire, sexuality, romance, philosophy, and tragedy. The Decameron features stories from characters who have all gathered in a secluded part of Florence in hopes of escaping the Black Death ravaging the city. The book has been a source of controversy around the globe, even for centuries after its original publication. Today, it is heralded as a masterpiece of the Dark Ages. 

The first “ban” of The Decameron occurred in Rome, around the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th. Gutenberg’s printing press had been invented by 1450, and despite the fact that it came a century after the book was written, the invention allowed for more widespread circulation than was previously possible. Greater access to literature meant a greater intellectual curiosity among the general public, which in turn intensified the Italian Renaissance and gave rise to the Northern Renaissance. Inevitably, the intellectual culture in Europe brought criticism to the Catholic Church.

The “ban” was not a straight-forward suppression of the book, but instead a tampering of its contents. The Church found the eroticism obscene and immoral, but recognized that banning the book and destroying such a well-known and widely circulated text would be virtually impossible. However, faced with the Reformation, they were still desperate to secure their power and prevent anything that might pose a challenge to their values. So, in the early 1570s, a team of clerical scholars in Florence went about amending and editing the text. The claimed that their edits had only enhanced The Decameron and provided readers a truer version of Boccaccio’s words. In reality, it was a blatant form of censorship. 

Nearly five centuries later, The Decameron fell under further scrutiny, this time by the United States Congress, who had passed the Comstock Act of 1873, making it illegal to send any “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” material through the mail. The law was created with the intention to suppress birth control, but inadvertently led to the banning of classic books such as The Decameron

No doubt, The Decameron has gone through a long and arduous struggle throughout the years, yet it managed to sustain a great influence on the literary world. It inspired Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, and invented the “frame story” structure, which describes a story that is told within a story. This structure is now widely studied as a model for literary prose, and today is best recognized through Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Last but not least, The Decameron is a valuable historical account of life during the Middle Ages. Centered around the Black Death, historians are able to use the book as a window into Italian life. 

The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka 

The Metamorphosis, the famed 1915 novella by Franz Kafka, was published originally in German and tells the bizarre, surrealist story of salesman Gregor Samsa, who suddenly finds himself transformed into a giant bug one morning. As readers follow Gregor’s perilous and tragic attempt to adjust to these new circumstances, the book slowly reveals itself as a criticism of Marxist ideology. The book was quickly banned in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia for being politically incendiary. During the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, a period of political liberalization and mass protest post World War II, Kafka’s work experienced a resurgence of interest before the Russians quickly crushed the democratic spirit in the city. 

Marxist ideology originates from 19th century German philosopher, Karl Marx. According to his theory, class conflicts arise in a capitalist society due to contradiction between the interests of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Thus, wealth distribution and intense government oversight is necessary to eradicate tensions between class. Marxism, along with Lenism, were the primary ideologies that spurred the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The Metamorphosis, a strange fairy-tale at first glance, is a shockingly profound political commentary at closer inspection. 

First, Kafka implies that in a Marxist society, mindless labor encapsulates every aspect of life. When Gregor awakens and discovers that he has transformed into a bug, his primary matter of concern is that he is late to work. When his boss confronts him at his home, he shows no concern for Gregor’s situation, and instead berates him for being an inadequate employee. In this society, work seems to be all that matters, and even in the midst of a terrifying, supernatural, life changing event, work still takes precedence. 

Then, as the story progresses, readers watch in shock as Gregor, now unable to provide financially for his family, is shunned and abused by those who one would expect to care for him. Again, Kafka uses this scenario to critique the way that Marxist society breaks down the family bond to the point that money is the only measure of someone’s importance. 

The Metamorphosis is a book that can be read through many other lenses, feminist or psychoanalytical, to name a few. Kafka’s commentary discusses important social and political issues that are still very much prevalent in today’s world, and there is much we can learn from it. This book holds a mirror up to our society and makes us re-evaluate disturbing societal norms that we have come to accept as fact. The Metamorphosis, alongside contemporaries such as Animal Farm and 1984, provide a literary warning for what can go wrong when power is bestowed upon the wrong people. 

Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak

Doctor Zhivago is a Russian novel first published in Italy in 1957. The story follows protagonist Yuri Zhivago and his life in the years between the Russian Revolution of 1905 and World War II. Doctor Zhivago is an oddity of our list, because the original reason for the ban of the book was not due to its contents, but rather the political beliefs of its author. 

During World War I, Pasternack worked at a chemical factory in the Ural Mountains of Russia. Due to a leg injury, he was not required to serve in the army. Despite being horrified by the brutality and violence, he supported the October Revolution, a coup led by Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin. In the 1920s, Pasternak began to explore the meaning and implications of the Revolution through his writing, and turned to historical and philosophical problems. Due to his independent-minded stance on the Revolution, Doctor Zhivago was rejected for publication in the USSR. The manuscript was only published after being secretly smuggled to Italy. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, a source of anger for the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, who forced him to decline the prize. 

Even more interesting, the American CIA used Doctor Zhivago as a tool in the Cold War. A now released CIA memo to all branch chiefs of the agency’s Soviet Russia Division states, “not only for its intrinsic message and thought-provoking nature, but also for the circumstances of its publication: we have the opportunity to make Soviet citizens wonder what is wrong with their government, when a fine literary work by the man acknowledged to be the greatest living Russian writer is not even available in his own country in his own language for his own people to read.” The memo was part of a plan that helped deliver the book to Soviet citizens, allowing it to circulate across Russia.

Not only does Doctor Zhivago offer a window into the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union, but its story also offers valuable life lessons in love, family, and philosophy. 

In summation: as demonstrated by these titles, books are incredibly influential tools to enact social, political, or personal change, and thus, may be deemed threatening to governments or authorities. However, as these aforementioned books prove, banned literature may offer us the opportunity to gain valuable insight, no matter how controversial. As writers often act as pioneers of progress, the facing of uncomfortable topics is to bear witness, arise in protest, and teach us lessons about literature, about society, and about ourselves.

Anna Wang joined Asymptote in April of 2019 as a Graphic Designer. In 2018, she received 1st Place in the Annual Sinclair Creative Writing Contest. Currently, she is building her own online consulting agency, which plans to launch in 2020. In her free time, she loves to read, paint, and listen to music.


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