By Deji Olukotun, Freedom to Write Fellow at PEN American Center
Over the month of September, PEN invited authors and poets from the literary community to write essays on banned books. Staying true to the spirit of Banned Books Week, we placed no restrictions on the contributions other than a word count (which people broke anyway) and a deadline (which most people met.) PEN staff members were encouraged to write as well, and each of the 18 essays that we received was illuminating and educational. Poets wrote about novels and novelists wrote about poetry.
We also featured an “insider”: children’s book author Robie Harris highlighted some of the challenges of being the writer of a banned book. “So why do I keep on writing even though some of my books have been banned?” Harris wrote. “My answer is that children, even our very young children, do not live in bubbles. They live in the real world. They observe, think, wonder, and question—just as all of us do.”
The process was rewarding for PEN staff, who shared some remarkable personal adventures. Larry Siems, for example, recalled his first encounter with Allen Ginsburg as an undergraduate, when Ginsburg plucked a haiku from a passing sign on the highway.
Each essay forced the author to re-engage with the text and identify its controversial passages—not an easy task for works that were sometimes a century old. Here is John Oakes, the publisher of O/R books, on the salacious relationship in Lady Chatterley’s lover: “[T]his partnership—for that is what it is, unlike the vassal/lord relationship between her and her husband—is sustained, and triumphs in the end, is unbearable for those who like their marriages traditional, their women meek, and their ruling class upheld.”
Next year, PEN aims to repeat this project and commission an entirely new set of essays—when hopefully the list of banned books will have grown shorter.
Click here for the full collection PEN’s essays.
Follow Deji Olukotun on Twitter @dejiridoo.