Defying Suppression, One Word at a Time: St Andrews’ Banned Literature Night

Source: Flickr

On the crisp,late-autumn evening of Tuesday 13th November, students gathered in the cosy, lively atmosphere of Aikman’s to listen to and share personal and universal stories condemned to silence around the world. Co-hosted by Amnesty St Andrews, Protocol Magazine and Inklight, the event celebrated banned literature on the theme of forbidden love, countering the tendency to suppress LGBT topics in poetry and prose through the spoken word. The Banned Literature Night raised vital funds for the UK Lesbian & Gay Immigration Group.

Though the mulled wine flowed freely between bottle and glass, the theme of the evening was a sobering one. Scattered across tables and chairs were numerous examples of banned literature, from the explicitly controversial, such as The Catcher in the Rye and The Handmaid’s Tale to the seemingly innocuous, including Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Each have been banned from different countries across the world in recent history, outlawed for their potential to promote ‘undesirable’ ideas of various kinds to readers. For instance, in 1999, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was banned in the Australia, Canada, and parts of the U.S., primarily because its focus on fantasy, magic and witchcraft was deemed too violent, and a threat to Christian values. But the specific focus of the event was on the theme of forbidden love, particularly in the context of the LGBT community.

The main part of the evening constituted a number of highly thought-provoking, moving readings from a variety of texts on the theme of forbidden LGBT love throughout the world. The readers took us seamlessly across the continents, from Europe and the U.S. to the Middle East, and across to Africa. Writing on the Wall, a poem from Nigeria, was a striking representation of the suppression of LGBT rights and freedoms in a strictly religious country where homosexuality remains illegal and is punishable by imprisonment.

Listening to a reader during the Banned Literature Night in Aikman’s. Source: Amnesty St Andrews

Perhaps the most moving moment of the evening was when speakers chose to read aloud unpublished poetry written by friends about their own experiences of being forced to suppress their sexual orientation for the sake of convention. Both from India, the first poem, Who will take care of you in your old age? expressed a cynical view of modern love and its material and practical focus, which the poet believes detracts from the blossoming of true and genuine romance, in whatever form that may take. Take Me to Church was an incredibly powerful expression of a young Indian woman’s struggle to reconcile her sexuality and the astutely religious nature of her home country. ‘In the beginning was the Word’, she writes, ‘and the Word was love’. Such phrases attest to her own ability to accommodate her sexuality in the context of her personal faith, further highlighting her deep frustrations at the refusal of organised religion to do so. Though the legalisation of sexuality in India in September 2018 has been a late but crucial step forwards, ‘legal’ and ‘acceptable’ are by no means synonymous; legislation marks progress, but cannot be taken as a magic bullet for centuries of entrenched cultural prejudices.

Closer to home, the readings included some historic examples of literature banned in Europe during the 20th century. The Man Condemned to Death by the French writer Jean Genet reflected upon his own experiences of being homosexual, including his imprisonment and life as a vagabond and prostitute in the 1920s. The enforced suppression of his sexuality caused him to experience periods of depression and even drove him to attempt suicide. The fact that suicide is currently the leading cause of death amongst LGBT students, with around 45% having considered suicide, is a stark demonstration that, despite the many years that have passed, these issues have far from disappeared.

Across in Spain, Federico García Lorca’s poem The Little Mute Boy, about a ‘little boy… looking for his voice’ encapsulated the spirit of the evening by tying many themes together in a few short stanzas. It explores the struggle for a child to have his voice heard and, in doing so, touches not only upon the general suppression of freedom of speech in violently nationalist 1930s Spain, but could also be interpreted as an expression of Lorca’s little-known homosexuality. Though his assassination in 1936 by nationalist militia may have silenced him in the prime of his literary career, it was, by then, far too late; he had long since found the voice he’d been searching for.

It would be easy to equate the banning of literature with distant, developing countries or times long since past, when ‘things were different’. Geographical and historical distance can shield against emotions, but when the issues are so current and raw, it is impossible to shy away. Another striking element of the evening was the amount of LGBT literature banned in the U.S. and other ‘westernised’ countries to this day. The reading of Walt Whitman’s A Glimpse, about the quiet contentment of two male lovers, highlights the inherent contradictions embedded within the attitudes of American society. Whitman’s most famous collection of poetry, Leaves of Grass, was banned in the 1880s, with its sensual and homoerotic nature being dubbed as the equivalent of Whitman ‘walking naked through the streets’. Yet, despite these attitudes, Whitman is honoured in the U.S. today as a national literary icon.

Such acts as naming bridges, roads and schools after the iconic homosexual writer may give one the mistaken impression that American attitudes towards homosexuality have changed. However, whilst much progress has undoubtedly been made in the century since then, prejudices towards LGBT literature remain. Just last year, featuring in the top ten of the banned literature list was Tango Makes Three, a short story based on the true events of two male penguins falling in love and raising a chick together at Central Park Zoo. The story is frowned upon for promoting an acceptance of ‘unconventional’ family set-ups, particularly given that it is aimed primarily at children. That such prejudices are still harboured in such highly developed nations in the present day serves as a sobering reminder of the serious and widespread nature of contemporary intolerance of difference, and the need to tackle it at its roots.

Although Tango Makes Three is currently being introduced into schools across the U.K. in an attempt to normalise differences in family composition, and prevent the emotional isolation of the children of same-sex couples, the country can justify no moral high ground from which to frown down upon her neighbours. Thatcher’s ‘Section 28’ amendment of the Local Government Act in 1988 declared that local authorities in the U.K. ‘shall not publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality’, or ‘promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretend family relationship’. These measures were nothing short of draconian and, not revoked until 2003, have left in their wake a poisonous legacy of ignorance.

Whilst the censorship of LGBT literature has served as a dominant means through which ‘unconventional’ sexuality has been repressed, it is also the most vital vehicle which can be used to drive out these prejudices. Though one purpose of the literature is to foster a sense of belonging within the LGBT community itself, one does not have to identify as LGBT in order to appreciate the themes explored here. Far from it; literature is designed to place the reader in the context of another’s world, provoking feelings of empathy and tolerance. This is particularly the case since the suppression of love of any kind is a universal theme to which few are unable to relate.

The banned literature night was a moving and memorable evening. Though many readers only put themselves forward on the night, to share whatever they wished to, the geographical diversity of the poetry and prose which emerged was staggering. This is a testament to the fact that, even in an isolated corner of north-eastern Scotland on a chilly November night, the spoken word still resonates just as powerfully as an antidote to the senseless and damaging censorship of literature.

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