Sunday, August 4, 2013

What Ails Kenyan Literature (Part 5) - Censorship

‘I write what I like.’ – Steve Biko

‘Could I, like Malcolm X, use my pen to stab at social injustice?
They kill outspoken writers, don’t they?
Look at what happened to Stokeley Carmichael, Ken Saro-Wiwa…’
- Alexander Nderitu, ‘The Golden Man’ (poem), The Moon is Made of Green Cheese

Author harassment and censorship have been monsters, especially in the past, precipitating the self-exile of such literary luminaries as Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Micere Mugo (The Trial of Dedan Kimathi). No stranger to controversy, Ngugi wa Thiong’o was once arrested and detained without trial for his perceived criticism of the then government. He wrote the book, Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary on toilet paper while in a maximum security prison. Humourist Wahome Mutahi, a novelist and long-time columnist, was also summarily arrested during the Moi regime and taken to the infamous torture chambers. In one of his ‘Whispers’ columns, he amusingly recounts an incident (fictional?) in a bar in which he splashes alcohol onto a portrait of then president Daniel Moi and then wipes it off but is later accosted by government agents. Upon his release from detention, Wahome Mutahi wrote Three Days on the Cross describing a man being
hellishly tortured. According to a book review in Newsweek magazine, Mutahi’s mother became ill after learning of the novel’s contents.

Incidents such as these served to discourage aspiring writers, including journalists. When I was a teenager and already on my way to being an author, my motherly next-door neighbour warned me: ‘Don’t write politics – you’ll be arrested.’ Political publications, especially books and magazines, have always been the target of censorship in this country. In 1986, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s political novel, Matigari ma Njirungi, published by Heinemann, reportedly sold 1,000 copies in less than a week but was banned by the government.

In 1998, the Kenyan government banned 30 books and publications for ‘sedition and immorality’, including The Quotations of Chairman Mao and Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.

In the mid-2000’s, a lobby group called Parents Caucus (operating under the Catholic Church in Kenya) pushed for the withdrawal of three novels from the school syllabus. The offensive books were A Man of the People (a political satire by Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe) and Kiu and Kitumbua Kimeingia Mchanga (Kiswahili books by Zanzibar’s S. A Mohammed). The lobby group called for the banning of the three books on the grounds that they were ‘morally objectionable’ and ‘pornographic’. It is important to note that A Man of the People is one of Africa’s best-read novels and had never stirred such controversy before. As a matter of fact, both A Man of the People and Kiu had been set-books for Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education Examinations (KCSE), in the 1970’s and 1980’s respectively, without any uproar. Writers, literary critics, thespians and a large section of the populace immediately railed against the impending ban, saying it was reminiscent of KANU-era censorship when Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s books were banned. Seeing as how the Catholic Church was at the forefront of the censorship crusade, people writing in to newspaper editors and on the Internet wondered aloud if the concerned clergymen had ever read The Bible and if they had, why they hadn’t recommended the censorship of its numerous sexual references and descriptions. The Bible, after all, not only contains sexual encounters (including sodomy, incest, adultery and rape) but also incidents of fratricide, homicide, genocide, infanticide, human sacrifice, slavery, famine, plagues, a global flood and a climax (The Book of Revelation) that reads like the script of a Star Wars movie. Not to be distracted by petty things like facts, the lobby group made it clear that they did not think that Achebe was ‘a man of the people’ and they were ‘no longer at ease’ with his works. To prove that there were more moralists in Nairobi than the ‘anthills of the savannah’, they got two thousand parents to sign a protest note titled ‘Help Kick Pornography Out of the Classroom.’ Their mission, apparently, was to make sure ‘things fall apart’ for would-be pornographers.

My personal reaction to this controversy was to roll with laughter at the thought of Chinua
Achebe as a pornographer. I wonder what those lobbyists would think of David Maillu’s After 4.30 or, better still, Xaviera’s sex novels. The literary equivalent of hardcore porn films, Xaviera’s internationally bestselling books (The Happy Hooker, The Best Part of a Man, The Golden Phallus of Osiris etc) are filled with minute descriptions of sexual escapades. Xaviera’s sexual tales were drawn from her own experiences and The Happy Hooker (which was turned into a film) is her autobiography. Her books are published by Grafton Books and have sold from London to New Zealand. Compared to Xaviera, Hollywood chronicler Jackie Collins looks like Mother Teresa.

Moving on swiftly, the issue of censorship is a universal, not a Kenyan, one. Since historical times, many popular books have been censored for touching on the taboo subjects of the day (sex, politics, religion etc). Classics that were censored include Mark Twains’ The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, George Orwell’s 12.8 million-copy bestseller 1984, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Anne Franks’ now-legendary The Diary of Anne Frank, Nobel laureate John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and J.D. Salinger’s ultra-famous The Catcher in the Rye.

Some books like The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence by Victor Marchetti, a former CIA official, were censored even before they were written! In 1980, the US Supreme Court upheld an injunction against another former CIA officer, Frank Snepp, concerning a book Snepp had written criticizing the spy agency’s handling of Vietnamese intelligence aides. The Supreme Court ordered the author to turn over his profits from the book, Decent Interval, to the government.

Certain books were threatened with lawsuits even before publication. These include Two of a Kind: The Hillside Stranglers and biographies of J. F. Kennedy, Earnest Hemingway, Frank Sinatra, Errol Flynn, Katherine Graham and Claus von Bülow. According to Suing the Press by Rodney Smolla, more and more books are being censored because of the threat of a libel suit. It will be recalled that, in 2000, then-powerful Kenyan Cabinet Minister Nicholas Biwott won a ten million-shilling libel suit against sellers of a book on the Robert Ouko murder mystery (Dr. Ian’s Casebook) that negatively mentioned his name. Bookpoint and Bookshop agreed to pay Biwott five million Kenya shillings apiece and apologize through the print media. The same year, Biwott successfully sued The People Daily newspaper (over an unflattering article) and then Githunguri Member of Parliament, Njehu Gatabaki, for publishing an article (on the multi-billion Turkwell Hydro-Electric Power project) that adversely mentioned his name.

Abroad, some popular books were banned and then un-banned.These include Wilbur Smith’s The Golden Fox (banned on grounds of racism) and Ian Fleming’s State of Excitement. It took court action before certain books, like Erskine Calwell’s God’s Little Acre and Irish poet/novelist James Joyce’s Ulysses, could be sold in the US (both due to sexually explicit language). Interestingly, when, at the end of the last millennium  a group of American publishers got together to decide which was the greatest novel of the 20th century, James Joyce’s Ulysses was #1!

When I wrote When the Whirlwind Passes,it originally had four brief sex scenes (It is, after all, about a beautiful girl who sleeps her wicked way to wealth and glamour). When a brick-and-mortar publisher asked to see the manuscript, I deleted the sex scenes. I wasn't ashamed of them. Far from it – I think writers should have a lot more latitude in what they write. Topics like sex, religion and politics should not be ‘off limits’, because they are an important part of life. The father of modern psychology, Sigmund Freud (Totem & Taboo), theorized that ancient man came up with taboos in order to control others (especially women). Some taboos made no sense eg. In some communities, there were parts of a slaughtered animal that were reserved for men and others for women. Curiously, the men got the best parts! The reason I self-censored When the When the Whirlwind Passes was because the interested publisher deals mainly in textbooks and I didn’t want them to think that I write ‘sex novels’.

Hopefully, one day all writers will be like Steve Biko and just write what they like. Until then, the best option might be the Danielle Steel approach. Despite being a romance novelist, Danielle Steel’s books have no sex scenes. Her argument: ‘I think it’s sexier to shut the door in people’s faces.’

As of now, there are many holier-than-thou critics just waiting to nit-pick on your sensational novel. It makes them feel less guilty about their own lifelong transgressions – ask Sigmund Freud.