An ode to banned books

Beijing Coma – Ma Jian
In the lead up to the Beijing Olympics, when China was on a global charm offensive, Ma Jian’s book Beijing Coma was published. Through the central character Dai Wei, a protester who was shot in Tiananmen Square and fell into a deep coma, Ma presented the other side of the country, an insecure nation afraid of its past and struggling with its present. Ma stated that he wrote the book “to reclaim history from a totalitarian government whose role is to erase it”. I raced through it, went to several book talks he gave and, given the epic proportions of the novel, even enquired about buying the film rights. They were available but I was told that was because few studios would dare take on a work so confronting. To this day the book remains banned in China and no film of it has yet to be made. We are the worse off for that. Jemimah Steinfeld
Are you there God? It’s me Margaret – Judy Blume
As the only child of an amazing single parent, books were a core feature of my childhood. A trip to the library was a joy and visits to the bookshop were a special treat. Getting lost in the pages of a book every night was my happy place and my favourite author as a teenager was Judy Blume. Blume writes beautifully and takes the reader on a journey of exploration of a teenage mind – helping you realise you aren’t alone in being challenged by new experiences and feelings.  While from an Index perspective I should say that my favourite book was the one most banned – Forever (which I loved), my absolute favourite was actually Are you there God? It’s me Margaret. As the only Jewish kid at my school I related to Margaret’s internal conflict and her personal relationship with G-d. Blume remains a personal heroine and every effort to ban her books confirms why the work of Index on Censorship is so important. Ruth Anderson
Lady Chatterley’s Lover – DH Lawrence
I had to read DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover at school. I hated it. But I did enjoy the ironies that the attempted prosecution of it for “obscenity” totally undermined the state of the obscenity laws at the time and the court case reaffirmed art’s freedom to say pretty much anything it liked, as long as it was judged to be of literary merit (whatever that means). Those who tried to suppress the book only succeeded in fanning the flames of public interest exponentially, beyond who might otherwise have read it without all the hoo-ha and salacious interest whipped up around it. Public interest was the other marker of whether the book should be permitted, so in bringing the prosecution it rather ensured the inevitable failure of the case. The trial has also been highlighted as the start of societal values changing and ushering in the more permissive 1960s. None of this impacted on DH Lawrence, since he’d been dead for 30 years. Publishers had self-censored by holding off publication until Penguin Books took the plunge and British society was probably never the same again. Now, if only a book could have such a societal impact in the 21st century… David Sewell
The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie
The Satanic Verses was the subject of a fatwa issued by the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, which called for the assassination of its author, Salman Rushdie. The novel is Rushdie’s masterpiece: a comic take on the life of Muhammad that also wraps in the British Indian immigrant experience, Bollywood, Sikh separatism and Hinduism. Its ambition is vast and it deserves to be celebrated as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. Its legacy will live well beyond the regime which forced its author into hiding. Martin Bright
Spycatcher –  Peter Wright
I was at university in London when Peter Wright’s Spycatcher was first published and Margaret Thatcher’s government banned it. Wright was a former assistant director of MI5, who was annoyed about the security service’s pension arrangements and decided to blow the whistle over its shadier activities in order to recoup some money for his retirement in Australia. In the 1980s, the workings of the security services were shrouded in secrecy and the book caused huge ripples with its stories of Soviet moles and the then advanced technologies that were being used to spy on Britain’s ‘enemies’. I still remember reading the first chapter and finding out that a nondescript building around the corner from my university department I passed every day was used by MI5 for its covert operations. As the book was not banned in Australia or Scotland, its contents gradually leaked and Thatcher’s government was forced to admit defeat and the book ban was dropped. Mark Stimpson
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
Look on the shelves of certain school districts in Texas, Michigan and Florida and you’ll find an empty space where The Handmaid’s Tale used to be, after book challenges led to its removal. Atwood’s most famous book might have been published in 1985, but it still has the power to scare self-appointed censors today. The graphic novel, too, is just as excellent and just as hated by censors. In the dystopian Gilead patriarchal structures are taken to the absolute extreme. A woman’s body is not her own – she is judged by her capacity for baby-making. Even her vocabulary is closely monitored. But the way this society was created is even more concerning, with events in the novel inspired by real-world happenings. It’s a book worth reading again and again – it hit home differently when I was a wide-eyed student to how it does now that I’m a mother, and still sends the same chill in a 2023 context. Katie Dancey-Downs
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
Harper Lee’s classic 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird explores complex themes of race, justice, and humanity, bringing a degree of warmth to heavy subject matter by using the perspective of child protagonist Scout Finch to invoke a sense of innocence, even while tackling difficult topics. Although the book is considered a modern classic, it has been subject to bans and challenges due to its use of profanity, racial slurs, and adult themes. The language and subject matter may make it an uncomfortable read for some, but the overriding message of tolerance and morality is both important and necessary. Daisy Ruddock
Animal Farm – George Orwell
There’s always a book you read that, when you reflect back on, has made an impression on your whole life. For me it was Animal Farm by George Orwell. I first read the book as a teenager and it made me think about the meaning behind the role of governments and the issues of right and wrong, greed and the corruption of power. When I watched the world news and saw the power and restrictions that states placed on their citizens, a book published in 1945 showed me how the world turns and how little change there can be without true democracy. Cathy Parry
His Dark Materials trilogy – Philip Pullman
The His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman made its way to me through my grandmother. This was how I often got the books that have stuck with me nearly two decades later. I wonder whether she knew what she did would be so frowned upon by those in the US states who took offence to its apparent “anti-Christian” message? His Dark Materials is glorious collection of young adult books, which snuck in complex messages without patronising the readers. In fact, it challenges and provokes the readers in a manner that sent my teenage brain racing. Also how can you not love a polar bear wearing armour? Nik Williams
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
The Ireland that I was born into was a cold house for women. There was no access to abortion, no divorce and marital rape had only recently been outlawed. Since then, public opinion has been reshaped and laws have been liberalised, largely as a result of ordinary women speaking out about their personal experiences. That’s why The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is important. It’s a rare example of a canonical work about the life of a young woman as told in her own words. The semi-autobiographical novel, which was previously banned in Ireland and remains banned in some US states, is a coming-of-age story following a young woman at odds with 1950s US society. It challenges the conventional roles of women and explores the difficult, and still tabooed, subject of mental illness. Jessica Ní Mhainín

“The CCP will one day fall” – Ma Jian’s words give us hope


“When governments collaborate with totalitarian regimes committing atrocities, they grow richer, they get faster technology. But when they slowly discover that freedom of speech is growing smaller then this wealth, this technology, is meaningless”

 Ma Jian


Even in the middle of a global pandemic there has been one country that has broken through the news cycle – China. The acts of the Chinese government in recent years are a true cause for global concern. From Hong Kong to Tibet, from Xinjiang to Inner Mongolia we are all witnessing the actions of an authoritarian regime, one that seemingly thinks little of human rights or of its citizens. To the outside observer the Chinese government seems more interested in quashing dissent, re-writing history and bending the rest of the world to fit its narrative, than it does on embracing core human values.

Index has written extensively over many years about the impact of this within China, the effect on media freedom, freedom of expression and freedom online. We’ve highlighted the work of incredibly brave dissidents demanding democracy in Hong Kong. We’ve featured the words of Uighur poets, the writings and musings of Ai Weiwei and the amazing work of organisations like GreatFire who every day challenge the firewall that the Chinese government has erected, restricting their citizens access to global information.

But the Chinese government is more than an authoritarian government. It is a government built on the ideology and infrastructure of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This year marks the centenary of the CCP and in the latest edition of Index on Censorship magazine we’ve focused on the impact of the CCP both at home and abroad. Of the many features in our special report, what is most touching, at least for me, are the beautiful words of Ma Jian, the acclaimed writer in exile. Ma Jian reflects on the impact of the CCP on his life and why he has to live in exile.

When Index on Censorship was launched, one of our founders, Stephen Spender, was adamant that it was going to be more than a frustration sheet, we were going to be a home for amazing writing that inspired and moved us. Ma Jian’s words did exactly that, which he did once again when he spoke at the launch of the magazine on Wednesday.

His personal testimony will haunt me, his words were beautiful and reminded me once again of the vital importance of our work. Please take a minute to read Ma Jian in his own words, he will inspire you.

And to enter the bank holiday on a positive note, a few more words of hope from Ma Jian.

“The CCP will one day fall because it is not in tune with the values of humanity.”

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Chinese dissident authors criticise British Council at unofficial London Book Fair event

A form of censorship has “entered the Chinese soul”, dissident author Ma Jian told Index at the London Book Fair today, arguing that a fear of freedom and human rights is instilled in the country.

Following a press conference held by the Independent Chinese PEN Centre (ICPC) to highlight the exclusion of dissident and independent writers from the China-focused section of the event, Ma said self-censorship among domestic authors is a “wide-scale threat” and a “disease” that is “almost part of the Chinese psyche”.

The three-day book fair held in London’s Earls Court is being attended by over 180 Chinese publishers and will feature 21 authors from the People’s Republic, in partnership with the British Council. Yet the Council has received criticism for collaborating with the country’s General Administration of Press and Publications (GAPP), the agency that regulates printed media, by only inviting authors sanctioned by the body. Index was among the signatories of a letter to the Guardian last week raising the issue:

It is bad enough that writers, journalists, bloggers and academics are subject to heavy censorship in China, but we should not be allowing the authorities to replicate their restrictions on freedom of expression further afield.

ICPC president Tienchi Liao said it was “unacceptable” that the British Council chose to collaborate with GAPP while many of her colleagues were imprisoned.

“The event is supposed to promote cultural exchange but it co-operates with the perpetrators,” Liao told Index.

Speaking to Index after the conference, Ma said he was “saddened” that China was invited to the fair as guest of honour, given its reputation for detaining and imprisoning authors who discuss taboo or sensitive issues, and censoring related content in print, broadcast and online.

“Dialogue is necessary but it must be open and free and encompass different voices,” he said. “The Chinese government has brought heads on a platter but where are the arms and legs?”

Ma, who lives in London and was banned from re-entering China in 2011, said the fair and other cultural events should “lead by example” and invite independent authors alongside those sanctioned by GAPP.

“The British Council should have been braver and push the limits,” he said, suggesting they ask Liu Xia, the wife of imprisoned Nobel peach prizer winner and dissident author Liu Xiaobo, who has been under house arrest since late 2010, to attend.

When asked if a certain amount of appeasement was to be expected as the West attempts to foster improved diplomatic relations with China, Ma said he was not an advocate of a total boycott of the event. “I advocate engagement but it mustn’t compromise freedom of speech and human rights,” he said.

“Is there an alternative? Maybe not,” Tienchi Liao said. “But the planning could be more strategic. The British Council could invite authors who aren’t ‘official ones’ — Yan Lianke, or Su Tong — who aren’t state-approved but are not forbidden either.”

“If that had happened we wouldn’t be so outraged,” she added.

In a letter to the Guardian today, London Book Fair director Alistair Burtenshaw and literature director of the British Council, Susie Nicklin, said the programme of authors invited were diverse, with the programme representing a “great opportunity to deepen understanding and strengthen cultural and business links between the UK and China.”

Any international institution working with books in China needs to liaise with the General Administration of Press and Publication,” the pair wrote. “The selection of writers for the cultural programme at London Book Fair 2012 was undertaken by the British Council in wide consultation with its official partners, industry professionals, and experts in the field both in China and the UK.

The Chinese literary figures attending include novelist Mo Yan and 2010 Man Asian literary prize winner Bi Feiyu.

 Marta Cooper is an editorial assistant at Index. She tweets at @martaruco.