Friday, December 08, 2006

SUN: Don't Shield Society from Books

In Monday's Sun, Literature Professor Lim Chee Seng, was asked to comment on the restricted books issue. He said:
Instead of shielding society from books and ideas deemed offensive or pernicious by banning them, there should be more effort to train society to have the critical skills to deal with such information ... In a democracy, you should be training people to be able to deal with these books - that is if they are pernicious - to argue, to resist error and to stand up, and not try to keep the books away as if they (society) are children.
And he quotes a line from British literary critic and theorist on literature and education I.R. Richards:
A book is a machine to think with.
Malaysia Today picked up the article and there are some interesting comments.

Monday, December 04, 2006

SUN: Ministry Will Bar 'Offensive' Publications

Jacqueline Ann Surin's article about "restricted books", in the Sun yesterday.

I've pasted below the parts of the article I think are most telling:
The secretary of the publications and Quranic texts control division, Che Din Yusoh, said the minister could use "absolute discretion" to gazette "undesirable publications" as banned under Section 7 of the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA).

At the same time, Section 9 empowers ministry officers at Malaysia's entry points to refuse the importation of "undesirable publications" that are deemed to threaten public order, morality, security or national interest, even if they have not been gazetted as banned.

... Che Din said he could not confirm if Silverfish Books' list of titles had been banned, noting that officers at each entry point might have different lists.

He said that sometimes, books were confiscated at entry point and only later gazetted as banned. The publishers may also be asked to return these books to the sender.

"As the country's moral guardian, we cannot let these books in," Che Din said, adding that most of these titles were offensive because of their sexual or violent content.

"Some children's books may also have offensive content and contravene conditions in the PPPA."

He said some classics also had to be banned because they contained liberal Western ideas that were "not conducive" to Malaysian society.
And it's that line that really scares me. Particularly as it refers to books which were previously freely available.

Why has the ground shifted so radically in the last few months?

Sunday, December 03, 2006

THE STAR: Banned book list baffling

In case anyone missed it, The Star finally had a story on the Book Banning issue in the news pages today, on page 3 no less:

Banned book list baffling

Deputy Internal Security Minister, Datuk Fu Ah Kiow said disallowed entries were different from gazetted bans.

“If the distributors feel that any of the restrictions are unfair, they can always appeal by sending the book to our Putrajaya headquarters for review. We will see what the problem is and correct it if necessary.”

He added that there were no blanket bans on any authors, including Rushdie, whose controversial 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, resulted in the late Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issuing a fatwa calling for his death.

“We ban titles, not authors,” he said.

The Story Behind The Name

Perhaps some of you have already Googled the title of this blog. But I'm going to tell you the story behind it anyway.

"Manuscripts don't burn" is a quote from Mikhail Bulgakov's book Master and Margarita. Bulgakov's book was only published after his death for a good reason: it could have landed him in prison. During Bulgakov's time, the U.S.S.R government was pretty much like how China is today, practising severe censorship and not allowing criticism of the government in any form, even satire. Most kids nowadays wouldn't understand jokes or allusions to "being shipped off to Siberia" but before the Iron Curtain gave way, it was a very real threat.

Here's an excerpt from the forward to the 1997 translation of the book by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky:

Mikhail Bulgakov worked on this luminous book throughout one of the
darkest decades of the century. His last revisions were dictated to his wife
a few weeks before his death in 1940 at the age of forty-nine. For him,
there was never any question of publishing the novel. The mere existence of
the manuscript, had it come to the knowledge of Stalin's police, would
almost certainly have led to the permanent disappearance of its author.

When the book was finally published nearly three decades after his death, it caused a sensation. Of course, it got banned. But that added more to its appeal and soon "Manuscripts Don't Burn" became a rallying cry for oppressed writers, playwrights and poets. Supposedly writers even memorised their work so as never to fear the authorities seizing their work. Bulgakov himself had to rewrite the novel from memory after he had burnt his draft in a picque of despair.

All that significance went over my head when I was seven, unfortunately. My father passed it to me, knowing that I consumed books like candy and he liked boasting that his little girl was already reading Kipling and Tolstoy. Looking back, I can say that reading the book influenced me more than I realised.

On the surface, it's a fun farce - there's a talking cat, a smarmy Faust-reminiscent Satan, a very down-to-earth Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate with a migraine. But the heart of it is Bulgakov's very real pain of living in fear, of living where people tried not just to put your body in chains but your mind too.

Spinach7 Digital has a review of it where the writer says:

The point that I sucked out of the novel was this: great literature endures political repression; writers have a responsibility to push on through censorship. Bulgakov was supposed to write a novel that idealised Lenin — instead he coughed up an apocryphal satire featuring a talking cat. ...we have a responsibility to make the most of the opportunities still afforded to us to get our point across — because the way things are going, they may not last. .. ‘freedom of speech’ will be a vague memory, unless we get our words out now. Start by reading this book. Finish by writing your own."

There are people ridiculing what we're doing on this blog. But rather than be defensive, I'd rather keep remembering Bulgakov and all the other writers who suffered for what they wrote. For condoning the undue and unnecessary banning of their writing, it's just a step away from us condoning their getting locked-up. "Manuscripts don't burn." Not if we don't let them.

Friday, December 01, 2006


Things seem to have gone very quiet on the "restricted" books issue, but behind the scenes much is happening. Animah Kosai has prepared a letter which will be sent out to the right parties in the next day or two. As soon as I am able to post the letter here, I will do. (The pic is Animah reading out the letter at our Readings on Saturday. Fifty names will be attached.)

Raman at Silverfish told me today that he has been contacted by journalists from two different English language dailies who have been speaking to the relevant minister to get some firm facts.

Politely bringing the issue to attention of the right authorities might just work. In a reasonable society anyway, that's how things should happen.

More news soon.

Oh ... and thanks to all those folks around the world who have shown support by linking this blog.