US book bans: author Jean Kwok on challenging ‘historical echoes’ of authoritarianism

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An award-winning writer has called a US school board ban on her debut novel "insane" and part of a wider move to "silence certain voices".

New York Times and international bestselling author Jean Kwok has become the latest in a line of writers having their books potentially ‘shelved’ in American schools. There has been a spate of books being challenged and banned across the US, including in the states of Texas, Missouri and Pennsylvania, who have taken away funding, recalled books and questioned the legitimacy of certain works. Much of the debate has been blamed on reactive parents, but there appears to be a growing number of lobby groups that have demanded censorship of certain books and ideas in schools.

Among the authors who have been affected include bestselling author Jodi Picoult, whose Holocaust-themed novel was among dozens of books removed from a South Florida school district library’s circulation in February this year. According to PEN America, an organisation that protects free expression in literature, bans occurred in 138 school districts in 32 states in 2022. These districts represent 5,049 schools with a combined enrolment of nearly four million students. Among the books removed, 41% had themes associated with the LGBTQ+ community, and 40% had characters of colour as protagonists.

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Bestselling author Jean Kwok visited Central Bucks, Pennsylvania this week in a bid to address the school board directly after her debut novel Girl in Translation faced a challenge. Kwok, who is a Chinese-American author, is known for her literary fiction that explores the immigrant experience and the complexities of identity. She was born in Hong Kong and immigrated to Brooklyn, New York with her family when she was five. The novel that is being challenged was a New York Times bestseller and has been published in 17 countries. 

It's the historical echoes that are the most terrifying.

Jean Kwok

Speaking to NationalWorld, Kwok said it was “questionable” why her book had been challenged, and that the whole incident came as a shock. “[The] accusations were that it was pornographic. So that just seemed insane. It was on the basis of sexual content, that was the reason that they are targeting these books. And my book is the most innocent coming-of-age immigrant story.”

Girl in Translation tells the story of Kimberly Chang, a Chinese immigrant who moves to New York City with her mother to start a new life. The novel explores the challenges and hardships of their experience as they struggle to make ends meet and adapt to life in America. She faces discrimination and isolation from her classmates and struggles to balance her academic aspirations with the demands of her job at a sweatshop where she and her mother work.

When asked about the allegations, Kwok stated that there were four curse words in the book including mentions of body parts, and four pages were deemed questionable out of 320, according to website BookLooks that checks through content. It also highlighted some minor kissing and an abortion that was considered by a character.

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Author Jean Kwok with book Girl in TranslationAuthor Jean Kwok with book Girl in Translation
Author Jean Kwok with book Girl in Translation | Jean Kwok

The website allegedly found “objectionable content”, saying the book contained “sexual activities; sexual nudity; mild/infrequent profanity; alcohol and drug use by minors; and abortion commentary.” The district has maintained its library policy, which the board passed last year despite outcry from community members and groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which was focused solely on sexual content. The writer believes there may be more insidious motives behind the move. 

“I think that is a part of the reason that it is being challenged and that points to a kind of underlying desire, perhaps unconscious, to silence certain voices and marginalised voices. And that is, of course, a truly terrifying prospect.”

According to the American Library Association, books are usually challenged with the “best intentions—to protect others, frequently children, from difficult ideas and information”, though censorship can subtly creep in. Kwok said that there has been “confusion” between restricting books due to the lack of suitability for an age group, which is a choice for any parent, and taking it off library shelves altogether. 

“You don't pull [books] out so that you make a decision for every person that that book is no longer available for anyone. And if you look at the books that are being targeted right now, they are not books like 50 Shades of Grey. They're not copies of Hustler. They are books that are taught in schools with literary merit.” On a number of occasions, the author suggested that the Central Bucks School Board challenged the book without having ever read it.

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“I think the social climate is affecting this. I think that indeed that there are political movements underneath this and some of these are national groups that are organising these book challenges across the United States.” In response to whether there were similarities with the 1950s ‘Hollywood blacklist’, where screenwriters, actors, directors, musicians, and other professionals in the entertainment industry were denied work based on their political beliefs and associations, Kwok felt that her book may have been targeted for spurious reasons.

“It's the historical echoes that are the most terrifying, that when regimes become really authoritarian, the first thing they want to do is to silence voices.” Kwok acknowledged the first wave of book bans targeted taught works in schools. These included Jewish author Judy Blume’s coming-of-age novel Forever, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, which is about a boy whose father was killed on 9/11.

The author thought that the best way forward is to put her pen to paper in order to also support other writers in vulnerable positions. Her new book The Leftover Women is due out later this year and will reportedly be challenging the fetishisation of women and chauvinism. “I think we all do what we can do, right? I'm an author. I'm going to do my best to write books that are hopefully compelling to read and also have a deeper meaning.”

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