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Toni Morrison Presses For Writers' Freedoms

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Toni Morrison Presses For Writers' Freedoms


Toni Morrison Presses For Writers' Freedoms

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Nedim Gursel's novel "The Daughters of Allah" was published last year. After complaints that he used inappropriate language against the prophet Mohammed, his wives and the Quran, the Turkish writer was charged with inciting religious hatred. His trial resumes in late June, and if convicted, he will face up to a year in prison.

Gursel is just one of many authors around the world whose right to free expression is being challenged. The human rights organization PEN is dedicated to helping such writers. Some of the authors who belong to the group have written essays on the power of the word, and they've been published in a new collection called "Burn This Book." The editor is the Nobel Prize-winning writer Tony Morrison, who's in our New York bureau. Welcome to the program.

Ms. TONI MORRISON (Writer, Nobel Prize Winner): Oh, thank you.

HANSEN: First, do you know anything about Mr. Gursel's case?

Ms. MORRISON: Just now I learned about it. It's testimony to - I don't know, the fragility, I suppose, of government when even fictional accounts of centuries and centuries and centuries ago get misinterpreted or reinterpreted or described and are understood to be dangerous in some way. And because of that, the writer is not reprimanded or, you know, sort of looked down upon, but jailed.

HANSEN: How prevalent is censorship in the world today?

Ms. MORRISON: I was talking earlier to someone about my own books being banned. I probably am a little silly, perhaps, about the banning of my books because, A, I know that the students can get the book whether it's banned or not, B, I also know that it raises the profile of the banned book and gives it a - you know, a sort of a push that you didn't have before. It's almost exotic.

But when teachers, or parents or community members write letters and say, oh, this book has got to be pulled off the shelves because whatever dirty words, I tend not to pay an awful lot of attention to it. Most of the instances I know about fall into the category of the absurd.

My favorite is a letter that somebody wrote from the Bureau of Prisons and they were simply informing me that a book I had written called "Song of Solomon" could not be checked out by the inmates because the book might incite the inmates to riot. And I regarding that as the most extraordinary compliment, that I had actually written a book that powerful, that whole prisons - inmates would sort of rise up and take the joint down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MORRISON: So - but it is a serious problem when the consequences are not, you know, a newspaper article or an anecdote. But when censorship and banning means jail time, exile and in many instances, far too many, not even a trial.

HANSEN: Was it important to include authors who have actually come under some kind of persecution? Because, you know, Salman Rushdie is in the book, Nadine Gordimer, the South African writer, is in here - so that you have someone writing from experience.

Ms. MORRISON: Mm-hmm. It was very important. And we were delighted with Nadine and Salman's contributions. Coming from different areas, but at the same time, saying this is what writing means to me. This is not entertainment for me. This is not even the play of elegant aesthetics for me. This is the real substance of life. I do this thing well. I have always wanted to do this thing well, they seem to be saying.

There's a kind of extraordinary bravery for such people as Salman Rushdie and Nadine Gordimer. I can imagine that other people just cave under that kind of pressure, you know, when people are saying what you write is terrible, what you're doing is unhealthy, unsafe, wicked, you know, all of these words that are implied when you take somebody's book off the shelf and throw it in the fire or demand that it be removed, as though it's garbage.

I mean, those things can really stop you in your tracks. And, you know, it's true, you may not be sitting in a corner in jail writing on little bits of paper, but those are terrible things. These are sensitive people whose lives are about their inner experiences or emotions and their imagination and their hunger to communicate.

HANSEN: What do you hope readers take away from this collection?

Ms. MORRISON: I think they should take heart that no one has abandoned us, that artists don't abandon their dreams and their imagination, that the notion of being a human being and trying to be as complicated and as sophisticated as the human construct is, is going on somewhere. And that the forces that try to stop that, the forces that say knowledge and opposition are bad things, they will be defeated.

HANSEN: What do you say to people who might take the title of this book literally and…

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: …want to burn it, as you say. I mean, what would you say to them?

Ms. MORRISON: When that title was suggested, I thought of that old Abbie Hoffman book called "Steal This Book" back in the '70s. But it was such a powerful title, without the question mark that I thought it might need, that anybody who was lunatic enough and silly enough to actually burn it, you know, should burn it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Toni Morrison, she is the editor of "Burn This Book: PEN Writers Speak Out on the Power of the Word." Her latest book is called "A Mercy." And she joined us from our New York bureau. Thank you so much.

Ms. MORRISON: This was a pleasure.

HANSEN: To read a list of the American Library Association's most challenged books of 2008, go There you can also share your thoughts on censorship.

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