The Freedom To Write

Anna Akhmatova (Russia), memorised all her poems to avoid persecution and death.

In his Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture in 2012, the author Salman Rushdie said that, “no writer wants to talk about censorship.” Of course, he knew all about censorship and how it can cripple creativity, especially when it comes with a death threat.

During my incarceration at Parramatta Girls’ Home an officer confiscated some poems I’d written and tore them up in my face. The poems were an honest account of life inside the institution and how it affected the girls. Those words were lost forever and I felt that somehow I was “bad” for trying to express myself on paper. It took a long time to get over.

Censorship can make you feel “dead”, it stifles creativity, cripples the free-flow of ideas, makes you afraid to say what’s on your mind. It is the ultimate ‘writer’s block’. The censor’s crocodile eye, always alert for signs of truth-telling, forever ready to pounce and shut you down, is a dichotomous beast as it also comes with fear of the writer. This in turn leads to a feeling of isolation and deflation for the writer, and a sense of power for the censor.  And in so many cases, including my own, it comes with ostracism. If left unchecked it can lead to self-doubt, depression and frustration.

Self-censorship as a choice is something all serious writers need to consider. Should a writer hold back from the truth to avoid hurting others? Is freedom of speech a writer’s right? Should a writer disguise the truth, change names and settings, dates and anything else that might identify someone who has something to hide or is ashamed of? I believe it is incredibly important for a writer to have that freedom of choice, and if it’s the wrong choice, well, the writer should be prepared for any repercussions.  In certain situations disguising a character based on a real person is necessary, and all responsible writing tutors and books on writing advise writers to approach with caution. But having the freedom to explore ideas, and the psychology behind human behaviour, is vital. Without that freedom the world would be even more full of ignorance. Like the air we breathe, seeking truths in writing is necessary for understanding, empathy and progress.

Rushdie went on to say this: “The creative act requires not only freedom but also (this) assumption of freedom. If the creative artist worries if he will still be free tomorrow, then he will not be free today. If he is afraid of the consequences of his choice of subject or of his manner of treatment of it, then his choices will not be determined by his talent, but by fear. If we are not confident of our freedom, then we are not free.”

Taking away a person’s right to write freely and creatively is a particular kind of insidious bullying. It takes a lot of courage to overcome it and get the creative juices flowing again. You somehow feel the censor is right, and you are wrong. It is inhibiting, which of course, is the aim, and at its worse, creatively debilitating. Censorship comes from many directions, not only from dictators and religious fanatics, but also from family and friends. It is not confined to film and government directives.  The expression “kindness begins in the home” is not true of every home. Home can also be where violence, ignorance and pain resides. And from there, hatred can spill out of the front door into the community, and to extended family members, and friends. Truth is always healthier than cover ups and lies, even if it does involve humiliation. If a novel can encourage self-examination and empathy then that novel has done its job well. If it can prompt forgiveness and invoke shame, fantastic. The writer has succeeded in making a difference.

Rushdie also said, “. . . when censorship intrudes on art, it becomes the subject; the art becomes ‘censored art,’ and that is how the world sees and understands it. The censor labels the work immoral, or blasphemous, or pornographic, or controversial, and those words are forever hung like albatrosses around the necks of those cursed mariners, the censored works. The attack on the work does more than define the work; in a sense, for the general public, it becomes the work . . . At its most effective, the censor’s lie actually succeeds in replacing the artist’s truth. That which is censored is thought to have deserved censorship. Boat-rocking is deplored.”

But for me boat-rocking is essential to a writer’s growth and to the greater good of the world. Just imagine what the world would be like without books, without media communication, without stories, opinions, ideas and thoughts. Rushdie said that censorship is not good for art, and it is even worse for artists themselves.

When I wrote Invisible Thread, republished as Girl 43 by Hachette Australia two years ago, I self-censored the story. It was a decision bound by fear and oppression. Fearing legal and personal repercussions, I changed the name of Parramatta Girls’ Home to ‘Gunyah,” an Aboriginal word that means ‘shelter.’ I really did believe that Percy Mayhew, the Superintendent at Parramatta in 1970, would hunt me down and take me to court, denying the truth about the violence and cruelty he meted out on the girls. I thought my family would use the book and my incarceration against me, and some of them – on my father’s side – have. It’s no use saying it’s a reflection of their limitations, because the fact is, the pain runs deep.

I wrote Invisible Thread in total isolation, that is, I made decisions about it on my own, with no advice from anyone. I worried the book would offend or hurt former Parramatta girls.  I worried that former officers might read it and come after me. I worried that social services in Australia might prosecute me and deny any culpability. I worried about the publicity and how that might affect my life and my family, in particular my children and my mother. There had at that time been very little publicity about the Home. Now of course, it has had a great deal of media attention and was part of the controversial government apology made by former PM Kevin Rudd to the Forgotten Australians. How I wish I’d had the courage to name the institution and the perpetrators of abuse behind those locked doors and high walls. Now, the world knows some of the names of these people, and justice is at work.

In my writing I seek the truths of life. I want to find out what makes people tick. That doesn’t make me arrogant, or an angel, or a clever-clogs any more than Salman Rushdie or any other censored writer. Writer’s are truth-seekers. It is part of the job-description, and we have a natural ability to empathise and get under the skin and inside the mind of our characters. We naturally want to share our insights the same way that other artists do, tell a good story, provoke conversation and debate, increase understanding, empathy, emotion, recognition (readers thrive on ‘light bulb’ moments), and change.

Vulnerable poets and writers like Osip Mandelstam (Stalin’s Russia), Anna Politkovskaja (Putin’s Russia), died because of their art, they fought for their craft, and were punished. Isaac Babel more or less stopped writing when Stalin tried to force all Russian writers to adhere to his concepts of “Socialist Realism,” but was convinced that the authorities would change their minds in time. Censors, professional and amateur alike, rarely change their minds because that would be an admission of guilt and misjudgement. It really is up to writers to be steadfast in their search for the truth in order to engender social change.

Hitler’s Book Burnings