Susan Swan on Self-Censorship and Freeing One's Expression

Freedom to Read Week 2013 image

Throughout Canada, it's Freedom to Read Week, February 24–March 2, 2013. Presented by the Book and Periodical Council, Freedom to Read Week is "an annual event that encourages Canadians to think about and reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom, which is guaranteed them under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms."

We talk to Susan Swan, author, writers' advocate, and a participant in Freedom to Read, about self-censorship and some of the authors she most admires.

Julie Wilson: In Canada, we have it much better than writers in Turkey. South Sudan has just become a pilot country for the UN Plan of Action on the safety of journalists. So as a country seen from abroad as one of the most progressive in terms of free expression how does censorship to your mind play out in Canada?

Susan Swan: The Western publishing world is heavily mercantile now. Then, too, our Canadian reading audience tends to be fairly genteel. Both these factors encourage authors to write to please readers. Some of the younger writers like Sheila Heti, Natalee Caple, Stacey May Fowles,  Annabel Lyon, Karen Connelly, and Sam Bernstein (to name just a few) write original books that make you question the way you think about yourself and the world around you, and I admire that. But a lot of books of fiction these days appear to be written by the same person. They are bland and generic. Many of the books we now give prizes to won't be the books we are reading in 20 years.

JW: You're speaking less then about the limits placed against writers' freedom to say want they want than the self-imposed limitations writers place upon themselves. Are you flagging a lack of courage to publish and write books that display a more diverse range in voice and experience?

SS: I'm talking about the courage to go after authenticity of voice, when the voice feels idiosyncratic and human rather than a carefully prepared creative writing construct that has sales and marketing potential. I believe in diversity, but diversity is a general thing. Fiction is about particular characters and a particular authorial voice that needs to sound real, even dangerously real. That is, so close to human truth that the voice sometimes pinches us.

JW: Of the writers listed above, what characteristics are on display in their works, or careers, that resonate for you?

SS: I like their honesty and the way they push against the limits of their craft. Heti's last novel, How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life, is all about a search for authenticity. She's so interested in it that she doesn't seem to care how she looks to the reader. Or whether she is readable and accessible, although her novel certainly is that. Caple is a highly literary fiction writer who stakes out a new kind of poetic experimentalism with bravura and élan. Lyon, like Caple, is a literary powerhouse. I list Connelly for her global reach, and Fowles, especially for that non-fiction piece she wrote for the National Post, "What Can't Be Published," about rape, which shook me to the core with her fearlessness. Bernstein's fiction has a similar fearless quality. She's more political than Heti, but Bernstein is also after authenticity in her writing and won't stop until she finds it. None of these writers appear to be worrying much about censors. (I didn't notice that all the writers I mention are female. Unconscious gender bias? Maybe so. But now that I know the terrible stats about coverage of women's work in Canada, I can't say I feel badly about that.)

JW: As a writer of fiction, talk about the impacts of a story left untold.

SS: My mother disliked my second novel, The Last of the Golden Girls, because she thought I had portrayed her in it and she didn't like that portrayal. I was distressed by her distress, and it's probably no accident that in all the novels since that book, the mothers have been dead. So I was relieved when Colm Toibin wrote that mothers are a hindrance to the plot in literature. They take away the agency of the protagonist, he said in his new non-fiction book, New Ways to Kill Your Mother. Maybe I wasn't the coward I thought I was, after all.

JW: How can we talk to readers about censorship and freedom of expression?

SS: In the most honest and personal way you can. I try to talk politely to readers who have been offended by my books. It's not always easy, and I can't say I have had great luck in these discussions. In the past, I have bumped up against a refusal to think hypothetically on the part of the person who doesn't like, say, my novel about the Nova Scotian giantess Anna Swan, The Biggest Modern Woman of the World. In a discussion about that book with some of the giantess's descendants, I realized that they still lived in a rural culture that was pretty oral so they didn't have literary training in metaphors and storytelling. They thought everything that wasn't literally true was false.

JW: Is it the job of the writer to try and comprehend such an experience on behalf of the reader?

SS: It's not the writer's job per se to follow up and try to understand the reader's experience. But I feel some literary courtesy is involved here. If a writer, say, writes about rape or child abuse, those readers who have experienced these traumas will likely be affected by what the writer has written. If I write a novel about a real Nova Scotian giantess, chances are her descendants are going to be affected by my story. In other words, I respect the readers' experience with the subject I've written about and I believe readers have a right to voice their reactions, and authors can listen and discuss—maybe only once—the readers' objections, if they have them.

JW: Throughout Freedom to Read Week, the Book and Periodical Council presents Champions of Free Expression. Who were some of your earliest champions?

SS: I admired Henry Miller, D. H. Lawrence, even Grace Metallious who wrote Peyton Place in the '50s. Metallious wasn't as literary as Miller and Lawrence but braver because she was one of the first women writers I remember who wrote honestly about sex. There used to be a lot of contempt directed towards women who wrote openly sexual books. Some of these judgmental attitudes linger on although this battle has been largely won. Toronto novelist Christine Pountney has just written a brilliant explicit account about menstrual bleeding and having her cervix seared in the new issue of Brick. Her writing was so beautiful and precise I stopped breathing. This kind of article would never have been published in a literary magazine when I was her age.

JW: On sex, exceptions aside, such a Tamara Faith Berger's Maidenhead, is this an area in which Canadian mainstream fiction just can't do the deed?

SS: You mean Canadian mainstream fiction can't depict sex? Chances are, any writing that's more interested in the reader's comfort than portraying human truth will write about sex badly. Of course, it's extremely hard to write well about sex. Sex, dreams and drug trips are the trickiest things to write about because they so easily invite cliches.

JW: Thursday, February 28, 2013, presented by the Book and Periodical Council and the Raconteurs storytelling group, you, alongside Lisa Charleyboy, Catherine Frid, Steph Guthrie, Ken Setterington, and Bruce Walsh, will share a personal story about your own experience with censorship. As part of your event, CENSORED, an award will be presented for the Advancement of Intellectual Freedom in Canada. To your mind, is there a distinct difference between intellectual freedom and the freedom of expression?

SS: No, they are very deeply connected. For instance, it may be impossible to have freedom of expression without intellectual freedom.

JW: Is writing, as a craft, an expression of experience or intellect?

SS: Writing is an expression of both experience and the intellect. Some writers are more interested in ideas than others (and I count myself as a more intellectual writer than many of my Canadian peers), but I don't think that matters. Again, it's how persuasively writers say what they have to say.

JW: You're a well-known advocate for writers' rights. How would you encourage writers themselves to become more involved in movements such as Freedom to Read, and throughout the year?

SS: Writers would benefit because these kinds of occasions give you permission to write as if. As if the world was more open-minded and curious and non-judgemental than it is. We'd get a stronger literature if writers did that.

JW: And how would you hope to incite the same passion in readers to do the same?

SS: By writing as honestly and powerfully as I can.

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Tell It Like It Is—49th Shelf's list of recommended reading for books that don't shy away from anything.

Freedom to Read—A list of Canadian books that have been banned or legally challenged in Canadian schools and libraries recently and in past decades.

Check out 25+ years of Freedom to Read Week posters!

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Susan Swan, author of The Western Light.

Susan Swan’s critically acclaimed fiction has been published in 20 countries and her impact on the Canadian literary and political scene has been far-reaching. Swan’s last novel, What Casanova Told Me, was published in the U.S., Canada, Spain, Russia, Serbia, and Portugal, and was a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Swan’s other novels include The Wives of Bath (which was made into the feature film Lost and Delirious, shown in 34 countries), The Biggest Modern Woman in the World (Finalist for the Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction), The Last of the Golden Girls, and the short story collection Stupid Boys are Good to Relax With. Her latest novel is The Western Light.

Visit her online at www.susanswanonline.com.

February 28, 2013
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