Books were a major part of my life growing up, and still are. I remember having a recent conversation with someone about horses, where I happened to know a lot mainly because of a book series I had read as a young girl that followed a character who lived on a horse farm. The series was fictional, but it still shaped my view of horse breeders and the lives of those who lived with them. This may seem like an insignificant example but the truth is, in the same way as I learnt about horses, the books I loved shaped my views on much of the world around me.
Living in Pakistan amidst a very homogenous society, most of my understanding of other cultures and lives came from books. During those teenage years, most of the literature available to me was American, sometimes British.. Very little Pakistani literature existed within the YA genre, and even fewer in English, so I grew up reading about a world that was not, and could never be, my own.
During my YA literature obsessed phase, I fell in love with a series called House Of Night by P.C and Kristin Cast. This year, almost a decade after I first read the books, I decided to revisit them and they seemed very different. At the time, what I had thought was acceptance and open-mindedness now came off as poorly disguised homophobia. What I had told myself to see as a joke now screamed Islamophobia. These were ideals that I had accepted as normal, and at some point probably emulated, because they had offered an authoritative model of the way the world worked.
I realise that emulating what those books taught me would not have been considered problematic in those times because those values were unfortunately still widely accepted then, but looking back it is scary is just how influenced I was by those stories, and the power they heldd to shape my understanding of the world around me. There’s a part in the book where the characters call in a fake bomb threat and to do so, introduce themselves as “Nature’s Jihad”. For me to not see that as problematic or Islamophobic, despite being a Muslim, now tells me how easy it had become for me to accept narratives about my identity that weren’t even my own. Such instances can raise big questions for young readers on the way in which their identity presents to the world.
So much has changed in the last decade, and the impact of the media has been highly debated as more and older examples such as these come to light. The role that literature plays in shaping the minds of children and teenagers throughout their formative years is impossible to deny. There has been an acknowledgment of this within the publishing industry, but that debate has leaned towards championing for new stories with better, more inclusive narratives.
But what about the ones that already exist, and the impact they’ve left on readers like me? In such cases, where content that seemed progressive now reads as clearly problematic, there comes the dangerous possibility of influencing young readers to believe that this is what representation means. I'm thinking of one of my favourite childhood books, where I can now spot over-exaggerated stereotyping of gay characters and their need to constantly talk about how they aren’t like other gay men.
Yet challenging the existence of these narratives runs the risk of falling into the realm of censorship as well. If publishers were to pull any books that were termed as having problematic content from printing, it would soon blur the lines between what constituted a piece of literature being problematic enough to be banned, and where someone in power was using their position to further their own narrative and agenda. That would also mean having to set up authorities to decide what was problematic enough to be removed from where and then trusting them to make decisions representative of a range of lived experiences and marginalised communities.
The idea of slowly pulling books from shelves seems Orwellian. I remember perhaps what stood out to be most about 1984 was the constant changing of history. I don’t believe completely erasing the place we came from should be taken away entirely. However, I do acknowledge that allowing them to stay in print means that there will be the risk of their influence remaining.
Recently I came across a platform called DiverseBook Finder that applies this debate to picture books. While the issue remains nuanced, I do believe that platforms like these are important, and much needed on a wider scale. There needs to be more discourse on why certain aspects of older books are problematic, and how those beliefs can be unlearnt without having to censor them. In fact I think, if managed correctly, acknowledging the existence of such literature can be beneficial in teaching us what to look out for in our demands for more accurate representation and understanding how far we have truly come. Then again, I was a history student - so this idea of learning from our histories may be a little biased due to my academic inclinations.
Regardless of where you stand on this debate, I think we all need to acknowledge is that no matter how old, literature makes it mark on the modern world - and it is irresponsible to avoid addressing the internalised beliefs it leaves behind.
Anmol is a Muslim Pakistani freelance journalist, writer and avid reader who aims to champion for intersectional feminist beliefs with her work. She tweets @anmolirfan22.