Banned Book Club: A Conversation
Summer may be coming to a close, but our Book Defenders campaign is still in full force. So far, we’ve taken action against book bans, amplified authors and stories often targeted by bans, and mobilized local activists to collect books in their own book drives.
We recently sat down with Kim Hyun Sook and Ryan Estrada, co-authors of Banned Book Club, for an exclusive interview. See what they had to say about the issue of banned books.
Our Book Defenders campaign is all about training and mobilizing people to take action against book bans. Can you explain why, in your opinion, this is an important issue for activists to focus on?
KHS: In the case of Korea, book banning was part of a strong effort to control people. We were prohibited from reading any books about politics. Not just the things our government opposed, like communism… but even books about democracy. Because they didn’t want us learning what democracy really means and realizing we didn’t have it. They wanted their word to be our gospel, and they wanted us to think that the knowledge necessary to make decisions was exclusive to them. They wanted to be able to demonize enemies without allowing them to be humanized by their own stories. But in reading these banned books, we learned that we had been lied to our entire lives. They claimed we had a democracy, but none of us had ever voted our leaders into office. They claimed we were free, but there was so much we were not allowed to do. We learned that the terrifying enemy spies our government had celebrated defeating were really student activists just like us that they had slaughtered in the streets. The banning of those books led to generations of suffering. Banning books is always a first step to this kind of control.
RE: What is most upsetting about the book bans currently happening in the United States is that they are based on identities. Books about black and queer characters are being challenged and banned at an alarming rate. When you ban books about people whose lives and history you don’t think are worth discussing, you are telling people like those in the stories that they are unspeakable. When you create barriers between people and their own stories, you are telling those readers that who they are is wrong.
Early on in Banned Book Club, there’s an important moment where Hyun Sook realizes that the monster dance she is performing has an underlying political message. She expresses a bit of distress that they’re still fighting against the same issues that the original creators of the dance were 900 years ago. What would you say to activists who are feeling that same distress that no progress is being made, especially about book bans?
KHS: You can’t stop history from repeating itself. As we discussed in the book, people will never stop trying to drag the world backwards. But the progress and sacrifices we make help us fight back better the next time around. We ended our book with the impeachment of President Park Geun Hye. She was the daughter of the dictator who had taken over Korea so many decades before, and she tried to institute some of his same fascist policies. It seemed like Korea was being dragged backward, and there was no hope of stopping it. But that’s not what happened. So many people had worked so hard to make Korea a better place, that Park’s job was harder than she expected. And when she tried to break the law, the people rose up against her. This time, it wasn’t just a handful of student activists who everyone thought were annoying. The change those earlier activists made had made the country so much better and more aware that millions of people took to the street and she was removed from power in a matter of months instead of generations.
RE: It’s distressing to me to look at how much things have changed in the US since our book was released. When we started writing it, our publisher was shocked at the idea that such a free, democratic country as South Korea ever had state-banned books. But now not only are states banning books in the US, but teachers are losing jobs, libraries are being shut down, and librarians are being threatened with prison over books about gay people. We’ve read stories that would have been surprising even under a dictatorship. But I can also look at the news and see people fighting back. Unjust laws being overturned. Teens starting their own banned book clubs. Publishers standing up for their authors. In previous waves of censorship, depending on how far back you look, things like this would have gotten people blacklisted, or burned at the stake. Progress has always moved forward. These book banners are only doing their best to slow it down. They can never stop or reverse it.
At one point, the character Yuni says that the banned book club was her way of “finding answers” because she no longer understood the world she lived in. What kind of “answers” or lessons about our world have you found in books? What do you think, generally, activists gain from reading books that have been banned?
KHS: I discussed earlier how much our perspective of our own government and the world around us changed by reading books that told us the truth. But it was just as important to us to read books that we disagreed with. I had one friend who went to prison for reading a banned book. But it was not from someone whose words we wanted to live by. It was the autobiography of Kim Il Sung, the first brutal dictator of North Korea. He considered Kim Il Sung to be an enemy… but in reading and examining his lies, he was better able to recognize the same lies coming out of the mouths of our own politicians. He was able to better spot and dismantle propaganda from his own government.
RE: I remember one moment in High School, when we were studying Rosa Parks. Our teacher explained “There’s one thing you HAVE TO UNDERSTAND. This woman was not trying to make a point. This was not planned. She was just tired after a long day of work, her feet hurt, and she did not want to give up her seat.” There were ten minutes of class devoted to this. It was not until decades later that I learned this was the exact opposite of the truth. Rosa Parks had worked with leaders to meticulously plan this movement. But they were not about to teach us a step-by-step how-to guide for how to stand up against unjust laws. We were taught a sanitized version that made progress seem like a game of chance, that happens only by patiently waiting. But reading the real story taught me so much about how progress is made. Now, today, books about Rosa Parks are being removed from shelves altogether, being shrugged off as “critical race theory” despite simply being a recitation of facts, and in some cases an already-sanitized version of them.
The truths about our history need to be told in order to make the world a better place, and the more access we have to correct information… the better the world will become.
One of our favorite moments in the book is at the end when Hyun Sook tells her classmate that they have “a lot of waking up to do”, which is what Yuni told Hyun Sook at the beginning of the novel. What do you think activists can learn from reading about Hyun Sook’s journey?
KHS: I grew up in a dictatorship and didn’t know it. It’s easy to go through life accepting what you are told at face value. But if you look closer at the words of the people you follow, and the people you are told to hate, you can realize there is much more to the world.
RE: I learned that these lessons apply in so many places. After Banned Book Club came out, my friend Amy Rose told me she had a banned book story too. She grew up in a cult just down the road from Heaven’s Gate. She was forbidden from going to school, or studying science, because she was told that this world was ending, and it was a waste of time. It was only by reading banned books that she was able to learn what she needed to escape. We have a book coming out about that this Spring called Occulted. I hope that people can apply these lessons to their own life and find the lies they are being told. Be they from politicians, spiritual leaders, family members, or friends.
Hyun Sook’s final “speech” in the book is very inspiring. Why did you choose to end the book in this way? What final message or impression did you want readers to take away from this story?
KHS: There was so much pain and suffering that happened to characters in the book, I wanted to show that they succeeded. The student movement in the 1980s really did make the world a better place.
RE: And I really wanted to get across that these were not freedom fighters or historical figures. They were ordinary people living their lives. They were trying to go to school, get good grades, make friends, go on dates, get a good job. Politics were what intruded on their lives and they responded.
At Fandom Forward, we like to imagine a better future, and then figure out the steps needed to get us to that future. What does a world without book bans look like to you? And what do you think needs to change for us to get there?
KHS: I think that the most important thing for parents who are worried about what their kids read to do is to make sure their children have the context to understand the content of those books… as well as a patient, nonjudgmental way to discuss those ideas. Use the things your kids read as a way to discuss propaganda, manipulation, and logical fallacies. Don’t turn those ideas into forbidden fruit that they will seek out and read unguided.
RE: I would love a world with open access to books. But I would also like for a world where people put serious consideration into what ideas they choose to platform and finance.
People often try to throw a “gotcha” question at me, wondering if I think books by bigoted, hateful politicians should be banned. And I always say NO! I don’t think they should at all. Do I think people should write those kinds of books? No. Do I think publishers should give those authors millions of dollars and the perceived respectability that comes with their name? No, I absolutely do not. But once they have, those books’ existence is a part of history that people will need to research. If that person runs for office, people need to know what they stand for. If we are fighting for a better future, we need to be able to research what we’re fighting against. I appreciate that libraries have copies so that I can do that research without having to financially support it.
Finally, if you could recommend one action for someone to take to fight against banned books in their community, what would it be?
KHS: Ironically, the keys to fighting book bans comes from learning the lessons in the books they want to ban. By providing a list of banned books, they are giving you the very curriculum in how to defeat them.
RE: It’s not a fun answer. But the biggest thing I learned from all of my interviews is that for things to change, someone has to be a little annoying. When the activists started protesting in South Korea, people already agreed with them. They knew that things weren’t right. But it was just so much easier not to think about it. They had been beaten down for generations with harsh punishments for questioning the regime. These students speaking up, drawing out the cops, interrupting traffic, causing streets full of tear gas… or even just complaining around the dinner table… they seemed annoying. After all, they had survived thus far by just sitting on the fence.
But they kept going until what was once not spoken of, and annoying to bring up, became a topic of conversation. It was not until more and more people realized that the protesters were right, and joined with them, that things began to change. The biggest hope for change is having those hard conversations. Speaking up when you know something is wrong.