The following is a guest post by Elana Gomel, whose short story “1991” appeared in issue 20 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.
Here is an image from my childhood: my mother reverently turning the onion-thin pages of a typewritten, amateurishly bound book. She has gloves on.
This is the USSR in the late 1970s. The book is George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty Four. It has never been published by a state press. It is never discussed by any critic. It is missing from literature textbooks. Orwell’s novel is not merely banned; it does not exist.
What my mother is reading is an illegal copy. Somebody secretly translated it, probably doing it late at night with the curtains drawn. Somebody else secretly typed it out on an ancient creaky typewriter. The copy is then transferred from one person to another along the whispered routes of underground dissent. The book needs to circulate, to reach as many people as possible. My mother only has it for one night.
But eventually, somebody will say something to the wrong person who happens to be an informant. The KGB will swoop in, confiscate the typescript, and probably arrest people. They can lift fingerprints off the brittle paper to find out who has read it. This is why my mother is wearing gloves.
Another image, many years later: I am sitting on a bench in the sun, reading Nineteen Eighty-Four in English and fretting that the deadline for my term paper is coming soon, and my babysitter is sick. I am earning my BA in English literature, and my son is six months old. I underline a couple of paragraphs, but I have no fresh ideas. My subject is censorship, but my mind is on my baby.
And then I stop. Something is missing.
I don’t have gloves on.
In debates about freedom of speech and cancel-culture, a frequent argument of those who believe certain ideas should be censored is that words can do harm to vulnerable people, which in some cases is true. But words/ideas are also vulnerable and powerful. Manuscripts were hidden, smuggled, copied, and disseminated at the price of people’s freedom and sometimes their lives. When my mother – who was a writer herself – touched Orwell’s words with her gloved fingers, there was a gentleness to it as if she were trying to protect them from the brutality of the world. It was the same way she touched me.
In my story “1991”, the USSR exists not as it was but as it wanted to be – a utopia of equality and plenty. The price of this utopia seems to be small: do not read words that can separate you from your community, poison your mind, turn you into a monster. Isn’t one burned book a small price to pay for universal happiness?
Tattie, my protagonist in the story, thinks it is. I know she is wrong.
Elana Gomel is an academic and a writer. She has published six non-fiction books and numerous articles on posthumanism, science fiction, Victorian literature, and serial killers. Her stories appeared in Apex, New Horizons, Mythic, and many other magazines, and were also featured in several award-winning anthologies, including After Sundown, Apex Book of World Science Fiction and People of the Book. Her story “Where the Streets Have No Name” was the winner of the 2020 Gravity Award. She is the author of three novels: A Tale of Three Cities (2013), The Hungry Ones (2018) and The Cryptids (2019). She has lived in four countries, speaks three languages, and has two children. She is a member of HWA. https://www.citiesoflightanddarkness.com/ https://www.instagram.com/elanagomel/ https://twitter.com/ElanaGomel