From The Atlantic:
Why do governments fear literature? Wouldn't, say, the Chinese Communist Party be better off letting its writers write fiction without harassment?
I've always thought of it this way: Politicians and creative writers both try and shape visions of society, they both try and offer to their readers or to the public a view of the world, or a vision of the world, and these visions of the world are at odds with authoritarian regimes. Those regimes attempt to shut down the limits of the possible while fiction tries to push out the limits of the possible. So in effect their visions are in opposition to each other.
Last year, you criticized the Nobel laureate Mo Yan for being a “patsy”. Do writers living in regimes such as China's have a responsibility to oppose censorship? Or simply not to defend it?
I don't feel that writers should be pushed into corners, and there are many writers who aren't temperamentally suited to political engagement in whatever society they happen to be in, so you wouldn't want to make such a writer feel obliged to make a decision. But the reason that so many are upset with Mo Yan isn't that he didn't oppose censorship, but that he went out of his way to defend it. That was the problem.
Nearly a quarter century has passed since you were forced into hiding by the Ayatollah's fatwa. In the ensuing years, how would you assess the worldwide climate for censorship? Have things generally gotten better, or worse?
I'd say that, in general, they've gotten worse. But one of the things our report highlights is that people have more tools to resist censorship using new media. For instance, in China, while there's increased repression in the form of arbitrary arrests, artists held incommunicado and put under house arrest, and increasing hostility towards literature and free expression, there is at the same time a growing willingness of Chinese citizens to find ways to express themselves. In spite of all the repression, there's been a growth of independent, non-state publishers to print things that wouldn't be approved by state houses, and people have shown the willingness to post things online even if they're not to the liking of the state.