Before 2007, Yeonmi Park lived in North Korea under wealthy standards until her father was caught participating in an illegal trade business during the economic collapse and sent to a labor camp. Faced with starvation, Yeonmi Park, escaped to China along with her mother only to fall into the hands of human traffickers. She does eventually escape to South Korea and is now serving as a human rights activist. She wrote a memoir about her journey, In Order To Live, which was published in September 2015.
I have not yet read the book but it can be safely assumed after reading and watching reviews that she suffers through a great deal of violence and tragedy both directly and indirectly. One reviewer in particular I watched said that she usually avoids these kinds of books because she is a sensitive person and it’s difficult for her to stomach things like this when it’s actually happening in someone else’s life.
To which I say, isn’t that our responsibility as readers? Isn’t it our responsibility to broaden our perspectives to other people’s lives? Are we really going to run away from things that can make us uncomfortable and even offend us sometimes just so we can have peace of mind? What about learning to critically analyze our own culture and society through these lens?
Another point I would like to make is that by putting trigger warnings on books, you are emphasizing the actual event instead of the repercussions which can be just as important. If I saw a trigger warning that said “rape” in this book, all I can think about is that there is rape in this book instead of focusing on the fact that maybe this book is about someone coming to terms after being raped. It’s like if someone slapped a sticker that said ice cream on the cover and basically all I’m waiting for while reading the book is when the person is going to eat ice cream.
Trigger warnings may actually exist soon enough. About a week ago, Laura Murphy, a Virginia mother, was appalled to hear that part of her son’s required reading was Beloved by Toni Morrison which contains explicit sexual content. A bill is now making through the Virginia legislature which would require K-12 teachers “to identify classroom materials with “‘sexually explicit content'” and “notify parents who would have the right to ‘opt-out’ their children and give them something less objectionable to read. It’s not censorship but it basically is a trigger warning.
Some books that would contain this label if bill is passed:
I have not personally read Beloved but I have read The Bluest Eye and it does contain the same kinds of sexual content in the form of rape as I think Beloved has. And I have to say that is there anything that’s truly objectionable nowadays? There has to be some controversy. It sparks discussion and a meaningful conversation about our society. And I don’t think anyone reads Toni Morrison’s works for pure enjoyment. She is not Sophie Kinsella. What she is is a writer of brutal human condition and what it means to be black in America. That’s not an easy discussion to have and sheltering is not going to make hardships go away. I also would like to point out again that putting a label on a book as having sexually explicit content makes it seem like the topic should be discouraged from discussing altogether which I think is hugely disrespectful to people who have actually experienced this. It also, again, latches onto the fact that it has sexually explicit content which completely disregards everything else this book is actually about. Rape is not about rape. It’s about power. Torture is not really about the act of torture either. It’s also about manipulation.
Take A Little Life by Hanya Yanigihara for example. Sure, it has abuse of almost every kind in this book but if I had purposefully censored myself from reading it, I would be missing
out on an incredible story about redemption and friendship. Take 1984 by George Orwell which contains torture *shudders*. I would be missing out on a story that although fictionalized says a lot about totalitarian governments and the nature of political propaganda and power. In fact, Yeonmi Park herself read 1984 after escaping and when she read it, she felt as if George Orwell truly knew what she went through.
“I read to fill my mind and to block out the bad memories. But I found that as I read more, my thoughts were getting deeper, my vision wider, and my emotions less shallow. The vocabulary in South Korea was so much richer than the one I had known, and when you have more words to describe the world, you increase your ability to think. In North Korea, the regime doesn’t want you to think, and they hate subtlety.
I know I cannot speak for everyone because everyone has had different experiences and everyone has their own reasons for not reading certain things that are totally valid. In fact, I can’t stand watching or reading torture but I think that it’s still an important topic that should not be gleaned over. But bottom line for me is that trigger warnings is censorship by choice.
Do you think there should be trigger warnings on books? What do you think of the Virginia bill?
Some articles where I did my research if you’re interested: