Here in the West, we take our artistic freedom for granted, forgetting that throughout history - and in other parts of our world right now - men and women have died in the attempt to express themselves honestly through their art.
But, interestingly, there are also artists in our “free” society who censor themselves for fear of the reactions their works may elicit. Our artists may not be physically imprisoned, tortured or executed, but they can be attacked by critics and opponents in ways that deter others from telling the stories they want to.
This week, I read an amazing young adult novel by Sally Rippin, called Chenxi and the Foreigner, chosen for me by the Ink-stained Toe-poker (thanks pal: great pick!). The novel’s theme of artistic freedom is particularly meaningful, because this edition is not the first version to make it into print.
Chenxi and the Foreigner is the story of 19-year-old Australian, Anna, who travels to Shanghai in 1989 to visit her father and study traditional Chinese painting. Struggling to cope with her status as a foreigner, she becomes obsessed with fellow art student Chenxi, who ultimately teaches her life-changing lessons about the nature of freedom, and what it means to be an artist in a culture that forbids non-sanctioned artist expression.
It was one of the earliest young adult novels written by the prolific Rippin, who now has more than 20 books for children of all ages in print. It was inspired by her own experiences as an art student in China, and the people she met there. But nearly 20 years later, she realised she’d sold herself and her readers short.
In the after word in this new 2008 version, Rippin explains she had compromised her original story through her own self-editing, “which is ironic given that this is a novel about artistic freedom”.
She says she was afraid of the parents, teachers and librarians who were the literary gatekeepers of her target market. In that original version, she cut out profanity, sex scenes and “unfamiliar Chinese politics”, for fear her book would be blocked and never reach its intended young adult audience.
She was also not sure she was ready for the potential backlash to her political themes. “I was worried at that time that, if my novel was too obviously political, I might stir up a discussion I wasn’t brave enough to enter into at that age.”
In the new edition, the main character’s name has changed, as has – apparently – the ending. I say apparently because I’ve only read this latest, grittier, version, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s the political context, honesty and realism that make this story so compelling, without being so confronting as to scar its young readers.
The timing of the novel’s re-release this year, when the world’s eyes are on China, might be a coincidence, or a brilliant marketing ploy. Either way, Chenxi and the Foreigner is an excellent novel on several levels: the characters are fascinating, raw and real, and the narrative brings China – and its politics – into sharp focus in a way a detached news report rarely can.
Yes it is challenging, and yes it covers aspects of Chinese politics many young adult readers may be unfamiliar with – and are now likely to explore to better understand Chenxi and his struggles.
And isn’t that what great stories should do?