Every year, PEN America asks PEN Members and supporters—writers and editors of all backgrounds and genres—to celebrate the freedom to read by reflecting on the banned books that matter most to them. This is our way of taking part in the American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week, which brings together the entire book community in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.

Read the full feature here, and our archive of Banned Books essays here.

In Daria Wilke’s young adult novel Playing a Part, young Grisha is happy at home with his actor parents in a Moscow puppet theater, but he is young and trying to sort out the whole identity—especially gender identity—thing. He’s harassed not only by school bullies but even by his grandfather, who doesn’t think he’s macho enough. Meanwhile another actor, Sam, who is Grisha’s mentor and friend, is leaving Russia for the Netherlands because he’s gay and can’t endure the daily harassment being gay brings upon him. 

I describe the book in this way because of its publication in Russia, where homosexuality was criminalized throughout the Soviet period and, in the last few years, criminalized anew. The fact of Russian censorship of “gay propaganda” has shaped my presentation and made this thoughtful and engaging novel also political. 

Homosexuality was criminalized throughout the Soviet period and, in the last few years, criminalized anew. 

In early 2013, discussions began about passing a law prohibiting the mention of homosexuality in books for children and young adults.  At that point, Wilke’s manuscript—known as “Jester’s Cap” in Russian and “Playing a Part” in my translation for Arthur A. Levine Books—had been accepted for publication by Samokat Publishing House, but no publication date had been set.  Wilke realized that it was now or never: publish the book immediately, before the law went into effect, because the chances of publishing it in the future would be zero.   

For those of us outside Russia, it’s hard to convey the kind of risk Wilke and her publisher were contemplating. The Putin presidency has committed serious violence—only some of it legal—against political and cultural figures considered opponents. Mainstream Russia, blatantly and often actively homophobic, always raises the specter of “spontaneous” retribution as well.  

Irina Balakhonova, Samokat’s publisher, agreed to go ahead despite the risk, and Wilke found experts who agreed, if a suit were filed against the book, to write opinions saying the book was not damaging to the young adult psyche. Balakhonova asked Wilke to delete passages that make it very clear Grisha is gay and to change the ending slightly, to highlight his sympathy for Sashka, the other teen in the story—and a girl. Wilke agreed to the changes because she understood the grave danger to the publisher even so. Either the book came out with cuts or it didn’t come out at all. 

For those of us outside Russia, it’s hard to convey the kind of risk Wilke and her publisher were contemplating.

Strangely enough, when the book did appear in June 2013 (months before the law was to go into effect), the problems they had anticipated did not materialize. A few bookstores raised the age requirement, saying the book was only for those aged 16, say, or 18 and older, and threats popped up on some homophobic forums and the publisher’s blog, but no suits or prosecutions ensued. Not only that, the book made the short list for a national prize for young adult literature, its “illegal” theme notwithstanding. The print run sold out in a couple of months and even ended up in some state-run libraries, but once the law went into effect, the publisher declined to go back to press. There is some hope another publisher will republish once Samokat’s rights expire in 2018, though if that happens, it will necessarily bear the “18+” stamp required by the new law. 

The publication history of Playing a Part combines two kinds of censorship: self- and state. The author and publisher felt compelled to edit the text not for literary or even commercial reasons, but because they had ample reason to anticipate a reaction by the state that could seriously threaten their physical safety and freedom. But the book will probably not be available to the Russian reader again until at least 2018. 

How would I have described the book had it not been subject to Russian law? I would have emphasized not the reasons for Sam’s departure but the jam Grisha gets in and eventually out of, set inside his colorful and tradition-rich puppet theater world. Grisha’s coming-out would have been just one part of his coming-of-age.

Marian Schwartz has translated over sixty volumes of Russian classic and contemporary fiction, history, biography, criticism, and fine art. She is the principal English translator of the works of Nina Berberova and translated the New York Times’ bestseller The Last Tsar, by Edvard Radzinsky, as well as classics by Mikhail Bulgakov, Ivan Goncharov, Yuri Olesha, and Mikhail Lermontov. Her most recent publications are Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Andrei Gelasimov’s Rachel, Daria Wilke’s Playing a Part, and half the stories in Mikhail Shishkin’s Calligraphy Lesson: The Collected Stories. She is a past president of the American Literary Translators Association and the recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts translation fellowships, as well as the 2014 Read Russia Prize for Contemporary Russian Literature.