When we think of the word “silence” in regard to the history of literature it is almost always figurative, rather than literal. Many of the authors of the banned books we have chosen to highlight were often silenced by their governments, colonial rule, or various societal constraints. Often, these bans are lifted with the progression of time and marginalized voices are more fully heard. Tragically, this is not the case of Ruth First, whose voice was literally silenced when she was killed by a parcel bomb while writing in exile.
Vehemently anti-Apartheid, the South African writer began her career in social work and editing at the radical leftist political journal, The Guardian. Beyond journalism, First was active in anti-Apartheid political action, particularly with the Congress Alliance, a multi-racial coalition dedicated to South African democracy. In 1960, First was banned from publishing. Then, in 1963, she was arrested and held in solitary confinement for 117 days—the first white woman to be held under the notorious Ninety-Day Detention Law.
First’s account of her experience, 117 Days, offers a highly personalized account of how she endured sensory deprivation torture, interrogation, and isolation. She stood up to this oppressive treatment, demonstrating not only her own strength, but also the capacity of the human spirit to resist injustice in the name of human rights. At the commemoration of the tenth anniversary of her murder, Nelson Mandela offered lofty praise: "Her life, and her death, remains a beacon to all who love liberty."
Banned Books Week | Throughout this week, we’re celebrating the need to continue reading banned books and to fight book banning by spotlighting banned African authors in the Classics Library.