Saturday, October 6, 2018

from the Times:

Review: ‘Girl From the North Country’ Sets the Darkness Aglow

In “Girl From the North Country,” the songs of Bob Dylan exist independently of their creator’s gravelly, much-imitated voice. Mare Winningham, left, delivers “Like a Rolling Stone” as a curse. CreditCreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times

  • Brightness flickers fitfully in the bleak, beautiful landscape of “Girl From the North Country,” a rich and strange marriage of the talents of the Irish playwright Conor McPherson and the American songwriter Bob Dylan. The setting for this haunting musical melodrama of unmoored lives is, after all, a premature winter. In Minnesota. During the Great Depression.

    So when something like joy or hope or love promises to light up the night in this ravishing production, which opened on Monday night at the Public Theater, it doesn’t stand much chance against the prevailing darkness. This is a story of an age of privation and separation, in which homes are lost and families riven.

    Yet when the people onstage sing, huddled together before old-time microphones as if they were campfires, they seem to conjure light and warmth out of the cold, cold night that surrounds them. These fleeting moments register with the glow of retinal afterimages, as though they were happening behind closed eyes.

    As for the sweet, sorrowful voices, backed by fiddles and piano, they seem to come, beseechingly, from half-remembered family histories you might have been told by your grandparents. If you’re a hard-core Dylan fan, you’ve heard these songs before. But, for me at least, they’ve never sounded quite so heartbreakingly personal and universal at the same time.

    As arranged and orchestrated by the British composer Simon Hale — in collaboration with Mr. McPherson, the show’s director as well as its writer — the songs exist in self-sufficient independence of their creator’s gravelly, much imitated voice. You hear them ripening into new fullness. 

    Those who scoffed when Mr. Dylan received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016 may find they have to think again.
    “Girl From the North Country” debuted at London’s Old Vic Theater in the summer of 2017, eight months after the prize had been announced. Five years earlier, Mr. McPherson was approached by representatives of Mr. Dylan about using the songwriter’s catalog as the basis for a musical.

    Huddling together before an old-time microphone, from left, Ms. Winningham, Jeannette Bayardelle, Rachel Stern, Chelsea Lee Williams, Luba Mason, Caitlin Houlahan and Kimber Sprawl conjure warmth out of the cold, cold night that surrounds them.CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times

    It seemed like a bizarre conjunction, that of a Gaelic dramatist and an American balladeer. But in plays like “Shining City” and “The Night Alive,” Mr. McPherson has shown a mystical appreciation of music as an expression of the numinous in life.

    That respect for the ineffable has been translated into the most imaginative and inspired use to date of a popular composer’s songbook in this blighted era of the jukebox musical. In unfolding his portrait of the desperate tenants of a boardinghouse in Duluth, Minn. (Mr. Dylan’s birthplace), in late 1934, Mr. McPherson never uses songs as a substitute for or extension of dialogue, à la “Mamma Mia!”

    Only occasionally does a number — like the 1966 classic “I Want You” — seem to echo directly the thoughts of the characters singing it. Instead, nearly every ensemble member becomes part of a choir, with soloists, that is as persuasive a latter-day equivalent of the Greek chorus as we’re ever likely to see.

    What’s created, through songs written by Mr. Dylan over half a century, is a climate of feeling, as pervasive and evasive as fog. It’s an atmosphere of despair — with lyrics about lost chances, lost love and enduring loneliness — that finds grace in the communion of voices. coming together.

    Certainly, the script is as forbiddingly fatalistic as that of a Greek tragedy. At its center is Nick Laine (Stephen Bogardus), who rents out rooms in his ramshackle house in the hope of forestalling foreclosure. His family includes an alcoholic young son, Gene (Colton Ryan), who hopes to be a writer, and an adopted daughter, Marianne (Kimber Sprawl), who is pregnant, though how or by whom no one seems to know.

    Nick’s wife, Elizabeth (Mare Winningham), is there and not there, suffering from a dementia that has turned her into a dependent, unruly child with a sailor’s mouth. So Nick seeks comfort in the arms of a boarder, Mrs. Neilsen (Jeannette Bayardelle), who expects to come into some money.

    Most everybody here has such expectations; nobody really believes in them. Images of lost and murdered children haunt the narrative, specters of snuffed lives and broken hopes.
    Also living on the premises are the Burkes — the blustery, big-talking father (Marc Kudisch) and the louche mother (Luba Mason) of Elias (Todd Almond), a grown man with a toddler’s mind. The newest arrivals are a self-described man of God, Reverend Marlowe (David Pittu), and an ex-convict and boxer, Joe Scott (Sydney James Harcourt).

    Sydney James Harcourt, playing an ex-convict and boxer, is a force of nature. CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times

    The visitors include Mr. Perry (Tom Nelis), a septuagenarian widower who is courting Marianne; Gene’s sometime girl, Kate Draper (Caitlin Houlahan); and the family physician, Dr. Walker (Robert Joy). The doc is a cracker-barrel philosopher and occasional omniscient narrator in the folksy tradition of the Stage Manager of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” He is also addicted to morphine.

    These elements might have come from a build-your-own-vintage-American-social-realist drama assembly kit. I regard the 47-year-old Mr. McPherson as perhaps the finest English-language playwright of his generation. But last year, when I saw “Girl” on its opening night in London, with a British ensemble straining for Americanness, the script often felt labored and imitative.

    With a uniformly excellent American cast that wears its roles like confining and prickly skins, and on a smaller stage, “Girl” feels far more convincingly of a piece. The work of the same team of designers — Rae Smith (set and costumes), Mark Henderson (lighting) and Simon Baker (sound) — comes together here with the self-containment of a poem.

    Within the production’s alternating visions of the claustrophobic boardinghouse and desolate roadscapes, the fraught denizens of Duluth seem perched precariously on the brink of infinity. There’s a mythic quality to the silhouetted figures who step from the shadows to sing and play instruments. (Lucy Hind’s movement direction is superb.)

    And how they sing, every one of them. Moments I seem destined to recall forever include Ms. Winningham delivering “Like a Rolling Stone” as a curse and “Forever Young” as an elegy; Mr. Harcourt leading “Hurricane” like a rampant force of nature; and Ms. Mason (who doubles as a drummer) singing “Is Your Love in Vain?” with the wounded cynicism of a seen-it-all barroom chanteuse.

    Oh, and I haven’t mentioned how Ms. Sprawl turns “Idiot Wind” into a philosophic half-acceptance of romantic attraction. Or the miraculous moment when Mr. Almond’s stunted Elias croons “Duquesne Whistle” in the style of a big-band heartthrob.

    The show’s most heartbreaking moments, though, are perhaps its happiest. I’m thinking in particular of the jubilant performance of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” that begins the second act.

    It’s performed as a sort of hoedown celebration, with dancing that defines each participant as an idiosyncratic individual and as part of a synchronized whole. You may find yourself thinking that this is as close as mortals come to heaven on Earth. And for just a few, infinitely precious moments, a radiance eclipses the all-devouring night.

    Friday, October 5, 2018

    from The New York Review of Books:

    ‘Called Back to the World’: An Interview with Alice Walker
    Alice Walker, Mendocino, California, September 17, 2018

    Of her more than thirty-five books, Alice Walker’s Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart, published this week, is her first bilingual work, presented in both Spanish and English. In 2015, during a period that Walker calls “a time of great sadness and feelings of loss and despair” in the world, she started writing a series of poems—seventy in total, into 2016—that would speak to that particular time, and memorialize the lives of activists and artists, past and present, who’ve used their voices to fight on behalf of those most vulnerable among us. This collection moves swiftly across a variety of places and settings, including Oakland and Havana, Palestine and Rwanda, from blues clubs to state prisons. Taken together, Walker not only captures the varied complexity of our world as it is, but also seeks to imagine our planet as it could be.  

    Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart is in many ways a return for Walker, whose first book, Once (1968), she wrote as a student on her first visit to Africa in 1965. Most well-known for The Color Purple, a 1982 epistolary novel that traces the coming of age of Celie—an African-American girl from Georgia in the 1930s who is twice impregnated by her stepfather—Walker was first black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. The novel was then adapted into a movie in 1985 and a Broadway musical in 2005, and revived again in 2015. In Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart, Walker continues to explore the themes of feminism, loss, and redemption that colored her earlier work, but poetry allows Walker to adopt a different relationship to time. Rather than traveling back to the far past or suspending time, Walker’s poems, as urgent responses to the events of the past two years, are imbued with a sense of immediacy, intense engagement, and heightened hope. 

    In mid-September I sat with Walker, who is seventy-four, at her home in Northern California, to discuss her new book, working in two languages, and how the political events of the last two years have shaped her writing. (This conversation had been edited and condensed.)

    Salamishah Tillet: Why did you title this collection Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart? In your introduction, you mention that it was originally going to be called The Long Road Home [also the title of Walker’s 2016 poem for Muhammad Ali] and you changed it.

    Alice Walker: I think that I was called back to the world. I was called back to the reality that people are suffering so deeply and that many people are not even calm enough and centered enough to contemplate the long road home. They’re still fighting with the arrow that they have been pierced with. About the media and the reality of what is happening on the planet, the murder of children, the abuse of the earth, the ocean, everything.

    So even though you changed the title, you still decided to open with the homage to Ali that inspired the earlier title?

    Muhammad Ali was a stellar warrior who refused to be complicit in the slaughter of the Vietnamese people at a time when every media outlet on the planet was saying that we have to go and kill those people. He said, “No, I’m not killing any of my brothers and sisters anywhere and if you think I’m going to do that, you’re crazy. Why don’t you just put me in jail right now.” This was a wonderful stand to take and so admirable. He reminds us that the American way of just shutting your brain to other people’s misery is bound to catch up with us in one form or another, and we see that today.

    As I traveled through the book, I kept thinking, only Alice Walker could honor such a disparate group of people, like Ali, Chelsea Manning, Jesse Williams, and Fidel Castro in this way. But for you, they really are all of the same world and not simply discrete entities.  

    Okay, you want to hear about Chelsea? When I speak in that poem [“Later We Would Miss You So Much”] about the people who attain the same bar of courage and fierce determination to share the truth they see, I think of Chelsea [the US Army intelligence analyst who was sentenced to thirty-five years in prison for delivering classified documents to WikiLeaks. President Obama commuted Manning’s sentence in 2017.] They brought to consciousness what war really does to people. Somehow, Americans are anesthetized almost completely, which is really scary when you think about it. I walk in the airports and there’s this voice that comes on talking about military families and preferential treatment, but it covers up the fact of what you’re actually doing. You’re sending off parents… to kill or be killed by people they’ve never even seen.

    You seem to insist that we should not compartmentalize the ways in which the US government approaches foreign policy versus how it treats its own citizens. Your poems traverse such a wide political and geographical terrain, and that doesn’t even include the bilingualism of the book. Are your poems modeling how we should live in the world, together and different? Did that influence your decision to publish a bilingual book?

    It’s partly that. I have a house in Mexico and I spend two or three months there [each year] but I still write in English because my Spanish is still really poor. I have such a love of Mexican culture because of the kindness that I have encountered from people there. Because many people there don’t read or speak English, I have always wanted to be able to share with them what it is I do, how I am addressing our common situation. So I wanted to create a book that my friends would enjoy, those who’ve been laboring all these years to teach “Alesia” to speak Spanish and getting nowhere.

    When did you first visit Mexico? I ask because you visit there in earlier works, like your novels, Temple of My Familiar (1989) and By the Light of My Father’s Smile (1998). 

    I first visited when I was pregnant with Rebecca in 1969. My husband and I were living in Mississippi, which was both incredibly dangerous and, even more than dangerous, boring. We went to Oaxaca and that was my first experience of the country. Then, when I was trying to write The Temple of My Familiar, my partner and I went to Mexico and rented a house so I could work because a lot of the people in the novel were Spanish-speaking; even though I didn’t speak it myself, there they were, chattering way. That was in 1986. I bought a house there shortly after that.

    In your poem “Imagine,” you recreate what Pope Francis and Fidel Castro might have privately said to each other when Francis visited Cuba in 2015.

    I loved that poem because I think both of those old men in their own ways tried to bring something decent out of a corrupt environment.

    In it you write, “When folks bow to me/ I want to shout at them: bowing/ to your masters/ is what you were forced to do in the first place:/ Straighten up!/ And how bizarre that they want me to kiss their babies.” In your telling, Francis resists the very status that he now embodies.

    Well, because he knows it’s a sham. Any intelligent person would know it’s just total ridiculousness. If they care about the babies, they would share all that gold they have. They have all this wealth.
    Alice Walker and Salamishah Tillet at Walker’s home in Mendocino, California, September 17, 2018
    Your work is always political, but I feel a different sense of urgency here.

    Well, I always feel like if you can see it maybe you can change it. Clearly, part of what any writer does is try to help you see what it is they see, that’s really all you can do. You can’t make people change if they’re not moved to do it, but that’s why we have writers, poets, fighters, and dancers.

    Is that why you returned to poetry? 

    My first love.

    In your introduction, you write, “Here as a poet I intervene.” What kind of intervention does poetry allow you to achieve?

    Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” had a great impact on me as a very young child. It opens with the lines, “If you can keep your head when all about you/ Are losing theirs and blaming it on you” and the last line is, “you’ll be a Man, my son!” Well, I don’t care about the man part, but I did know at that age whenever I heard it, it gave me permission to understand that I can go my own way. I can keep my head and not care what everyone else is doing with their heads, but I need to keep mine. That’s the kind of power that poetry has.

    This book is also a calendar of loss. There are a lot of people, besides Ali, who passed away in either 2015 or 2016 to whom you pay homage. Some with whom you were close, like Julian Bond.

    I adored him. Still do.

    And there is a great poem about B.B. King in which you try to imagine what he had to endure when he was still alive. Are you trying to remind us that we should appreciate these people while they are here with us on earth, too?

    So much blues music of that period and earlier is flawed because of the misogyny; B.B. King is one of the few men from that time who is always pleading with whatever woman he’s thinking about to just, Let’s work it out, I’m sorry. You’re sorry. He had a real good heart and he wasn’t a hustler.

    Your poem “I Believe the Women” reminded me that you probably have always believed women. How do we read this in this age of #MeToo?

    In that poem, I’m talking about how it is good to acknowledge how some of these old men [like Bill Cosby] who have made terrible mistakes got to be that way. It doesn’t mean that you have to go over and give him a big hug. It does mean that you see with compassion that here is a twisted being who is suffering.

    Grief and forgiveness dominate in this book. I’m thinking specifically of the poem “Making Frittatas” about your daughter, Rebecca Walker, from whom you were estranged for a decade? 

    Well, in lieu of going into all of our struggle, I prefer to express what we missed: ten years of being mother and daughter and thus will never come again.

    In his opening translator’s note, Manuel García Verdecia writes that you have constantly been showing him “that poetry is everywhere around us, even in the most trivial or unnoticed things, because they all share or add something to the complex and total function and sense of life.” I felt the weight of loss in your meditation on something as simple as “frittatas.”

    Grief, after so many years of feeling it so intensely, what I hope for is to come through it still at peace with myself. In a sense, the poem is again about gratitude. There is no regret or there is no even wishing it had not happened. It’s just a realization that we lost ten years of making frittatas together. As a mother and a daughter who loved each other and who love each other, that’s a lot.

    Does this return to poetry mean that you don’t want to write another novel?

    I don’t really get to say. If life says to me—or whoever it is that directs—“Okay, get out your stuff and get to it, you have another couple of years here,” there’s nothing I can do but try to do it. I’ve done the best with what I could do and I hope you all are happy. I’m pretty happy.

    Alice Walker’s Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart is published by Atria


    Thursday, October 4, 2018

    I wish they'd stop and talk about it. They don't though. They just march by pointing at the sign, hardly looking at me, and saying, 'Aaah, I think you need a question mark.'  They don't, but they all could have Red Sox caps on. Luckily it doesn't happen often

    If they thought about it, they'd realize there'd be a difference in the tone and meaning of the sign's message if I'd put in a question mark. I'd say to them, if they stopped, that a question mark is too soft a landing.


    Wednesday, October 3, 2018

    The Times was sold-out in the bodega where I get it in the morning. I had to go across the street and look for one. This is the Times editorial on the massive story it ran today:

    Donald Trump and the Self-Made Sham

    Now let’s see your tax returns, Mr. President.

    “I built what I built myself.”

    This boast has long been at the core of the mythology of Donald Trump, Self-Made Billionaire. As the oft-told story goes, young Mr. Trump accepted a modest $1 million loan from his father, Fred, a moderately successful real estate developer from Queens, and — through smarts, hard work and sheer force of will — parlayed that loan into a multibillion-dollar global empire.

    It’s a classic American tale of ambition and self-determination. Not Horatio Alger, exactly, but appealing, and impressive, nonetheless.

    Except that, like so much of what Mr. Trump has been selling the American public in recent years, this origin story was a sham — a version of reality so elaborately embellished that it qualifies as fan fiction more than biography. Also, as we’ve come to expect from Mr. Trump, the creation of this myth involved a big dose of ethically sketchy, possibly even illegal activity.

    As an in-depth investigation by The Times has revealed, Mr. Trump is only self-made if you don’t count the massive financial rewards he received from his father’s business beginning as a toddler. (By age 3, little Donald was reportedly pulling in an annual income of what today would be $200,000 a year.) These benefits included not only the usual perks of hailing from a rich, well-connected family — the connections, the access to credit, the built-in safety net. For the Trumps, it also involved direct cash gifts and tens of millions in “loans” that never charged interest or had to be repaid. Fred Trump even purchased several properties and business ventures, putting ownership either fully or partly in the names of his children, who reaped the profits.

    As Donald Trump emerged as the favorite son, Fred made special deals and arrangements to increase Donald’s fortunes in particular. The Times found that, before Donald had turned 30, he had received close to $9 million from his father. Over the longer haul, he received upward of what, in today’s dollars, would be $413 million.

    Along the way, it seems that certain liberties were taken with tax laws. The Times found that concocting elaborate schemes to avoid paying taxes on their father’s estate, including greatly understating the value of the family business, became an important pastime for Fred’s children, with Donald taking an active role in the effort. According to tax experts, the activities in question show a pattern of deception, a deliberate muddying of the financial waters. Asked for comment on The Times’s findings, a lawyer for the president provided a written statement denying any wrongdoing and asserting that, in fact, Mr. Trump had little to do with the dizzying transactions involving his family’s wealth.

    Everyone can understand the impulse to polish one’s background in order to make a good impression. For Mr. Trump, whose entire life has been about branding and selling a certain type of gaudy glamour, this image-polishing has been all the more vital to his success. And he has pursued it with a shameless, at times giddy, abandon.

    Veterans of New York news media still laugh to recall how Mr. Trump would call them up, pretending to be a publicist named John Barron, or sometimes John Miller, in order to regale them with tales of Mr. Trump’s glamorous personal life — how many models he was dating, which actresses were pursuing him, which celebrities he was hanging out with. As gross and tacky and bizarre as this all seemed, it was aimed squarely at fostering the image of Donald Trump as a master of the universe who, as the cliché goes, women wanted and men wanted to be.

    With this glimpse into the inner workings of the Trump family finances, some of the grimier, ethically suspect aspects of Mr. Trump’s mythmaking begin to emerge — and with them, many questions about all that we still do not know about the man and his business empire. Seeing as how that empire and his role in building it are so central to who Mr. Trump claims to be — the defining feature of his heroic narrative — the American public has a right to some answers. For starters, now would be an excellent time for Mr. Trump to hand over those tax returns on which he has thus far kept a death grip.

    In his 1987 memoir “The Art of the Deal,” Mr. Trump famously offered his take on the origins of his success: “I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.”

    But increasingly, Mr. Trump’s willingness to bend the truth — and the rules — in the service of his myth looks less like innocent exaggeration than malicious deception, with a dollop of corruption tossed in for good measure. It’s not the golden, glittering success story he has been peddling. It’s shaping up to be something far darker. 

    Monday, October 1, 2018

    from today's Times:

    From Orwell to ‘Little Mermaid,’ Kuwait Steps Up Book Banning

    Books were hung from a palm tree in Kuwait City on Saturday to protest official censorship.(CreditCreditYasser Al-Zayyat/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)
    • KUWAIT — No book, it seems, is too substantive or too insignificant to be banned in Kuwait. Recent targets of the government’s literary censors include an encyclopedia with a picture of Michelangelo’s David and a Disney version of “The Little Mermaid.”
    David had no fig leaf, and the mermaid, alas, wore half a bikini.
    “There are no hijab-wearing mermaids,” said Shamayel al-Sharikh, a Kuwaiti women’s activist. “The powers that be thought her dress was promiscuous. It’s humiliating.”
    Social conservatives in Kuwait objected to her bikini top.CreditCreditTrailer for The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning
    Kuwaitis like to think of their country as an enclave of intellectual freedom in the conservative Persian Gulf, a haven that once welcomed exiled Arab writers. But that self-image is becoming harder to sustain.

    Responding to the demands of a growing conservative bloc in Parliament, the government is increasingly banning books.
    In August, the government acknowledged that it had banned 4,390 books since 2014, hundreds of them this year, including many works of literature that had once been considered untouchable, setting off street demonstrations and online protests.

    Sometimes the 12-member censors committee (six Arabic readers, six English readers) that rules on books for the Ministry of Information gives a reason: The anthology “Why We Write” was banned because its editor, Meredith Maran, had falsely accused her father of molestation.

    In other cases, the justification is obscure, such as with “The Art of Reading,” by Damon Young. Maya Angelou is honored with a postage stamp in America, but her memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” is forbidden in Kuwait.
    Prize winners are not immune — in fact they seem to be frequent victims. “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” by the Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez, is banned because of a scene in which a wife sees her husband naked, as is “Children of Gebelawi,” by the Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz, the first Arabic-language writer to win the Nobel in literature.

    If all that seems rather Orwellian, George Orwell’s “1984” is also banned, in at least one Arabic translation, though it is allowed in another.

    Kuwaiti readers have struck back with a mix of brio and scornful mirth. Some posted photographs on Twitter and Facebook of piles of banned books they have in their home libraries.
    At Saturday’s protest against censorship. In the past 11 months, 700 books have been banned. (Credit Yasser Al-Zayyat/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)
    Authors suggested that online delivery services from abroad could evade the ban, which applies mostly to bookstores and local publishers. “Now books are becoming like drugs,” said Hind Francis, an activist with a Kuwait anti-censorship group called Meem3. “You have to have your banned-book dealer.”

    Activists and writers gathered to protest the book ban three times in September, most recently on Saturday, the last day of the international Banned Books Week. Kuwait is one of the few Gulf countries that allow public protests, although they are strictly controlled. The protests have been lightly attended, but any outdoor crowd has to brave temperatures that still reach 100 degrees.

    “It’s a challenge, but we tell them we’ll keep it to only an hour,” said Fatima Matar, a law professor and a founder of the protest effort.

    With the country’s book fair — the third largest in the Arab world, after Cairo and Beirut — scheduled in November, officials have pushed back. “There is no book banning in Kuwait,” read a recent statement by the Ministry of Information. “There is a book censorship committee that reviews all books.”

    An assistant minister of information, Muhammad Abdul Mohsen al-Awash, elaborated. “In Kuwait, over the past five years only 4,300 books were banned out of 208,000 books — that means only 2 percent are banned and 98 percent are approved,” he said. “Some books are being banned in the U.S., Europe, Beirut and other countries, too.”

    In the past 11 months, he said, 3,600 books were approved by censors, while 700 were banned.

    Yet, he insisted, “since its inception, Kuwait has always been known for its sponsorship of literature and culture.”
    It is a particularly sensitive issue because Kuwait’s emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, has pushed to make his country a regional cultural hub. While theater, dance and music are under royal patronage and exempt from censorship, books are not.

    “That cultural hub just cannot happen when you have a book massacre like this, all these books being banned,” said Bothyana Al-Essa, a Kuwaiti author whose book “Maps of Wandering” was banned. Kuwaiti censors banned the book over a child abuse scene set in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, she said, but the Saudis never banned the book in their country, where it was a best seller.

    Bans have for the first time extended to many international books and reference books already on Kuwaiti shelves, at least in part because of parliamentary pressure, critics say.

    “This year they’ve gone into the ridiculous,” said Ms. Sharikh. “Children’s stories and books by Kuwaiti authors.” Even works produced by the government’s own publishing house in the Public Council for Culture, Arts and Literature have been banned, such as a scientific study of hymens, according to Ms. Francis.

    Kuwait’s history of literary freedom is, activists say, the reason book banning is so distressing to the intelligentsia. “Kuwait has had a significant amount of progress when it comes to civil liberties,” Ms. Sharikh said. “We are the trendsetters in the Gulf region and have been for many decades.”

    Many banned books are still on sale in bookstores, but some sellers have removed offending titles.CreditYasser Al-Zayyat/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
    The Kuwaiti Parliament is the most independent in the Gulf, but that has also become the problem, bibliophiles complain. In effect, “democracy has become the enemy of democracy,” Ms. Matar said. “They believe we should all think alike.”

    Because Kuwait’s parliament has the authority to call a vote of confidence on individual ministers, and has forced resignations, the ministers tread carefully, especially on explosive social issues.

    Authors and their supporters say the Ministry of Information has responded to parliamentary pressure by giving the censors sweeping powers to ban books, even though the Kuwaiti Constitution guarantees intellectual freedom.

    Arwa Alwagayan, a Kuwaiti author, said her book “Be Well” was banned because of a passage that said the Islamic State was attracting teenagers “in the mosques.” The censors demanded she change that to “in some mosques,” and she refused.

    For some local authors, having their books banned has created a sales opportunity. After Mohamed Ghazi’s book “Blue” was banned over a passage on Page 56, Mr. Ghazi, an Iraqi who writes in English and lives in Kuwait, used Twitter to invite readers to buy it to find out why. His sales more than doubled, he said.

    Such defiance is rife. Many banned books are still on sale in bookstores in Kuwait; recently, at the country’s largest, the Jarir Bookstore in Shamiya, there were books on display by Márquez and Orwell, along with one not-very-risqué copy of Hans Christian Anderson’s bikini-clad mermaid.
    But other outlets, mindful of heavy fines, are removing offending titles.

    “It’s happening gradually, but slowly and surely books are disappearing,” Ms. Matar said. New books by Kuwaiti authors are especially vulnerable, because if banned they cannot be printed and distributed. Ms. Matar’s book of poetry was banned from sale when she refused to delete an offending line, she said.

    “We don’t want to get to that stage where we go to our bookshops and only find cookbooks and books about Shariah law,” she said.

    Underground banned-book dealers are already doing a brisk business serving literary scofflaws. Many use Instagram’s disappearing photo feature to display their wares, take orders and stay a step ahead of the law, according to one young author who said he supplements his income that way.

    At a bookstore in Kuwait City, the proprietor showed off a secret cupboard full of contraband books behind the cash register and a basement storeroom with even more. “It’s a cliché that book banning helps book sales,” she said. “As a bookseller, I can tell you I would much rather have the books out on display.”

    The bookseller did have a banned copy of “Zorba the Greek” on display, discretely, since it could result in a minimum fine of about $1,650 if Ministry of Information inspectors saw it. She said she was not too worried. “You can always spot them when they come in,” she said. “You can tell they’re not readers.”

    Follow Rod Nordland on Twitter: @rodnordland.
    Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut.