Saturday, April 2, 2011



Taboo from NikkiMagennis on Vimeo.

Burning a book seems such a charged act, isn’t it? People use words like ‘biblioclasm’ and ‘libricide’ – as though one is killing something, rather than just destroying a mass produced paper item.

But a novel is not merely a collection of words, a story that someone made up. We think of a novel as a power object. Something that has the potential to whisper secrets, get under your skin, hypnotise you, corrupt you.

Books are not missiles, they are not voodoo dolls. Yet a book may ‘blow the top of one’s head off’. Fiction absolutely does have the power to change thoughts and actions. There’s no denying books can change lives.

Taboos suggest superstition to me, a certain mystical fear. The root of the word itself mixes ‘sacred’ with ‘forbidden’. [1]

For the most part, I don’t write taboos. I can’t work out if I’m afraid of approaching forbidden territory, or if I’m just happy to accept the validity of the moral consensus and so am not particularly interested in exploring the boundaries of what is ‘permitted’. I admit I avoid writing (and reading) certain stories in part for fear of manifesting them.

In my writing, I think I generally prefer to examine the subtle textures of life, the world, relationships. I find more interest in the gentler taboos, the ones that are harder to see: how we become slowly more invisible as we get older; all the things we avoid saying to people’s faces and what we say instead; the intricate, elaborate subtleties of conversational traditions.

But then, maybe I’m just well trained, having worked for so long within the confines of consensual and sex positive stories. That’s a slightly depressing thought – that I produce sanitized work to suit the market. Is it necessary to explore taboos? Or are they there for a good reason?

I don’t know. I’m not much in favour of shoulds. I do believe freedom of expression is worth fighting for, but I don’t get much of a thrill from pushing boundaries for the sake of it.

I tried to explore one of my taboos by burning a book I really hated. I was curious to see if it would release anything. But destroying a text doesn’t rid the world of the issue. I destroyed the book, but I couldn’t kill it.

Taboos may obscure the things we fear, but they don’t protect us.

Nikki Magennis is an author and artist who lives in a nice wild bit of Scotland. Her first two novels were published by Black Lace, and you can find her short fiction in many anthologies. Visit her blog at

[1] from 1777 (in Cook's "A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean"), "consecrated, inviolable, forbidden, unclean or cursed," explained in some English sources as being from Tongan (Polynesian language of the island of Tonga) ta-bu "sacred," from ta "mark" + bu "especially." But this may be folk etymology, as linguists in the Pacific have reconstructed an irreducable Proto-Polynesian *tapu, from Proto-Oceanic *tabu "sacred, forbidden" (cf. Hawaiian kapu "taboo, prohibition, sacred, holy, consecrated;" Tahitian tapu "restriction, sacred;" Maori tapu "be under ritual restriction, prohibited"). The noun and verb are English innovations first recorded in Cook's book.


  1. I destroyed the book, but I couldn’t kill it.

    Such a concise point, Nikki. I wonder if those who have burned books for thought-control reasons ever come around to this realization.

  2. I don't know, Craig, but I enjoyed finding out that some of the Nazi book burnings had to be postponed - because it was raining. If only inclement weather would always be enough to put a dampener on those kind of events ...

    Also, I wanted to say thanks very much to everyone at the Grip for having me.

  3. Thanks for this richly eloquent and insightful essay, Nikki.

  4. Thank you, Jeremy! I hope it made some kind of sense. I find non-fiction really hard, to be honest. And this topic is a funny, slippery, very interesting one. I still don't really know how I feel about taboos.

  5. Some book burnings--like the recent ones--I think happen not because of any particular animosity towards the book, but because of animosity towards the people who cherish the book. It could as well have been some other symbol: flag or effigy, perhaps.

    It does say something about a culture that they so revere a written text, though. Talk about the pen being mightier than the sword, indeed.

    I don't write my personal taboos; I guess my feeling is, why would I? I like the texts I read (and therefore, the ones I write) to be uplifting. I strongly object to the notion that sad or depressing or dark is somehow more "real" than happy. All of those things are real, but in fiction, we can choose what we reach for.

  6. Hi Shar,

    Yes, a horrible coincidence with the Qu'ran burnings and the deaths in Afghanistan. Of course it's the intention that matters in both the act and the reaction. Those were provocative burnings, a symbolic spit in the face, really.

    I don't even know if it was reverence for the text that caused the violence, or if the burnings were perhaps just seen as a trigger after all the oppression of the West - perceived or real.

    As for writing dark material - I love all sorts, and think there's a need for different kinds of fiction. You're right that light or positive things tend to be more often dismissed. Perhaps they're harder to pull off, too.

  7. Lovely post! Makes me want to do a poem about book burning, etc.


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