Tuesday, October 9, 2007

"We Read Banned Books!" Wrap-up

This last week was Banned Books Week, and the most notable happening in the iSchool (and of course I'm not just saying this because I helped put it on!) was the "We Read Banned Books!" event, sponsored by SALA on Oct. 4th in Odegaard. About 25 people from the iSchool community and beyond showed up to listen to local writers, artists, and librarians come and share some of their favorite banned literature.

After opening remarks from SALA veep Sonja Sutherland (which you can read here) the event kicked off with a rollicking start. Rock journalist Charles R. Cross shared some beautiful and steamy passages from D.H. Lawrence's 1928 novel Lady Chatterley's Lover. Cross recalled first reading the book as a teenager and noted that it was easy for him to find the sex scenes to share at the night's reading in his copy of the book because, as a youth, he had dog-eared those particular passages. Lady Chatterley's Lover was banned in England for 32 years after its initial private publication.

Cross was followed Cody Walker (UW English Instructor) and Wendy Call (editor of Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writer's Guide), both Writers in Residence at the Richard Hugo House. Walker shared passages from Walt Whitman's Song of Myself, and reminded us that Whitman once said "The dirtiest book is the expurgated book." Call presented an autobiographical essay about her relationship to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and the serendipity that entered her life the times that she has read it. The Handmaid's Tale is #37 on the ALA's list of The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000.

Local children's book author Laura McGee Kvanosky read from Susan Patton's The Higher Power of Lucky, a book for young readers that caused a stir earlier this year for its use of the word "scrotum," which prompted some school libraries to censor the book. The ALA responded to this controversy with a statement asserting the book's value, which Kvanosky charmingly echoed during her portion of the event. She read us the offending, scrotum-filled section and I think everyone in attendance agreed: sometimes you just have to call a scrotum a scrotum. Kvanosky also noted the tainting effect that censorship can send throughout the literary community, noting serious discussions she has had with publishers over whether she could depict two little fox girls playing card and changing their clothes (not at the same time, mind you).

David Wright, a fiction librarian at SPL, then took us to the dark side of intellectual freedom, reading a chilling passage from The Turner Diaries, a work of speculative fiction that is also chock-full of white supremacist propaganda. This book details a revolutionary struggle for "racial purity" in the United States, and has inspired a number of white supremacist groups and Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. In the passage Wright shared, the narrator of the book details the execution and public display of thousands of "race traitors" in Los Angeles as a means of pacifying the population.

Wright was obviously (and understandably) nervous as he read this passage and apologized several times over, but his point was a powerful one. It is perhaps too easy during Banned Books Week to think of all the Huck Finns, Harry Potters, and Cather in the Ryes of the world: "Important Works of Literature" that liberal humanists have to defend against those who are scared by challenges to their worldview. I'm not saying that this isn't important, even while I admit that there is an element of elitism and self-righteousness worked into this equation. We also have to remember that there are books like The Turner Diaries, filled with ideas that we (and most people) will find repugnant, racist, even dangerous, and we have to defend them just as much (and maybe more) than I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Why? Because it is our job to protest ideas, and to make sure they are available for those who want them, pure and simple. It's a hard message, and I applaud Wright's courage in making us remember it.

The evening finished on a more upbeat note, with local comic artist Ellen Forney's hilarious reading from Judy Blume's Forever, oft attacked for its honest depictions of teenage sex. Forney invited Cody Walker back up to the stage to read a particularly juicy scene. She then went on to talk about challenges to her own book I Love Led Zeppelin, a collection of comics which has been pulled from several libraries for its frank sexual content, including a section titled "How To Fuck a Woman With Your Hands." She shared some of the e-mail exchanges that she has had with librarians across the country, and offered insight onto how content decisions are sometimes made from within the library before they even have a chance to be made by the community they serve.

All in all, it was a wonderful event: inspiring, thought-provoking, hilarious, frank, and even a bit disturbing. And really, that's just how Banned Books Week should be. Major thanks to all of the readers, and to Bo Kinney and Sonja Sutherland for their work putting it on.

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