Archive for October, 2007

October 18, 2007

Four Paragraphs

Novelist and memoirist Diana Abu-Jaber visited the college where I teach yesterday where she told us the story of her recent experience with a high school in Texas. The parents of three students objected to the teaching of her novel, Crescent, which has been praised for, among other things, presenting Iraqi-American characters “as real people.”

This wasn’t what bothered the parents, though. Rather, it was the presence of four paragraphs of sexual content.

The principal at the school ordered the teachers to stop teaching the book. The teachers protested and were offered a compromise: black out the four offending paragraphs and you can still teach the book. The teachers asked Abu-Jaber’s permission to do so, arguing that while they were loathe to succumb to such pressure, they felt that there was so much else to be gained from this book, they hoped she would understand and assent to the practice.

As she considered the bargain, Abu-Jaber consulted with writers and “publishing people.” The writers were adamant in their insistence that she say no. The publishing people, and even her own husband urged her to accept the compromise.

In the end, she came up with a compromise of her own. She would not give her permission, but she would not stand in the way if the teachers themselves wanted to do the blacking out. And if they did choose to black out the paragraphs and continue teaching Crescent, she would post the excised text on her web site.

Here’s the story, straight from Diana Abu-Jaber’s website:

Awful as censorship is, I’d always thought there was a reassuring familiarity about banned books—Huck Finn, To Kill A Mockingbird, Lolita—classics powerful enough to frighten people into wanting to silence them. After all, isn’t that’s what censorship is all about—fear—of controversy, sexuality, difference, of questioning the status quo?

Then I received a sensitive, beautifully-written email from Texas. It was from a high school teacher, informing me that my novel, Crescent, had been banned from her school due to the objections of the parents of three students over the sexual content of four paragraphs in the book.

Her principal was behind the ban, but after teachers protested he offered a compromise. This is an excerpt from the teacher’s letter:

“If we obtain your permission to black out the four offending paragraphs … we are allowed to include the book in our curriculum….I am willing to ask you to do the unthinkable – will you allow us to mark through these four paragraphs in the interest of introducing a discussion of a culture so frequently demonized and belittled in our part of the country? Will you help me bring into a politically conservative community a sympathetic view of Iraq and Iraqi people?”

And so, after much thought and much asking-for-advice, I thought I’d share the response I gave the teacher:

October 2, 2007

Thanks so much for your thoughtful and insightful email. I’ve spent several days considering your question.

Ultimately, I find that I can’t condone your principal’s offer to censor my novel in order to make it more acceptable. That said, you do have my permission, to do what you think is right for your students.

In a strange way, I suppose, I think this discussion is an encouraging thing. I find it fascinating that, in our culture of war, macabre violence, and shocking cinema, a literary novel could still carry enough of an impact as to make someone want to silence it.

My husband pointed out that censors are always with us, determining the limits of morality and conventions, in every source of art and information, from books to film to music. He argues, along with you, that it’s better to allow students to read some of a book—indeed most of a book—rather than none at all.

Even though I see the excellent sense of this argument, I couldn’t find a way to feel right about crossing out text. I became a writer in large part because I felt like I couldn’t otherwise make my voice heard. To agree to blackening out such passages feels like colluding in my own silencing.

I once had a debate with a student from Saudi Arabia. I’d complained to him that the problem with America was that nothing was sacred. He’d laughed at me and said, on the contrary, that the great thing about America was that nothing was sacred.

I worry, though, that the American problem is that the wrong things are sacred.

I won’t belabor pointing out the obvious irony of blacking out scenes of love-making in a book that’s concerned with the depiction and the violence of unjust wars and dictatorship. We all already know this—in America, love gets bleeped, the violence stays. The two main characters in Crescent are in love, the few sexual passages in the book are far from graphic. Indeed, the scenes in which they cook and eat together are nearly just as suggestive as the contested passages.

But a friend, upon hearing about this debate, postulated that the real reason the students’ parents are upset is because the book gives a human face to Arab Muslim people.

That might be the part of this that unnerves me the most – and like so many forms of subtle discrimination and racism, we’ll never really know if that’s the case or not. The people who want the book banned may not even be entirely conscious of it themselves.

So I thank you for giving me the chance to think out loud a little about such an important issue. If you decide to proceed with blacking out hte passages, I’ll be happy to post the offending text on my website, so those students who might be curious, can decide for themselves if they’d like to see what the fuss is about.

Please feel free to share my response with your principal, the parents, and even with your students. It’s a wonderful object lesson in the free and open exchange of ideas vs. book banning, especially during this, Banned Books Week.

With great respect for wonderful teachers, like yourself,

Diana Abu-Jaber

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