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,