Censorship

Posted July 10th, 2012

censorshipBanning books, ripping them from classroom shelves, de-facto censorship at the point of publication—what the bleep is going on, here?

Okay. I’ll try to calm down, but the effort required is tremendous.

Deep breaths. Let me begin, again.

When I was a little girl, I was an avid reader. The library was my sanctuary, and story was my safe place. I lived between the pages of a book. That said, the books of my childhood let me down in one respect. Too few of them featured characters who looked like me, or who shared my life experience. Reading book after book after book without seeing my face reflected began to make me feel invisible.  No child should ever feel that way between the pages of a book.

As an author of books for children and young adults, I have devoted more than 30 years to addressing that imbalance, by creating literature featuring children of color, primarily African American and Hispanic. The impact of that work, and the work of other authors of color—Latin, Asian, Native American, as well as African American—has already been felt in the generation that followed ours. But we’re still playing catch-up, in many ways. There remain genres in which our voices have been too seldom heard, fantasy and science fiction among them.

Now, just when our children are finally beginning to feel a sense of inclusion and empowerment, our books our being banned from school classrooms. And, yes, I said our because I align myself with any ethnic group targeted for censorship. There is no Latin children’s book community, or Asian children’s book community, or Native American children’s book community. There is only the children’s book community, and what affects one member affects all.

Censorship harms all children, not only the targeted ethnic group du jour. A book is the safe place for a child to learn about another culture. It is there that children come to understand that all humans are more alike than different. I was reminded of that in a letter I received from a reader who wrote: “I learned that no matter how different we are on the outside, we’re all pretty much the same on the inside.” That is one of the great lessons to be learned from books featuring Latin, Asian, Native American, Middle Eastern, African, and African American characters. Only someone, or some state, that wants to perpetuate the racial divide would take issue with that.

Are you listening, Arizona?

Of course, race-related censorship is not the only kind out there.

Today, I’ve got another itch to scratch.

What set me off more recently? An attack on author Rachel Held Evans for her blog about the stranglehold Christian bookstores have on the Christian publishing industry. She wrote about the frustrations felt by many believing authors who find themselves creatively straight-jacketed by a marketplace that prefers its literature sanitized, and a little left of reality. I resonated with much of what she had to say, and felt pressed to add my voice to the argument.

I’m livid about people trying to dictate what a Christian writer can, and should, write.  Or, for that matter, trying to dictate what can and should constitute “Christian fiction.” Let me explain.

I’m something of a rarity. I’m an author who publishes on both sides of the aisle, namely with both Christian and secular publishers. Over the years, I’ve noticed that as long as I’m focused on picture books, the problems are, for the most part, slight. However, the minute middle grade and YA fiction is the genre, hold your horses. “Language” suddenly becomes an issue. And by “language” I mean so-called edgy words like “damn” or “hell.” (“Shit” is completely out of the question.) As for subject matter, let’s not mention witches, or prostitutes, or—gasp—homosexuals. Mind you, I’ve never featured gay characters in any of my fiction, nor used the word “shit,” but I most certainly object to the idea of being told that I can’t.

Here’s my problem. I’ve been a student of the Bible since 1974 and, in all that time, I’ve noticed the following: stories in the Holy Bible include passages on witches, sorcerers, mediums, prostitutes, pimps, racists, adulterers, despots, and homosexuals, among others. These stories do not suggest that one should become a pimp, witch, prostitute, etc. But the Word of God does not shy away from their mention, or instruct readers to ignore the reality of their existence.

Some of the stories we find in scripture are cautionary tales, some are tales of redemption, while others focus on transformation. Instead of pushing for a literature that is “safe”—something the Bible never was—why not allow the creators of Christian fiction the freedom to follow the models found in scripture?

Consider this: Father Abraham pimps out his wife, Sarah, not once, but twice. The prophet Hosea married a whore, and did so on God’s instruction. Rahab, a prostitute, became a hero of the faith, and an ancestor of King David and, through him, an ancestor of Jesus Christ. What, exactly, do Christian booksellers do with those stories? Are you going to tell me that such stories are good enough for the Holy Bible, but not good enough for contemporary Christian authors?  Really?

I realize nothing I say here is going to convince these booksellers to take off their blinders, but still. One must speak out. Thank you, Rachel Held Evans, for taking the lead.

I’m not sure I know how to take on the censors. I only know that silence won’t work.

The Lord never neglected to call a spade a spade. Neither will I.

5 Responses to “Censorship”

  1. Well said. This is exactly why I don’t write Christian literature, even though I am a believer. I add elements of my faith into my writing, how could I not, after all, they are a part of me, but I don’t try to target Christian publishers or bookstores.

  2. Nancy Barth says:

    Excellent commentary. Can’t the Christian bookstores trust their customers to think for themselves about the meaning in what they are reading?

  3. Jeanne says:

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Nikki, you put to words my thoughts and experiences as a Christian educator. Time and again, I’ve scratched my head at what some people require be censored. To be salt and light, this is our decree. You do it well. Write on!

  4. Sonia says:

    Nikki,
    Thank you for taking a public stand on censorship and addressing the importance of establishing an inclusive children’s literature canon where Latino, African American, Asian American and Native American books are fully represented. Your blog post has propelled me to think more critically about the effects of censorship on contemporary christian and ethnic children/young adult authors. You have and continue to make a significant contribution to children’s literature, education, and the Christian body.

  5. Thank you for saying what I’ve wanted to say but couldn’t and thank you for saying it so well. This issue been boiling inside me for so long I didn’t even know where to begin with it so I have just kept my mouth shut. But you are right: we won’t make it go away by refusing to talk of it. I am Christian but the idea of becoming aligned with people who want to sanitize Christianity beyond recognition makes me loath to admit it sometimes. Which in turn leaves me feeling angry, guilty and voiceless. It’s complicated.

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