YouTube pushed this at me (because they know I enjoy Roy Wood Jr’s Beyond the Scenes segments).
This PEN America report about book bannings for banned books week showed up in my inbox. But what does book bannings in America have to do with me, more to the point what does it have to do with Wadadli Pen? After all, it’s not like I have Caribbean book ban numbers to share. In fact, a quick google (cause that’s all I had time for) turned up only a 2018 twitter thread by Rebel Women Lit about the time the former eduction minister and current PM of Jamaica launched a campaign to ban books containing bad words, books like late Belizean writer Zee Edgell’s classic Beka Lamb. The same thread mentioned bans in the 1960s against books related to socialism and Black power, books like Alex Haley’s Malcolm X biography and Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.
Yes, book bannings can get ridiculous (let’s face it, they’re always ridiculous) but they also come at a cost – imprisonment, fines, law suits, and other financial and societal costs. Of course, the greatest cost is how it diminishes free thought and choice – underpinnings of democracy, and the opportunity books provide to expand your world.
When I was a kid coming of age in Antigua and Barbuda, it was calypsonian Latumba singing “culture must be free/they can’t muzzle me” in response to the banning of controversial songs from the airwaves – “they don’t even bound to play my songs on none of them two radio station”.
Believe it or not, I actually have some personal experience with books of mine being challenged if not banned.
The Boy from Willow Bend was already on school reading lists when I was asked if I would consider cutting what was deemed to be sexual content – that request came through the publisher (from a school in another Caribbean country, not Anguilla) and, though grateful for the interest in my book, my answer was no. It’s a coming of age tale and as the main character moved from childhood to young adulthood feelings of attraction for the opposite sex and not quite knowing what to do with those feelings was a natural part of his journey. This character also experiences physical abuse and grief, loss and depression, poverty and abandonment etc. Ironically, the (admittedly off page but referenced) sexual abuse of a female character didn’t seem to raise any red flags. I was also once invited by the then language arts coordinator to the Ministry of Education here in Antigua to discuss some of the challenged content in the book. I remember being bemused (Jamaica Kincaid would never) at the whole scenario as she took me through the challenged areas underlined or circled in pencil. One challenge was for a bad word – the kind of bad words we said in conversation with each other as children and hoped no adult overheard or nobody told on us, and the other was for the same sexual feelings (but no actual sex) scene. In fairness, there is a physical reaction but I actually think you would have to know what’s happening to know what happened in that scene but maybe not; either way it’s a thing that happens. I couldn’t figure what I was expected to do. The book was several years published by then, nothing could be done to change that fact, and even if I could run a special censored version of the book, I wouldn’t. It was for them to decide to put (or in this case, keep it on the list) or not and I hope they would have vetted it before including it (its inclusion, again, meaning the world to me which is why I prepared this study guide). There is one other challenge-y thing, but it’s hearsay from a parent-teacher meeting where some parents allegedly objected to my book’s inclusion because of the use of the local vernacular. But, of course, that’s not all nor I hope the majority of parents.
I think literature and the arts provides opportunities for discovery and conversations, and in the controlled environment of a classroom an opportunity for context. In a world where young ones are exposed through their phones to more than we’ll ever know, having conversations about issues arising from reading a work of art together with the opportunity to guide said conversation seems a better option to me than the wild wild west of the internet.
I’ve told the story before of the parent at a medical lab who was taking my blood when she realized I had written the book Dancing Nude in the Moonlight. She related that a teacher at her daughter’s school was teaching it, which I knew as I had been invited to answer their questions (I don’t believe it was on the official schools reading list though).
She said some parents had contacted her to see what she thought about the book being taught, so she read it and told me (as she had them) that she had no issue with it, she thought her daughter could handle it. Dancing is a drama framed in a romance, which at the same time deals with societal issues. When I was her daughter’s age I was reading books like The Tempest and To Kill a Mockingbird in school – talk about societal issues. I believe it was important to the teacher who introduced Dancing to her students to introduce them to local and Caribbean authors (not to put words in her mouth but we know that’s an issue), to imagine their world (the kind of work I try to do here with Wadadli Pen) but eventually, as I understand it, it was a losing battle, her efforts were cancelled – and Dancing has since gone out of print.
I wanted to end though on a positive note; action – what can readers do to support books and take the air out of book bans. The American Library Association has a whole list of which, I would say, relevant to us here in the Caribbean…
read the books they don’t want you to read and the books they do want you to read, read and boost the books that you do read, and if you’re concerned about the books your children are reading, maybe read with them and have conversations about it, and advocate for books that are challenged at your children’s schools because, sure, books are dangerous but in the best way, they open up your mind, your empathy, your awareness of worlds beyond your world, your imagination, you don’t have to agree with them or even like them, but a book that challenges how you see the world is sometimes the best book reading experience, and the impact is not a fixed thing, it can change you or it can reaffirm you, or it can do nothing more than entertain you, and that’s okay too
…books are powerful things as are the various arts (and media generally), and that’s why autocracies try to silence artists (and burn books) because heaven forbid people think and feel other than what a strongman wants them to think and feel…
So, that’s why the universe moved me to take a minute (!) and blog about banned books because this might not be as topical in the Caribbean as it is in the US but don’t sleep.
As with all content on wadadlipen.wordpress.com, except otherwise noted, this is written by Joanne C. Hillhouse (author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Oh Gad!, Musical Youth, With Grace, Lost! A Caribbean Sea Adventure, and The Jungle Outside). All Rights Reserved. Subscribe to the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks.