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Imagine a country where you can’t read William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It sounds like an Eastern European allegorical novel published under Communism: a samizdat way of talking about the excesses of censorship through playful reference to a (surely unbannable) classic story about freedom from tyranny and the overthrow of usurped power; about the freedom to love, freedom from slavery and colonisation, and the freedom found in learning language, especially when, as Caliban says, ‘profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse’ the master who taught him.
Apparently that’s too much freedom for the land of the free. The Tucson Unified School District Board succumbed to the state of Arizona’s decision to delete the highly successful Mexican-American Studies program from the public school curriculum. Threatened with a $4.9 million penalty, they removed dozens of books from the city’s classrooms, The Tempest included. According to Rinku Sen writing for ColorLines on Alternet, books such as Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of America alongside works by many Latino/a, Chicano/a and Native American writers like Leslie Marmon Silko, Sherman Alexie and Michael Dorris, were seized by police officers from classrooms, right in front of students.
The repression of literature is part and parcel of the state’s persecution and criminalisation of its Hispanic citizens, Sen argues, further depriving them of the ability to inform themselves to protest against their treatment. Professor Roberto Cintil Rodriguez notes in his Comment is Free piece for The Guardian, that “students who walked out … protesting the elimination of the district's Mexican American studies program, have – without a hearing – been directed to perform janitorial duties,” a further humiliation and exclusion from education.
It’s like a real-life version of Nat Hentoff’s celebrated novel about censorship in American schools, The Day They Came to Arrest the Book. Except this time, it’s not liberal parents concerned about racism and sexism upsetting students in Huckleberry Finn, but nationalist right-wing anti-immigration politics. But both sides want to rewrite history, albeit with different intentions, and both sides have a ‘chilling effect’ on teachers, librarians, publishers and writers.
Of course, it has also inspired incensed and imaginative protests across the US, with many writers using it to draw attention to the wealth of Hispanic and Native literature about the South-West and the challenges it presents to conservative narratives of history. The swift circulation of the news and organisation of protests via the internet demonstrates how the web has become a crucial new tool in the fight against censorship, even as its potential power makes it a site for censorship.
Puerto Rican-American writer Aurora Levins Morales even issued a letter of complaint via her blog to the Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, “to protest discriminatory actions on your part that amount to defamation of my character and that of my mother, Rosario Morales, as Latina writers: You have not placed a single one of our books on your list of titles to be banned from the public school curriculum!”
Quoting Berthold Brecht’s 1933 poem, 'The Burning of the Books', in which a writer whose books have not been proscribed writes to the authorities, “Burn me! Haven’t my books always reported the truth? And here you are, treating me like a liar! I command you! Burn me!,” Levins Morales demonstrates the vexed state of the author who has been ignored by the censor, whom after all Italo Calvino describes as the closest reader, and the one who takes most seriously the power of literature to create change.
Levins Morales, as her quotation from Brecht shows, is part of a long, rich and moving history of creative, wily, witty, angry, impassioned, playful and forceful responses to which censorship has driven authors. The history of banning, burning and bowdlerising books that we’ll be looking at on the Free Speech and Literature course I am running with the Bishopsgate Institute and English PEN is also the history of their survival: the censor’s power is often terrible, but not final. It can also remind us to treasure the power of the word, which will always outwit the censor who invests it with power by their censorship. While we won’t be able to read the entire list of titles suspended by TUSD in our six week class, the place thereon of The Tempest reminds us that any book can become a banned book, and any book can be read for what it has to say about freedom.
Thanks to poet and banned author Deborah Miranda for drawing my attention to this story via posts on Facebook.
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