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Banned in L.A. -- Local Authors Talk About Banned Books Week

The fatwa against The Satanic Verses author Salman Rushdie was recently re-upped (from $2.8 to $3.3 million). Controversies still rage about banning textbooks teaching evolution from classrooms. And in Tucson, Arizona, the school district didn’t simply ban books, they banned an entire curriculum: the Mexican American Studies program. (In a particularly Orwellian twist, the Tucson Unified School District insists the books from the program haven’t been banned, they’ve merely been “redistributed.”) There’s a reason we celebrate Banned Books Week (Sep. 30 – Oct. 6). There are thousands of reasons.

We get comfortable. We get complacent. We think, “It couldn’t happen here.” It can. It does. All the time and in ways that probably never receive attention from the media, books are being censored and prohibited. This year, we asked several local authors, some of whose books have been targets, what Banned Books means to them.

[Author quotes compiled by Kristin Yinger.]

Aimee Bender
(The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Willful Creatures, An Invisible Sign of My Own)
What’s your favorite banned book? Why?
I think I'll say Lolita because it STILL feels incredibly shocking, sixty plus years later. It is both completely gorgeous and incredibly uncomfortable to read. That said, it seems like many, many of the books are favorites of some kind or another. The Metamorphosis? Brave New World?  Harper Lee?  Maybe the banned book pickers are literary longevity assessors in disguise.

Sonya Sones
(Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy, What My Girlfriend Doesn’t Know, What My Mother Doesn’t Know)
What’s your favorite banned book? Why?
That’s like being asked which of my children I like best! There are so many powerful, enlightening, brilliant novels that have been banned. I won’t choose a novel. I’ll choose my favorite non-fiction book, a book I couldn’t write my novels without—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, which some very self-righteous people once tried to ban because it contains "39 objectionable words" such as the slang terms "knocker" and "balls."

Your Young Adult novel in verse, What My Mother Doesn't Know, was one of the top 10 most banned books of 2004, 2005, 2010, and 2011, as well as being one of the 100 most banned books of the decade. What’s it like to have a book you wrote get banned so frequently?
Sendak, Salinger, Steinbeck…and me? I never met a banned book list I didn’t want to be on. I dance a happy little jig every time my book makes the cut again. Not because this will increase sales (though it does) and not because it will lead to more teens discovering and reading my book (though it will). The reason I love being on the list is that when I am, I get invited to speak at schools about why books shouldn’t be banned. Which is wonderful, because there is still the possibility that I can lead a child in the right direction, before they’ve been dragged too far down the wrong path by a misguided parent.  The ironic thing is that, in the scheme of things, What My Mother Doesn’t Know isn’t even particularly racy—no drugs, no alcohol, no bad language, and no sex. All it’s got is a little kissing. Go figure.

Is Banned Books Week still relevant?
Banned Books Week is not just important, it’s essential. It brings censorship to the attention of students all across the country. Adults have already made up their minds about whether they think banning books is an acceptable practice or not, but kids may never have thought about it. This week serves to open their eyes to the issue of freedom of speech and why they’ve got to do everything in their power to hang on to that right. I agree with Clare Booth Luce, who once said, "Censorship, like charity, should begin at home; but unlike charity, it should end there."

Bruce Bauman
(And The Word Was)
What’s your favorite banned book? Why?
When I was a thirteen-year old teenager growing up in Flushing, Queens, one of my great uncles died. We ended up with a small carton of books that my parents innocently tossed into my room. Inside, I found tattered copies of Allen Ginsberg's Howl and also Hugh Selby, Jr.'s Last Exit to Brooklyn. Two fucking A-bombs went off in my head. Six months later, I followed the literary trail to The Trial. Goodbye law school, hello struggling novelist.

Flash Forward to April 17, 2002 at Barnes & Noble in The Grove. Would I like to read with... Hugh Selby? Damn right, I would. Meeting one of my heroes, this man who had written so beautifully about such horror and helped change my life, scared me. He was frail, but a quiet strength emanated from him. His sweetness surprised me. To survive -- and any great writer lives what he writes, whether fictional or not -- the hell of his books requires reserves of human kindness most of us do not possess.

After the reading, I asked him to sign a new copy of Last Exit to replace the copy stolen by one of my teenage hooligan friends. I mentioned that I'd grown up in Queens but had been born in Brooklyn. The author who changed my sense of the world placed his hand on my forehead and whispered, "Bless you, son."

Is this week important and why?
Books have changed and will continue to change the world. Oscar Wilde, another of my banned-books heroes, proposed in The Critic as Artist that art and intellectual criticism will add to a respect for other peoples' cultures that is so deep it will someday lead to an end to war. One can point to many authors living under the threat of the gun, but until the banning of books is ended worldwide, none of us is truly free. I may be a cockeyed romantic, but I believe it.

Geoff Nicholson
(The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, and Literature of Pedestrianism, Gravity’s Volkswagen, The Hollywood Dodo)
What’s your favorite banned book? Why?
It's got to be the something by the Marquis de Sade. I was actually working in a bookstore in London when British customs agents did a raid and seized all our stock of the Grove press editions of his works -- though not before I’d extracted a few volumes for myself. Juliette is probably my favorite, not because it’s a great or even especially readable book (though it does have some magnificently ludicrous food and sex scenes), but rather because its subversiveness and power to offend remain strong over 200 years after it was written.

Is this week important and why?
Yes, because we tend to believe, complacently, that we’ve won the battle for freedom of speech and expression. It's good to be reminded that we haven’t.

Ron Koertge
(Strays, Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses, Stoner & Spaz)
What’s your favorite banned book? Why?
It's still Catcher In The Rye, if you can believe that. Every year somebody somewhere bans it. It meant a lot to me when I was 16, and even though that's been awhile, students have told me it still means a lot to some of them.

Do you think banning books is still a significant problem?
My books The Arizona Kid and Stoner & Spaz are regularly banned. Stoner does have a druggie heroine with a potty mouth, so I know why that might alarm parents. That Colleen has a good heart doesn't seem to make much of an impression. With The Arizona Kid, all the hoopla is about Wes, the narrator's gay uncle. Billy stays with Wes for the summer while he works at a racetrack. That's it. There's no hint of impropriety. Just the idea of a straight kid and a gay adult in the same room makes some people crazy.

What’s it like having your books banned?
I'm on the list with some real heavyweights like Mark Twain, so I'm proud to be there. My sales always spike during Banned Books Week since people want to know what all the fuss is about. There are few things more fun than reading books that someone says shouldn't be read.

Cecil Castellucci
(The Year of the Beasts, First Day on Earth, Beige, The Plain Janes)
What’s your favorite banned book? Why?
Brave New World, 1984, Clockwork Orange, Fahrenheit 451. I can't just pick one of them. These classics blew my mind and cracked open my world when I was a teenager.  I always thought it was funny that books that make you think about the world and ask questions were/are being banned.

Do you think banning books is still a significant problem?
Absolutely. Banning books is akin to banning ideas. Ideas and thinking and challenging the status quo should be celebrated, not squashed. Books are the first places that ideas are born and awakening begins. Oftentimes, the most banned books are young adult novels. As a writer of Young Adult fiction, I find that extremely disturbing; when we are teenagers is when we are most in need of ideas. That's how we change the world for the better.

Gustavo Arellano
(editor, OC Weekly; author, Orange County: A Personal History, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America)
What’s your favorite banned book? Why?
The Grapes of Wrath, because Steinbeck is a genius. The fact that people consider his novels subversive and worthy of banning because they take issue with him siding with the people instead of the One Percent is as grand an indictment of the American Dream as they come.

Is Banned Books Week important?
ANYTHING highlighting books is important but especially banned ones. You might as well ask me why breathing is important to living. Have you been paying attention to what's been happening in Tucson?

Amy Gerstler
(Dearest Creature, Medicine, Ghost Girl)
What’s your favorite banned book? Why?
So many astonishing books have been banned it’s impossible to pick a favorite. Howl, Frankenstein, Lolita and Alice In Wonderland would be in my top five right now: four superlative works of the unfettered human imagination.

Is this week important and why?
Literary censorship destroys and/or impedes human knowledge and erodes progress. It’s essential for our survival that we to be able to think, speak, and write freely, and that we humans remember the vast differences between works of the imagination and what happens in “real life.”

Do you think banning books is still an issue?
Absolutely. A grave and dispiriting ongoing problem. I just read this headline relating to the fatwa declared against the author of The Satanic Verses: “Salman Rushdie still under threat 23 years later.” Just ask any small town librarian in America if banning books is still an issue. Right now there are places in the US that are trying to ban school text books that mention evolution.