I have rarely been quite so tickled as when I learned that my memoir, Some Girls: My Life in a Harem, had been banned. It seemed glamorous to me, placing me in the illustrious company of the likes of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Some Girls has been banned in at lease two countries- Brunei and Dubai. I only know this because of the emails I’ve received from readers who live there and managed to get their hands on a copy anyway.
Reading those emails filled me with a sense of gratitude. I wrote my sometimes-scandalous book without a second thought because we live in a country that has freedom of the press. But perhaps that sense of gratitude is misplaced. I escape censorship because my book flies under the radar by dealing with such obviously taboo subjects as teenage prostitution. No one is suggesting that my memoir go on the shelf of a school library. But if the recent publication of the altered version of Huckleberry Finn is any indicator, censorship is still very much a relevant issue in this country, First Amendment or no.
This week is Banned Books Week. Here’s an excerpt of what the American Library Association website has to say about it.
Banned Books Week (BBW) is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment. Held during the last week of September, Banned Books Week highlights the benefits of free and open access to information while drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted bannings of books across the United States.
Intellectual freedom—the freedom to access information and express ideas, even if the information and ideas might be considered unorthodox or unpopular—provides the foundation for Banned Books Week. BBW stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints for all who wish to read and access them.
In celebration, I decided to revisit an old fave of mine from this list of the Banned and/or Challenged Books from the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century.
Because so many of the challenges happen through the public school system, I chose an author who was deeply influential to me in high school. I was rather surprised to learn that Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five has been challenged as recently as 2007, because from my recollection, Slaughterhouse Five wasn’t exactly Naked Lunch or Story of the Eye.
I reread the book and STILL couldn’t figure out what was so controversial about it. So I looked it up. Slaughterhouse Five has been repeatedly challenged, banned and even burned for such crimes as irreverence (which is apparently inherently offensive), profanity and the depiction of sex.
Slaughterhouse Five is about the life of a man named Billy Pilgrim, whose defining experience is surviving the WW2 bombing of Dresden. The structure of the book is organized around the idea of time travel. The non-linear juxtaposition of moments creates a sense of absurdity and fatalism that form the book’s central themes.
As I watch my three-year-old son begin to sort through the complexities of what makes up a joke, I’m reminded of the essential place of humor in organizing the human experience. Vonnegut was perhaps my first real exposure to the use of satire in addressing complex existential quandries. Satire was an important tool for me in learning to think about otherwise unthinkable atrocities.
After 20-odd years, it was a pleasure to revisit Vonnegut. His unique voice was transformative for me as a young reader and has remained influential to me as a writer.