Banned Books Week

Drawn Out Dissent

In the spirit of Banned Books Week, we have another scandalous review to share. Enjoy!

Written by Morgan Engelmann

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There is a collective outcry going on right now about Things Happening Far Away from Here. Things that have been Happening Far Away for some time, and will continue to happen for many more times. It’s tricky to understand the Things Happening Far Away from Here because we are not There. It is not our life, our experience, our world. It is terribly hard to be in something so tangibly removed from our physical selves. This is where brave books become our tiny window, our sliver of light. In honor of Banned Books Week, I’d like to make some space in our consciousness for the beam that comes from Persepolis, a graphic novel/memoir of Marjane Satrapi published in 2000. This book has been shuttered in Iran (naturally), and the United States is sadly following suit.

Revolving around a girl growing up during the Islamic Revolution, Persepolis is at once a charming coming-of-age story and a frank, frustrating peek into a world of compounding oppressions. The graphic component engages the reader by lending the voice of the narrator through simple but telling facial expressions and with literal or embellished illustrations of her memories. The artwork is both effective and affecting, establishing a crucial emotional connection to the characters. The insight provided by Satrapi envelopes religious identity/adherence, gender conformity and equality, refugee adaptation, youth revolution/activism under a powerful regime, and how an artist’s voice is essential in a censored environment.

These important viewpoints alone are enough to make the novel indispensable, but the true magic comes from how all of this is woven into the typical narrative of a developing young adult. Ignorance blooming into enlightenment. Childhood blooming into awkward adolescence. Self-worth. Depression. Rebellion. Expression. Yes, in Marji’s life there is a side of torture and executions--but I dare you to find a middle schooler who doesn’t identify with this character despite their physical and cultural distance. However, in March of this year, the third largest school district in the US (Chicago) had Persepolis removed from classroom shelves in grades 7-10, protecting 7th graders from its “inappropriate” material and requiring further review on how to tackle its weighty issues with students as they move through their education. There is no timeframe currently set for this, or expected date to reintroduce the material into the curriculum. To understand why a public school district is so afraid of a comic book, one need only to experience the honesty of this beautiful literary contribution. The candid reality that is made so accessible to students is not an easy thing to teach. They won’t get bogged down with words and difficult language, instead they will be excited by flipping through a familiar format that just so happens to address the real, heavy parts of humanity.

Perhaps this is what makes Persepolis so dangerous. Not the inherent violence of the tale, not the mention of sex or drugs. There are far more graphic and disturbing images in almost every corner of your typical Chicago teenager’s life. What may be frightening our public schools is the possibility that children will begin to question what they are seeing in their own communities. And what better time to encourage them to do so? What other outlet do young minds have to ask the big questions and be given an opportunity to gather facts? Through the extra/ordinary life of one child in Iran, future generations can open into discussions of global identification, US foreign policy, religious oppression, censoring of information--all while recognizing the inherent human struggle we all face, thereby helping to dismantle racial fear. Fear of the “other”. Bringing things that were Far Away, right Here.

Education and exposure does not directly result in the youth of America adopting radical ideas and organizing. But maybe it could result in a more thorough understanding of the world we live in, and provide students with the tools or incentives to think for themselves. All that said--comics aren’t just for kids, and neither are these takeaways. More adults need to read Persepolis, too.

 

You Should Read Everything (But You Should Really Read Ulysses)

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In honor of Banned Books Week, we’d like to share the following review.  To learn more about Banned Books Week, visit www.bannedbooksweek.org.

Written by Phillip Garcia

When I was in undergrad, a friend of mine wrote a story called “The Dumbest Person Who Ever Liked Ulysses.” The piece was a comedy that followed the day of a gym teacher who was a fan of James Joyce’s masterpiece, while making (then topical) jabs at the TV show 24. As you might guess, the premise was based off a commonly held assumption: you have to be pretty smart to read Ulysses.

Famous grumpy person Jonathan Franzen is probably the loudest person to espouse this point of view, but he’s hardly alone; last year, for example, the increasingly less famous Paulo Caelho declared that Ulysses was harmful to literature. The root of this argument is that Ulysses is hard to read, and, of course, no one wants to read things that are hard to read. Instead, you’re much better off reading The Corrections, The Alchemist, or some other book that doesn’t take a lot of brain power to digest. Leave Ulysses to the writers and the scholars.

Now, I’m not a dumb guy. I’m a writer. I have a MFA. Like my fellow elitist snobs, I divide my time between writing stories, adjuncting at a community college, and watching Murder, She Wrote with my girlfriend. So of course I like Ulysses.

But hear me out. Ulysses doesn’t just appeal to me as a pompous, egghead writer; it also appeals to the small part of me that’s left that isn’t a snobby monster: my heart. Clearly, the book is a triumph of style; Joyce’s uncanny ability to test the boundaries of language are unquestionable (even to grouchy folks). But style aside, Ulysses is full of the strange complex joys and miseries of being human.

Nowhere is that clearer than in the final episode of the book: Molly Bloom’s soliloquy (yes). The scene is a nearly unpunctuated lyrical rambling from a woman who is having an affair despite the fact that she still (spoiler alert) loves her husband. Molly is presented to us as an incredibly rounded character, someone who is worth being emotionally invested in.

Compare her to Joyce’s other creation, Anna Livia Plurabelle, from Ulysses’ less successful little brother, Finnegans Wake (another book you should definitely read, despite its “difficulty” warning). Anna is a walking, talking symbol, representing a number of different concepts that permeate human existence. She’s incredibly amorphous; some critics dispute the fact that she even exists. Anna closes out (and re-starts) Finnegans with a similarly beautiful (and nearly indecipherable) soliloquy, comparable to Molly’s in its execution.

The key difference is that Molly Bloom is a living, breathing character. We are not just moved by the emotion of her words but by the emotion of her being. Strip away the style of Anna, and you have something akin to a rambling essay; strip away the style of Molly, and you still have the essence of human complexity. I do think that what Joyce does with Anna is an incredible feat (that’s another essay for another time), but on a basic, working class level, how am I supposed to emotionally connect to a monomythical symbol of matronly love? At the same time, how can I not relate to the all-too-human contradictions of Molly Bloom?

As a writer, Joyce appeals to me most because the evolution of his writing is so clearly documented. Reading Joyce’s fiction, from Dubliners, to Portrait, to Ulysses, to Finnegans, you can see a writer frustrated with what fiction had to offer him, and you can see him push and break beyond those limitations (admittedly, with varying degrees of success). That has served as a roadmap for my own writing. Why should we as writers be comfortable writing only the same things over and over and over again? How are we to grow and test are abilities if we are content to write only in the same style? Why should we be so scared to fail?

The same should be true of readers: why should we be scared of not understanding? Why should we be content with retreading the same ideas and styles and concepts? Why should we be so scared to read?

 

Ulysses was banned in The United States from 1921-1933.