In Search of Censored Paragraphs

Another imported post, this one from June 2008. Quick fun fact: Diana Abu-Jaber actually teaches at my university but I’ve never taken a class from her.

Crescent Diana Abu-JaberWhen I first went to Diana Abu-Jaber’s website, I noticed something on there about a school in Texas banning her book Crescent and a link to the offending paragraphs. At the time, I was on a bit of a linking spree and I didn’t stop to read more. Crescent was a great book, but it’s been years since I read it and I read it on loan from a friend and I couldn’t think what would be offensive about it. It’s a story featuring Iraqi-Americans and so I thought maybe it had something to do with that. Mostly though, Crescent is a love story, rich with myth and story and family, faraway homelands, poetry and cooking. Reading that book will make your mouth water for certain.

Years ago, Diana Abu-Jaber came to Orcas for a signing/reading at our local bookstore, and I didn’t find out about it until afterward. Neither did my friend who’d loaned me Crescent. We were disappointed we’d missed her. Last week, I was pointing out Crescent to my good friend Leo and looked at some of her other books and ended up picking up her first novel, Arabian Jazz and just started reading it the other day.

It got me thinking about Crescent, and curious. I wanted to find the censored section. I’m fascinated by book censorship, though completely diametrically opposed to it. I’ve often found that if something is censored, it’s probably excellent literature. I mean just looking at banned book lists is like looking at a delicious menu of literary treats. But now it’s not there on her site anymore! I’ve tried googling it and haven’t found it, grrrr.

I did find this though, and I think it’s pretty cool. There’s a blog called As If! Authors Support Intellectual Freedom. There is some really fascinating reading in there. Some of it is disheartening and just goes to show how narrow and fearful some people are. Really great reading on that blog though, and I encourage everyone to go over there and check it out. And of course, in the blog posts, there are lots of interesting sounding books to check out!

And then there’s the post about Diana Abu-Jaber which made it come up on my google search. In it, I learned that a Texas schoolteacher wrote to her and asked her if she’d be okay blacking out the supposedly offensive paragraphs. Here is a link to the full post about the issue: As If! blog entry on the censorship of the four paragraphs. I highly recommend reading the whole thing, and reading Crescent.

Here is the part of the blog I liked the most, Diana Abu-Jaber’s response to the inquiry. I’ll excerpt it here:

“Thanks so much for your thoughtful and insightful email. I’ve spent several days considering your question.

Ultimately, I find that I can’t condone your principal’s offer to censor my novel in order to make it more acceptable. That said, you do have my permission, to do what you think is right for your students.

In a strange way, I suppose, I think this discussion is an encouraging thing. I find it fascinating that, in our culture of war, macabre violence, and shocking cinema, a literary novel could still carry enough of an impact as to make someone want to silence it.

My husband pointed out that censors are always with us, determining the limits of morality and conventions, in every source of art and information, from books to film to music. He argues, along with you, that it’s better to allow students to read some of a book—indeed most of a book—rather than none at all.

Even though I see the excellent sense of this argument, I couldn’t find a way to feel right about crossing out text. I became a writer in large part because I felt like I couldn’t otherwise make my voice heard. To agree to blackening out such passages feels like colluding in my own silencing.

I once had a debate with a student from Saudi Arabia. I’d complained to him that the problem with America was that nothing was sacred. He’d laughed at me and said, on the contrary, that the great thing about America was that nothing was sacred.

I worry, though, that the American problem is that the wrong things are sacred.

I won’t belabor pointing out the obvious irony of blacking out scenes of love-making in a book that’s concerned with the depiction and the violence of unjust wars and dictatorship. We all already know this—in America, love gets bleeped, the violence stays. The two main characters in Crescent are in love, the few sexual passages in the book are far from graphic. Indeed, the scenes in which they cook and eat together are nearly just as suggestive as the contested passages.

But a friend, upon hearing about this debate, postulated that the real reason the students’ parents are upset is because the book gives a human face to Arab Muslim people.

That might be the part of this that unnerves me the most – and like so many forms of subtle discrimination and racism, we’ll never really know if that’s the case or not. The people who want the book banned may not even be entirely conscious of it themselves.

So I thank you for giving me the chance to think out loud a little about such an important issue. If you decide to proceed with blacking out the passages, I’ll be happy to post the offending text on my website, so those students who might be curious, can decide for themselves if they’d like to see what the fuss is about.

Please feel free to share my response with your principal, the parents, and even with your students. It’s a wonderful object lesson in the free and open exchange of ideas vs. book banning, especially during this, Banned Books Week.”

It’s really interesting to think about what our culture censors and what it doesn’t. I think it could be argued that sometimes the opposite is true, that sometimes the sex is allowed and real depictions of real violence are censored. I vaguely remember there being some issue around the music videos for Metallica’s “One” and Alice in Chains’ “Rooster,” which both had war images. I know “Rooster” a lot more, a song about Jerry Cantrell’s father’s experiences in Vietnam, and the video was originally banned or censored on MTV because of its real images of the Vietnam War.

I mean, personally I’m about as anti-censorship and pro free speech as imaginably possible. It’s almost like, in our culture, gratuitous violence or sex is okay (in different venues maybe), but actual meaningful portrayals of either is not. It’s fucked up. I agree with what Diana Abu-Jaber said, that maybe “the wrong things are sacred.”

I’m still searching for those paragraphs though. I want to reread Crescent too. Sometimes that’s the thing with reading a lot, so much can slip through with the years passed. I remember parts of the book, but too much is lost.

~Emilia J

Currently Listening:
“Heartfist” – Chris Cornell – one of my favorite Cornell b-sides. Gotta love a song that starts out, “Love me to death cuz I need the sleep/I’ve been wired awake…”

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7 thoughts on “In Search of Censored Paragraphs

  1. If I wasn’t sold on Crescent before, I am now. If you ever find those paragraphs, please link to them. I love Diane Abu-Jabar’s response and I wonder what the school eventually decided on. I think we’ve talked about this before – finding a list of previously banned books and reading them. I think both sexual and violence censorship exist depending on the audience. Sex for the kiddies who are doing it anyway, without any depiction of ‘love-making’ as she puts it. True violence is kept from adults, and instead we are fed ‘action’ and ‘horror’ in a form that is so sensationalized that most people cannot fathom the true violence that goes on in the world. We are not kept from either, its just the form we are being shown dilutes or removes our sense of sacredness.

  2. Leo, I think I can say with some absolute certainty that you will LOVE Crescent. OMG it’s so good. I am really making myself want to reread it! She also has a memoir out called The Language of Baklava. I totally see what you are saying about sex and violence. I think the blanket censorship of either is pretty absurd. Because in a lot of art, whether that be a book, a film, music, or whatever, it’s realistic, it’s necessary to the story, and worth exploring, especially if you’re trying to portray history or some reality in our society (like for example, all the wars we’re involved in). But it’s like instead we are bombarded with cheesy-ass versions of both. I think some of the greatest works of art have both.It’s almost like there’s some desire to censor reality, and I mean it in the way that our culture wants to pretend things didn’t happen. Take Huck Finn for example. Or To Kill A Mockingbird. In Lies My Teacher Told Me (about censorship in US history textbooks), he talks about how we censor racism, and also anti-racism. I think you can see the same thing in books and movies.I used to watch this show on Free Speech TV called Shocking and Awful, about the war in Iraq. It was hard to watch. But it’s disgusting to realize that that stuff isn’t shown on the nightly news. I think it really should be. We are part of a country that is causing lots of violence, torture, sexual abuses (in Abu Graib and other such places as well I’m sure), the destruction of cultures, the usurping of other countries’ democratic processes, contributing to global climate change and “free” trade agreements that hurt so many people in other countries, and a whole lot more, and I think it’s criminal that most of our news is about some local highway pile up, and Brad and Angelina’s babies. If you step outside and think about it, it’s seriously like living in a circus, some surreal, absurd circus, except it’s not fun (I always hated circuses anyway) and it’s really happening. I just think it’s so beyond irresponsible that, as a country, we’re so divorced from what we’re doing in the world, when we should be intimately aware and acquainted.It just seems like what ends up getting censored is what is real and raw and pure, and that, I feel, is it’s own sort of blasphemy.Okay, rant over.On another, very related note, I’ve been on and off reading Post Secret for years and I finally know what I would write if I ever made one. But I’m not going to say it because it would inflame a lot of hatred.

  3. “Currently Listening:Heartfist” – Chris Cornell – one of my favorite Cornell b-sides. Gotta love a song that starts out, “Love me to death cuz I need the sleep/I’ve been wired awake…” Love it.I’m overcome now with nostalgia for the days when killer lyrics just poured out of Cornell’s brain like blood from a vein. Thanks for reminding me.

  4. Hey, cool, thanks for the blog heads up, that sounds awesome!Oh Kali, Kali, Kali…don’t we all???It’s weird, I feel like I have to explain myself if I ever tell anyone I was a CC fan, which is sad. I still can’t really get over it. I mean how does someone go from writing some of the most gorgeous and meaningful lyrics for years and years and then start writing such shallow, boring crap? There are only two audioslave songs I ever listen to if they come up on my iTunes, one from the first album and one from the last. Sometimes hearing the earlier stuff just makes me sad for the loss of his particular genius he once possessed.

  5. I teach at the school that banned this book. I don’t know the specific paragraphs because I myself have not read the novel yet(I just purchased it so I may do so). I know that the paragraphs in question dealt with sexual content between the 2 lovers. It saddens me that 4 paragraphs of a sexual nature overshadow the beneficial thematic content of the rest of the novel. It took awhile because the teacher who was teaching it fought it all the way to the end and it went so far as for a committee to review it for appropriateness. But finally about 2 months ago, the book was officially banned in our district. I think this characterizes everything that is wrong with society.

  6. I pity the teachers who have to work with “modern “Texas morality in the public schools across the US. Sure, we need to protect children (even teens in high school), but we also need to educate them to know their “Worlds of Warcraft” are no fun at all when they come in real life with the smells of death and the pains of injury, the real loss of homes and loved ones. And to know the current nightly news is greatly lacking. For example, look at the many myths about persons with disabilities perpetuated by the angles used by too many reporters when the subject comes up. I totally agree with the thoughtful response from this author.

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