Censorship and Reader Sensitivities

I try to plan my blog topics well in advance so I’ll have time to devote to writing each one. The fancy name for it is “editorial calendar.” Today was a day I had trouble settling on a topic. I’d made a list of possibilities, but none of them really grabbed me.

Another blogger came to my rescue on April 12, 2021. John W. Howell, an author of thriller novels, inspirational fiction, and family life fiction, wrote What to Do With Books That Are Insensitive to Social Norms | Story Empire (wordpress.com) and in it he referred to his March 24, 2021 blog post, Avoiding Insensitivity in Characters or Story | Story Empire (wordpress.com). Viola! I was inspired to write today’s post.

(Here’s a link to Mr. Howell’s Story Empire website and blog: https://storyempirecom.wordpress.com/.)

An Example of Book Censorship

Reading Mr. Howell’s blog posts got me thinking about book censorship and the closely-related topic of cultural appropriation and reader sensitivities.

The very idea of a book being censored or people demanding that certain books be banned from public libraries, school libraries, and bookstores really gets my ire up. Book censorship is a slippery slope. Images of book burnings in Nazi Germany come to mind.

#bookburning #censorship
Photo credit: Jonny Caspari on unsplash.com

The American Library Association’s (ALA) annual list of the top books requested for banning or restricted reading is fresh on my mind. Here’s the link to the ALA’s website where you can see the list: http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee is consistently on that list. It’s on the list the ALA published earlier this month. One reason given for its being requested for banning is that the lawyer who represents the black man in court is white. The story is set in Alabama in the 1930s, so it is true to the time and place that the lawyer and all the jurors would be white. Racial injustice is the core theme of the novel. The book was published in 1960, and little had changed by then.

I believe we can learn the lessons of history by reading good historical fiction. It’s one thing to read a list of laws governing people of color in the United States in the 1930s, but how better to illustrate and shine a bright light on the laws – written and unwritten – prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1965 than to bring them to life on the pages of a novel and the subsequent movie based on that book?

I’d no sooner had that thought than I found Jabari Asim’s article from July 17, 2015 on Publishers Weekly: https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/columns-and-blogs/soapbox/article/67521-rethinking-to-kill-a-mockingbird.html. (Please take time to read his entire piece after reading this blog post.)

Being a black man, Mr. Asim offers a different perspective than the one I can offer. His words made me stop and think. Perhaps I had read To Kill a Mockingbird with naive blue eyes. Mr. Asim is one of the most influential African American literary critics of this generation. If you’re not familiar with his work, please visit his website: https://jabariasim.org/about_jabari_asim/.

Among Mr. Asim’s sentences that made me reconsider my stance are the following: “Mockingbird, like Uncle Tom before it, often strikes me as a form of literary ointment for white guilt, meant to soothe outbreaks of conscience while dispelling perceptions of how pervasive white supremacy is. Its homespun patter and deep-fried homilies enable many readers to overlook its sketchily drawn black characters—little more than archetypes—and bask in the glow of Atticus Finch’s exemplary moral courage.”

Also, this: “Some days I can ignore Mockingbird’s mostly pedestrian prose and regard it as a cleverly subversive send-up of white racism, minus Mark Twain’s stylistic flair but dutifully echoing his irreverent tone.”

And this: “Other days I marvel at Mockingbird’s apparent prescience when, years before Fox News and talk radio, Atticus Finch says to his brother, ‘Why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up, is something I don’t pretend to understand.'” 

What is To Kill a Mockingbird‘s place, then? It’s likely to be debated for decades to come.

#ToKillaMockingbird #censorship
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

Self-censorship, Cultural Appropriation, and Reader Sensitivities

Being a writer can involve self-censorship, and there are degrees of that when it comes to reader sensitivities. I’m not a published novelist, but as I work on my historical novel I’m ever-cognizant of reader sensitivities.

Most of us practice self-censorship in our communications with others. Some people who should self-censor are sadly unaware. As a writer, I feel the need to self-sensor. I don’t use racial slurs in my speaking or thinking, but that doesn’t mean I won’t need to include one in my writing in order to be true to time and place. It doesn’t mean I condone the use of such words. My challenge in writing a novel presented from multiple points-of-view is having the audacity to put myself in the skin of a person of color – especially a person of color who is male and enslaved in the United States in the 18th century.

Doing so is somewhat akin to cultural appropriation, which is a dominant culture adopting a practice that is inherent in or associated with a minority culture. I’m not doing that in my novel, but I am attempting to write thoughts, emotions, and conversations of three people of color. I want to be aware of possible reader sensitivities, but I don’t want that awareness to fundamentally change my writer’s voice.

I’m writing a novel set in the North and South Carolina backcountry in 1769. It includes two black male slaves, one free black woman, a Frenchman, and a number of white Scottish and Irish settlers. I’ve been working on this novel for many years. If I were to look at my first draft, there would be many cringe-worthy words and scenes. I started out really over-doing writing accents phonetically. It was tedious to write, and I’ve since learned that it’s not appropriate. It can be degrading, and it can be exhausting for the reader.

I’ve grown as a person and as a writer since I started the book probably a decade ago. I’m striving to make the final product true to the time and place. I’ve done extensive research – even into the laws on the books in South Carolina in 1769 that governed the fabric of the clothing slaves were permitted to wear.

If and when my novel is published, I hope no one’s sensitivities will be offended, but that’s probably wishful thinking. I’m attempting to write a book that will be entertaining and educational. I hope it will be a book that will cause readers to put themselves in the skin of the various characters and come away with an appreciation of history.

An Earlier Blog Post about Cultural Appropriation in Writing

Author and administrator of the “Writers on the Path to a Page-Turner” Facebook group, Barbara Kyle, wrote the following: “The move to self-censorship for fear of ‘cultural appropriation’ is a sad state of affairs. Author Morgan Jones eloquently champions the opposite position: ‘Fiction remains the best means we have of finding connection where there seems to be none; and the novel, of all forms, encourages a search that’s deep and sustained. By reading (or writing) one, you’ve travelled somewhere else. You’ve moved, if only slightly, towards others. In a world that finds and increasingly exploits division and difference, this in an invaluable, precious exercise.”

I copied the above quote several years ago and taped it to the top of my computer monitor. In trying to find an online link for you, I was reminded that I used it in my August 27, 2018 blog post, Cultural Appropriation in Writing. Ms. Kyle shared (and I included in that 2018 blog post) this link to an October 1, 2016 article in The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/01/novelists-cultural-appropriation-literature-lionel-shriver.) Please go back and read my earlier blog post and click on the link to Mr. Shriver’s article in The Guardian.

Where do we go from here?

I think writers would do well to keep in mind the following question asked by John. W. Howell in his March 24, 2021 blog post referenced in my opening paragraph today: “Am I knowingly or unknowingly writing characters or a story which casts aspersions on anyone relative to their race, nationality, gender, sexual preference, religion, disabilities, or age?”

Mr. Howell goes on to say, “The key to the question is we may write something that we didn’t think would discriminate but did that exactly.” He also said, “The caution here is that if you are not part of a group you are writing about, be very diligent in your research. Some would say unless you are a part of a group, don’t write about them. I disagree since I do not want to believe that writers can only write what they know.”

#Censorship #readersensitivities
Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

In his follow-up blog post on April 12, 2021 (also referenced above in my opening paragraph), Mr. Howell gave Gone with the Wind as an example of a book that could be criticized on several fronts due to its glorification of the Southern plantation. A little later in his blog post he said the following: “Maybe because I’m an author, I hate to see a book be declared undesirable, but it does seem that we should embrace a discussion of any book that is outside our social norms. Include in the discussion why a text no longer reflects current attitudes. If we were to discuss why certain depictions in a book are wrong, we all would better understand each other. Maybe, more importantly, we could learn more about what actions and depictions are especially hurtful.”

I agree with Mr. Howell on that. Let’s not ban books from our library and bookstore shelves. Let’s read and discuss them and, thereby, learn to do better.

Since my last blog post

I enjoyed all the beautiful azaleas in our yard. I don’t think they’ve ever been prettier. All good things must come to an end – or so “they” say. Wednesday afternoon brought snow 100 miles away in the North Carolina mountains, and Thursday and Friday mornings brought record-breaking below freezing low temperatures to my house. I hope this was winter’s last gasp.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have at least one good book to read this week. I have more books checked out from the library than I can possibly read. It’s a nice dilemma to have.

Enjoy a relaxing hobby.

Note: Tomorrow is National Tell a Story Day in the USA. Don’t tell a lie. Tell a story. Tell a young person about one of your good memories. It will give them something to remember you by.

Note: Ironically, Wednesday is the anniversary of author Harper Lee’s birth in 1926. Some literary critics say a person who writes just one novel (such as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird) is not a great author. (I know, I know. Her unpublished manuscript for Go Set a Watchman was published in 2015, so she actually wrote two books.) My example is still valid. Ms. Lee died in 2016, and until 2015 she was known as an acclaimed author who wrote “only” one book. I’m not saying the historical novel I’m writing is a great novel, but it gives me hope to know that Harper Lee “only” got one novel published during her lifetime. If I only get one novel published, I’ll be more than happy.

Note: Watch out for May! It arrives on Saturday. May is “Get Caught Reading Month”. Start making your plans for getting caught.

Janet

Books Read in August 2020

Reading in August was a bit of a challenge. Lots of things were going on within the family and I was distracted. Nevertheless, I did finish reading or listening to several books.

I think I shouldn’t push myself so much in the future. It’s gotten to the point that I feel guilty if I’m not reading! I want reading to be the pleasure it’s intended to be, so I’m adjusting my expectations. I reminded myself this isn’t a contest. The person who reads the most books doesn’t necessarily win.

With that introduction, let’s jump into the books I read or tried to read in August.

We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America, by Brando Skyhorse and Lisa Frazier Page

#WeWearTheMask
We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America, by Brando Skyhorse & Lisa Page

This is an enlightening book. It has nothing to do with the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s about a completely different kind of mask.

It’s 15 first-hand stories of the experience of “passing” in America as something one is not. To give you the overall flavor of the book, I’ll briefly give you the topic of each of the 15 stories:

A Mexican-American is forced by his mother to pass as an American Indian;

A Cuban Jewish lesbian tells how many of her fellow Cubans were surprised to be considered black (or “colored” in the vernacular of the early 1960s) when they arrived in the US;

A man’s half-Chinese great-grandfather changed his name twice in order to pass as white. It was more than 100 years before his descendants found out they had Chinese ancestors;

A black man was mistaken as a server at the National Book Awards banquet and realizes that one’s attire cannot counteract people’s prejudices and assumptions;

A brown woman started passing as a Puerto Rican at the age of seven when her family moved to Italian-dominant Staten Island, NY because the Italians were confused over her skin tone. She was called derogatory Asian names while her teachers made the assumption that she was Puerto Rican;

A man passed as white until he retired. Then, he moved back to his home community of darker relatives. He wasn’t totally accepted;

A white woman marries a black man and they have children; she moves to a nice retirement community in Mexico and keeps her bi-racial children a secret from her new friends… until those adult children come to her funeral; and

A transgender man passing as a woman and learning what it’s like to be an attractive woman and being hit on by creepy men and being subjected to everything from violence to unwanted catcalls to always having to be aware of one’s surroundings.

There are also stories of homosexuals passing as straight, poor people passing as wealthy, and even wealthy people passing as poor.

This is the kind of book you can pick up and read a small section of when you have a few minutes. I enjoyed reading just one story a day.


The Secrets We Kept, by Lara Prescott

The CIA and Dr. Zhavago
The Secrets We Kept, by Lara Prescott

This is a fascinating novel! It’s the story of how the United States set out in the 1950s to smuggle art, music, and literature into the Soviet Union and, specifically, how women typists in the CIA were instrumental in carrying out the mission.

President Eisenhower knew the US lagged behind the Soviet Union in the space and nuclear races. Here’s a quote from the novel that puts it in a nutshell: “They had their satellites, but we had their books. Back then we believed books could be weapons, that literature could change the course of history.”

The US wanted to emphasize to the everyday Soviet citizens how their government censored and persecuted the Eastern-bloc’s finest artists. They started by sending up weather balloons that would burst behind the Iron Curtain, raining down pamphlets.

Then, they started mailing books into the Soviet Union. Then, at the suggestion of one of the female typists, they started gluing the covers of non-controversial books like Charlotte’s Web and Pride and Prejudice to the covers of banded books. The ultimate objective was to smuggle in copies of Dr. Zhivago, by Russian author Boris Pasternak.

Reading Dr. Zhavigo would open the everyday Soviet citizens’ eyes to what had happened between the Russian Revolution of 1905 and World War II. The book had been banned in all Eastern-bloc countries because it was considered subversive.

This is a story of espionage that will have you cheering, especially for the women who are the unsung heroes of the CIA.


The Story of a New Name, by Elena Ferrante

Book 2, follows My Brilliant Friend
The Story of a New Name, by Elena Ferrante

After reading My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante in July, I looked forward to this second book in a series of four novels by Ms. Ferrante. Maybe it was just my mindset or my being distracted by wanting to work on my own novel, but The Story of a New Name did not hold my attention. I listened to almost half of the book (which is more of a chance than I normally give a book I’m not really enjoying) before I sent it back to the library. I found the two friends, Lila and Elena, more interesting as children than as adults.

This book has received good reviews, so I think it just wasn’t the right time for me to try to read it.


The Butterfly’s Daughter, by Mary Alice Monroe

#MonarchButterfly
The Butterfly’s Daughter, by Mary Alice Monroe

I’ve been intending to read a book by Mary Alice Monroe for years and finally got around to it. I listened to The Butterfly’s Daughter on Playaway while I walked every day. As I understand is true of Ms. Monroe’s novels, the reader could tell she did extensive research about the monarch butterfly before writing this book. Each chapter is prefaced with a sentence or two of monarch butterfly facts, and other information about the species is woven throughout the book.

I immediately liked the main character and I was really pulling for her on her cross-country trek through the US and into Mexico to her homeland of her grandmother where the monarchs overwinter. It was an engaging story. A bonus was that, at least on the Playaway edition I listened to, the author was the narrator.


Since my last blog post

Lightening fried our computer modem, which put a crimp in my style for several days. We’re getting into a routine for caring for our newly-diagnosed diabetic dog. 


Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read.

If you’re a writer or other artist, I hope you have productive creative time.

As the Covid-19 pandemic drags on in the US, please wear a mask out of respect for other people, even if you feel fine. Several of my cousins have been battling the virus for weeks already.

Covid-19 is real, in spite of what the current resident of the White House says.

Janet

Cultural Appropriation in Writing

Cultural Appropriation was a term I first encountered one day last week while participating in a writers’ group page on Facebook. Although I was not familiar with the term, I’ve had first-hand experience in wrestling with it in my own writing.

aaron-burden-123584
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

A definition

The Cambridge Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as

“the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.”

A raft of articles and video clips

As I started looking for a definition of cultural appropriation, I found a wealth of online references, which proves that I just haven’t been paying attention.

What I discovered is that non-Hispanic individuals were criticized for operating a burrito food cart in Portland, Stella McCartney was criticized for including Ankara prints in her spring fashion collection, a white man was criticized by Koreans for making a Kimchi-making tutorial, in March of this year Bruno Mars was accused of cultural appropriation in his music, and just last week Jamie Oliver was accused of cultural appropriation for calling a dish “punchy jerk rice.”

Author Morgan Jones’ opinion

Author and administrator of the “Writers on the Path to a Page-Turner” Facebook group, Barbara Kyle, started a conversation about cultural appropriation on Facebook on August 20. She shared a link to an October 1, 2016 article in The Guardian ( https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/01/novelists-cultural-appropriation-literature-lionel-shriver ) and in a follow-up comment she quoted author Morgan Jones. Here’s Ms. Kyle’s comment:

“The move to self-censorship for fear of ‘cultural appropriation’ is a sad state of affairs. Author Morgan Jones eloquently champions the opposite position:  ‘Fiction remains the best means we have of finding connection where there seems to be none; and the novel, of all forms, encourages a search that’s deep and sustained. By reading (or writing) one, you’ve travelled somewhere else. You’ve moved, it only slightly, towards others. In a world that finds and increasingly exploits division and difference, this is an invaluable, precious exercise.”

After you’ve finished reading my blog post today, I invite you to read The Guardian article referenced above. That article includes the following novelists’ views on cultural appropriation: Hari Kunzru, Kamila Shamsie, Aminatta Forna, Chris Cleave, AL Kennedy, Stella Duffy, Linda Grant, Naomi Alderman, Philip Hensher, Maggie Gee, and Nikesh Shukla. These are writers of various ethnic backgrounds, which makes their comments especially poignant.

The article’s introduction reads as follows:

“Jonathan Franzen claimed he won’t write about race because of limited ‘firsthand experience’, while Lionel Shriver hopes objection to ‘cultural appropriation is a passing fad’. So should there be boundaries on what a novelist can write about?”

Another writer in the Facebook group

Another person in the writers’ group on Facebook shared that he had given up on publishing his historical novel based on the life of Etienne Annaotaha, a Canadian First Nations hero after seeing how much flack Joseph Boyden caught for his writing, even though Mr. Boyden is 26% Native American. Imagine how a 100% European ancestry writer would be treated for writing about Native Americans if someone like Mr. Boyden is not accepted?

A quote from Walter Mosley

The following quote from Walter Mosley appeared in an email I received from Writer’s Digest last week:

“Write without restraint. It’s important to not censor yourself. People will censor the sh*t out of you… and there’s more truth in fiction than there is in nonfiction. You have to be committed to that truth.” – Walter Mosley

My challenge

In the historical novel I’m writing, set in the Carolinas in the 1760s, I’m attempting to write from several points-of-view, including that of a male slave and that of a free woman of color. My challenge is to be true to history while writing about fictional characters. I might not get it right.

I found a truck-load of encouragement from the Morgan Jones quote highlighted above! I have typed it and taped it to the bottom of my computer screen so I can read it every time I sit down to work on my novel.

So should there be boundaries on what a novelist can write about?

I say, “No, as long as the writer does her best research and uses her best writing skills to convey a story in a work of fiction.”

Cultural appropriation smacks of censorship, and I’m not for censorship in fiction. I don’t want someone else deciding what I should or should not read. Likewise, I don’t want someone else deciding what I should or should not write.

As a Southerner, I have not appreciated the disingenuous portrayal of Southerners in movies and television programs all my life; however, I uphold the creators’ right to produce that work under the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. Censorship is a slippery slope I don’t want to see us go down.

All that said, I will be mindful of my use of dialect in my novel. There are better ways to get across time, place, and social standing than hitting the reader over the head with dialect.

Since my last blog post

I’ve taken some courage from researching cultural appropriation. Although I was ignorant of the term itself, I’ve given a lot of thought to the subject for the years I’ve been working on my own novel.

I was also inspired by a dream I had last Monday night. As far as I can remember, it was the first time I dreamed that I was writing. I was writing my novel, and the words were flowing faster than I could write them down. The odd part was that I was writing in cursive, although in real life I do all my writing on the computer.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m trying to finish reading A Gentleman in Moscow and I’ve started reading The President is Missing, by Bill Clinton and James Patterson.

If you’re a writer, I hope you have quality writing time. I plan to get back to work on my historical novel (working title, The Spanish Coin) with a renewed since of dedication since recharging my batteries in the Blue Ridge Mountains a couple of weeks ago and since reading about cultural appropriation last week.

Thank you for reading my blog. You could have spent the last few minutes doing something else, but you chose to read my blog. I appreciate it! I welcome your comments

I invite your comments below. What are your feelings about cultural appropriation? Have you read any good books lately? What have you been up to? What’s on your mind?

Let’s continue the conversation.

Janet