Friday, February 28, 2014

Freedom to Read Week Day 6

Talking about book banning on a book blog is a decidedly strange feeling. We're all here because we love reading. We love it enough to write books, edit them, hand-sell them, review them; maintain book blogs, go to library school, and befriend perfect strangers from across the world because that same paragraph rips both our hearts in two. We're readers, and the idea of banning books, in the readerly world, is functionally a suggestion to ban air. You don't need to explain why you're against it. It's more curious--and suspicious--if you're for it.

There are ways in which it's a really vital conversation: The Russian government criminalized any writing that speaks positively about homosexuality right before the opening of the 2014 Olympics, and teenage poet Tal Al-Mallouhi has been in prison for four years because of the poems and posts on her blog.

But there are some ways in which I really, really wish the conversation about the freedom to write and read was one in which we held ourselves--writers and readers--to a higher standard. Just like any form of discrimination, it's easy to attack the obvious problems first: Books taken out of libraries or schools; books taken off the shelves with plenty of media coverage. Those books which suffocate quietly because of discomfort with what they have to say are a harder thing to get a handle on. There are many ways to stifle a voice. As editors, readers, writers, reviewers, fans, bloggers, we're complicit in a lot of them.

When a publisher's art department takes the brown protagonist off a book cover and puts a white secondary character on it because conventional wisdom says non-white covers don't sell, that's a tiny banning; it's a tiny statement that certain kinds of stories shouldn't be here, or have to be disguised. It's a tiny statement to the readers who'd see themselves in there that they shouldn't read, or write.

When a black teenage girl and voracious reader is steered by a librarian from the adult books to the kids' books, again and again and again, it's a tiny book banning. It's a message that because of who that girl is, what she looks like, there are books she can't and shouldn't read.

When two YA co-authors are told by a literary agent that their book will be represented if they rewrite the gay protagonist into a straight one, or YA editors tells authors that their male/male romance stories aren't acceptable unless they're made male/female, that's a tiny book banning too. If those authors had listened, no one would have been able to read their books.

When a Sri Lankan author at a reading confides that nobody wanted their speculative work, but people were more than happy to take the almost-standard story of living through the Sri Lankan Civil War.

When an intersex author is rock-certain that their book about an intersex character will have no place at a major press, even though mine somehow found a way through, and they are not coming from nowhere on that one.

When a reader walks into a bookstore and say they want a hard SF novel--but not one by a woman, and if you give them that stuff you don't know your science fiction.

When white readers think there is nothing that books about black, Asian, or Middle Eastern characters could possibly say to them that matters; because they don't read books by those kinds of people.

So many books are banned every day, around the world. Most of them aren't pulled off library or bookstore shelves; they never make it to those shelves, or never make it off them into a reader's hands. I think what we forget is that book banning is a buildup of small acts: Not the big bonfires of Fahrenheit 451 or school board challenges that take whole swathes of titles off shelves.

It's when you put your damned self between a reader and a book.

Even and especially if the reader is you.

In honesty, I'm a bit afraid of sending this post to be published. I've rewritten it five times, taken much too long dithering with it, and gone back and forth about whether I'm being just way too hardassed about the whole thing.

But the problem is, every single one of the examples I put down up there really happened. We talk a lot about how important books are, how banning books is like banning air, but even as people who love books, who love how they heal or break your heart, we are keeping readers from the books they need. We are keeping books from finding the readers they were meant for.

Looking at yourself unflinchingly--as an individual, as a community, or as an industry--is sometimes the hardest thing to do. It's painful to see yourself coming up short; to really take a good, long, hard look for biases, for stereotypical thinking, for prejudice flying under cover of marketing decisions or personal opinion.

To ask if we're doing our best to make sure that the freedom to read means all the stories. Not just the ones that are about you or me.

But it's necessary, and I think, at this point, about time. All we really control in life is the acts that come out of our own two hands and the words that come out of our own mouths. We make our choices. We should be making good, kind, and curious ones.

This Freedom to Read Week, let's not make it about the other people: The ones who pull books off library shelves; the ones we look down upon; the ones who don't understand. Let's make it about us.
Let's count up the women authors, authors of colour, international authors, LGBT authors, authors with disabilities, anyone who's not exactly like us on our reading lists, and if we find we're not reading those books, let's read them and discover what they have to say--whether it's comfortable for us or not.

Let's review them. Let's find the ones that have paragraphs to break your heart open, and give them to our friends.

Let's pick up those books with brown people on the cover or gay teens in love inside, and prove to publishers that yes, people will too buy them.

Let's ask people what story they'd love to read, and make that story happen however we can.

We love books. We love reading. We love the freedom to read.

Let's make sure, in 2014, that the freedom to read's equally free for everyone.

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