Liz’s News of the Books

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Closing the Gates of Persepolis

When I started writing this column about literary controversies, I never dreamed that 9 months later, I’d find my hometown in the center of one. Not that I’m happy about this (other than not having to look in obscure places or manufacture a controversy out of thin air), but we haven’t had a good ‘ol fashioned book banning in a while. Lane Tech High School in Chicago broke that local streak when for whatever reason staff were directed to pull Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, out of school libraries. Or something that seemed very, very close to book banning. Something that took Persepolis out of a place where students who previously had access to it will no longer be able to do so.

Actually, I can’t figure out the order of events here, and neither can anyone else. Stories abound. Is it inaccurate to say the book was banned? Some people say it was just taken out of the 7th grade curriculum, others say high school libraries no longer have it either. Some say the ban is over, but I have it on good authority from the ALA (located in Chicago, what are the odds?) that the challenge is ongoing. I’ve heard the objection came from a pro-Iranian family in Englewood, but if you know anything about Chicago, that story smells worse than Bubbly Creek did on a hot day, especially since reports came out of Lane Tech…on the other side of town. I don’t want to add to the flurry of information about this event, especially since I suspect much of it is wrong. You do the investigative journalism of Googling yourself, and let’s just talk about what it all means.

One thing that is pretty much not in debate is that bookstores over Chicago are selling out of Persepolis. I’ve seen the gleeful posts on their websites, heard the clerks gloating at Women and Children First. And you know…that tends to happen when you ban a book. A little about Persepolis–it’s a graphic novel, meaning it’s written with pictures and words, a comic book but so much more. In this case, it’s actually a graphic memoir, Satrapi illustrating a childhood lived under a gradually tightening Iranian regime.

Is it graphic in content? Not really. I guess there’s a panel showing a prisoner tortured that someone thought was too intense. Marjane Satrapi, who is by the way a witty and brilliant speaker, (I have a signed copy of Persepolis), commented that a 7th grader, especially in Chicago, has been exposed to more violence than what’s in her book. The whole thing was put into perspective for me at a literary festival that is monopolizing my life right now, Columbia College Chicago’s Story Week. Yes, I graduated, and yes, I am still volunteering. Events like the panel they held on Ray Bradbury today are why.

Bradbury literally wrote the book on censorship: Fahrenheit 451. At the panel, during the audience Q and A portion of the event, an insightful listener asked Chicago-area writers Sam Weller, Mort Castle, Joe Meno and Audrey Niffenegger what they thought of the Persepolis ban and what Bradbury would have thought. “We look uncool.” Joe Meno said. And he’s right. We’ve joined the ranks of Iran and Lebanon by banning this book. Great company, y’all. (It turns out Barbara Jones of the ALA was in the audience and updated us slightly on the ban, assuring us her office was working on it.) Niffenegger made the startling point that since Persepolis is non-fiction, banning it is weirdly like erasing reality, which calls to mind another writer of banned books, George Orwell. The consensus was: we are not building a city of the future.

And the other consensus of the panel in terms of what dear old Ray would have thought is exactly what’s happening in Chicago: banned books sell like hotcakes. What heartens me most, (especially having had the dubious honor of participating in a different protest movement last year), is how quickly and forcefully Persepolis’s potential readers are stepping up to defend their right to read. In your Googling you will come across a plethora of engaged, passionate kids who say things like, “I wanna read this book.” And your hope for the human race, cracked as it was by the whole CPS decision to limit access to a wonderful story, is patched up a tiny bit by these kids. A lesson is being learned, and the right people are learning it.

— Liz Baudler, Blogger

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