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Sherman Alexie: The Value of Subverting Authority

October 5, 2012

Banned Books Week: The acclaimed author speaks about what motivates his censors, self-censorship, and the value of stories.

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Image from Flickr via ALA - The American Library Association

I first encountered Sherman Alexie in high school. I was assigned Reservation Blues, an assignment that, like so few at the time, I felt grateful for. (Thank you, Mrs. Hamilton, if you’re reading this.) It was that fabulous sort of book that had me waving it at friends, demanding that they borrow it. It struck me then as funny and smart and poignant, and, like all of Alexie’s work that I’ve read since, still does.

So when The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Alexie’s multiple award-winning young adult novel, showed up on the ALA’s most-challenged list, coming in 2nd in 2010 and 5th in 2011, I was, to put it bluntly, pissed. Very pissed, but not surprised. Alexie has never shied away from alcoholism or sexuality, which are deemed pornographic and corruptive in all forms and treated as though they were secrets. Nor has he avoided the complexities of race, the history behind which revisionists find too knotty. Censors prefer the stale air of a stripped-down world. A world that is, even to eyes of children, false.

That preference was on display again in January, when Arizona banned the Mexican American Studies program in the state’s public schools, pulling the programs’ books from classes. Among the texts removed was The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Alexie’s 1993 collection of short stories that received a PEN/Hemingway citation for Best First Work of Fiction. Alexie wrote in response that “Arizona has made our books sacred documents now.” To me and countless others, they were already. I suspect, despite the censors’ zeal, that our numbers will only grow larger.

I asked Alexie over email about his experience with censorship, its motivation, and his reaction.

–Ed Winstead for Guernica

Guernica: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian came out in 2007, but it didn’t start appearing on the ALA’s lists of most frequently challenged books until 2010. Was it around that time that you first heard of your work being banned? What was your reaction the first time you found yourself pulled from shelves?

Sherman Alexie: My books for adults had been previously challenged and banned so I’d had experience with it. I always find it sad and amusing: Sad to think that such archaic and potentially dangerous censorious beliefs still exist, and amused because these censors only make a book more powerful and seductive when trying to ban it. 

As I write more honestly more kids will make their way toward me. And in subverting their repressive parents kids will learn the value of subverting the repressive nature of all authority figures.

Guernica: Your censors typically cite sex, profanity, racism, and an anti-Christian message as objectionable; why do you think these things bother them so much? What motivates these people who are trying to take your work out of schools? Is there a racial dimension to it?

Sherman Alexie: The banning is always the work of conservative Christians who often demonstrate they haven’t actually read the book by citing imaginary sex scenes. A woman in Georgia insisted that my YA novel contained blowjob lessons and a woman in Missouri claimed that my book’s two lead male characters sexually assaulted women by grabbing their breasts. Those scenes were not in my book. Why would a supposedly moral person invent such aggressively and/or felonious sex scenes out of a book whose main sexual content is that of a teenage boy expressing how much he enjoys masturbation without any masturbation scenes?

These religious fundamentalists are unaware that freedom of religion necessarily brings with it the freedom to mock religion. 

They also use depictions of the awfulness of racism to accuse a book of racism. In True Diary, the teller of a vile, racist joke gets punched in the face by our hero. I think that’s a pretty clear anti-racist message.

And the so-called anti-Christian tone of the book is based on one cartoon that depicts Jesus farting and burping. Since Jesus was human then he most assuredly farted and burped. And if God did create us in God’s image then God must fart and burp as well.

Book banners are terrified of the human body.

Guernica: Is there a measure of censorship in schools that’s appropriate? Where do you see the line being drawn, ideally?

Sherman Alexie: If a parent doesn’t want his/her child to read a book then there is always an alternative text to read. But the book banners want to control what every child reads. 

I believe in any kid’s ability to read any book and form their own judgements. It’s the job of a parent to guide his/her child through the reading of every book imaginable. Censorship of any form punishes curiosity.

Guernica: Do you see any connection between the school districts that have banned your books? Is there a prototypical book-banning culture, in your experience? 

Sherman Alexie: The school districts are almost always exclusively white and heavily Evangelical Christian. 

I love to scare the already terrified assholes.

Guernica: True Diary made the list of the ten most frequently challenged books in both 2010 and 2011, and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven was taken out of schools in Arizona when they shut down the state’s ethnic studies programs earlier this year. Have you felt, in the wake of all of this, any compulsion to censor yourself? Is there a certain amount of honesty you’d be willing to surrender for the sake of getting your books in more kids’ hands?

Sherman Alexie: I refuse to censor myself and kids will find their own way to my books and to all of the books that matter to them. As I write more honestly more kids will make their way toward me. And in subverting their repressive parents kids will learn the value of subverting the repressive nature of all authority figures.

Guernica: Is there some pride in having your writing banned? It could be seen as an acknowledgement of the power of your work, and of books in general, to move people, to change them, to open them to change. I’m reminded of that line of Percival Everett’s: “Imagine how I would feel if monsters like that tolerated my work.” 

Sherman Alexie: My version of Percival’s quote: I love to scare the already terrified assholes.

Guernica: Were there books that you wanted to read when you were growing up, or wish now that you’d been able to, that were banned or otherwise off-limits to you?

Sherman Alexie: My parents banned nothing, though the Christian fundamentalists in my tribe held book-and-record burnings every now and again. So, yes, fundamentalist assholes can also be brown-skinned.

Guernica: Are there any books you’d ban if you had the chance?

Sherman Alexie: We can all learn from every text. Reading the work that disgusts you can only strengthen your core beliefs. I could teach a semester-long course based only on reading the local telephone book. All stories can be taught in valuable ways.

Ed Winstead is an Editorial Assistant for Guernica Daily.

Check out the rest of our Banned Books Week series:


Interviews

Katherine Paterson interviewed by Nicole Deming

Alice Walker interviewed by Megan Labrise

Essays

James M. Decker on Henry Miller

Lucy McKeon on Toni Morrison

Nathaniel Rich on Mikhail Bulgakov

Readers like you make Guernica possible. Please show your support.

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2 comments for Sherman Alexie: The Value of Subverting Authority

  1. Comment by Miss Echo on October 6, 2012 at 3:07 pm

    Hate to be picky but some fact checking is in order. The State of Arizona didn’t shut down a state ethic studies course. The State shut down the Tucson Unified School District’s course on Mexican- American studies. The School Board removed the texts from the classrooms but they remained available in the libraries.

  2. Comment by Dan Kleinman of SafeLibraries on October 15, 2012 at 1:09 am

    Sherman Alexie and his book are wonderful. This comment is going to be about Banned Books Week and the 2010 list on which the book appeared.

    The “censorship” of Sherman Alexie’s book is blown up into a major catastrophe of grave proportions. In reality, it’s a tempest on the ALA’s teapot. In all of 2010, the top book on the 2010 list was only challenged 4 times across the entire USA for an entire year. People complain about anything, so four challenges all year is no big deal, let alone a censorship threat. And Sherman Alexie book was not tops on the list. It was challenge what, twice? three times? All year?

    Besides, no books have banned in the USA for about half a century.

    Further, the ALA faked the 2010 list. Literally faked it. Admittedly so. And I recorded the #9 author on the list essentially admitting so. See/listen for yourselves:
    http://safelibraries.blogspot.com/2011/09/banned-books-week-is-gay-promotion.html

    PS @Miss Echo is correct.

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