Friday Fiction: Takin' Names and Bannin' Books by Alex Snider

This week is Banned Books Week, (as opposed to Book Banning Week which spans the rest of the year), which celebrates and raises awareness of persecuted writers, banned books and the freedom to read. There are so many books that remain banned in the world today, so many authors who are imprisoned, exiled or otherwise persecuted for their writings.

It's not just a problem of dictatorship-run countries or in more politically unstable states (where it is actually a huge problem and you should check out PEN International, which does a really good job of keeping track of writers who are persecuted, jailed or killed) either. There are campaigns in Canada and the US to ban novels (albeit, it's less of a thing to jail writers here), whether it's just a couple of parents concerned over Timothy Findley's The Wars and their tender 17 year old's soft sponge-like mind or the American Religious Right™ campaigning to remove Slaughterhouse Five from a Missouri High School library (that one actually worked).

Those who want to control, be it incredibly over-bearing parents or religious and political extremists in America (and Canada. And everywhere), have every reason to fear books and words. Books open minds, they ignite imaginations and foster dreams; they encourage the reader to think beyond their own reality and see the impossible and the possible. Books help shape free thought. It's not the sex or the drugs or the laissez-fair attitudes or the representation of racism or the un-Christian teachings (ok, maybe it's the un-Christian teachings) that those who would censor books and writers fear, it's the loss of control over the masses, it's the active minds.

I was going to come up with a list of books I think should be banned, just to go against what I just wrote, but a huge chunk of my family hates my guts right now and I'm kinda running on fumes in terms of people who like me so I can't very well risk alienating anyone. (Have I told you how interesting you are? And your eyes are so sparkly!) Also, as I will eventually get to in another post, I'm against 'deal-breaker books' and book snobbery in general (I swear to the gods, I am!).

What I have got for you, my favourite person (is that a new shirt? Very handsome!) is a list of books by authors who were part of the McCarthy witch-hunts and subsequent black-list. From the late 1940's until the late 50's, over 150 artists (writers, directors, producers, set and costume designers, composers, singers and actors) in Hollywood were denied work based on real or imagined alliances with Communism. Topical since Toronto City Council has it's very own Joseph McCarthy in Georgio Mammoliti who recently set up a Facebook page trying to out people as commies. Hahaha. Seriously.

The Portable Dorothy Parker by Dorothy Parker -- She is my dead person I'd have a drink with. She is the person who coined "what fresh hell is this". She was a really underrated short-story writer who really knew how to tap the vein of social anxiety. See her story about waiting for a phone call from a lover -- man, oh man, 60-odd years on it's still absolutely perfect. Oh and she was really, really snappy both as a dresser and as a talker.

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett -- A really gritty noir novel with a twist take on the typical detective story, with more moral murkiness mixed in and a definite downward spiral of madness and unreliability where nothing is as it seems, not even the 'hero'. An unnamed "Continental Ops" officer is hired by to clean up Personville (called Poisonville by those who live and do illegal things there). He quickly loses track of his goal as he's caught into the web of lies and corruption. Really dark, really seedy with a lot of double-crossing; it's kind of Barton Fink meets The Wire meets Miller's Crossing.

The Ways of White Folks by Langston Hughes -- Just read this. Wow. Really powerful. I feel kind of dizzy now and I'm going to go and buy the whole collection after I finish this and do laundry and learn some Ojibwe and have a shower.

The G-String Murders by Gypsy Rose Lee -- Um Gypsy Rose Lee, THE Gypsy Rose Lee wrote a book. A noir pulp book. She also lived in a house with Carson McCullers, WH Auden and Jane and Paul Bowles. I would sell my soul to have dinner at that house. Back when they all lived there. It'd be cool to visit it now (February House, they called it) but not worth my soul.

The Crucible by Arthur Miller -- I think this was an allegory for something that happened in Miller's life? Something maybe to do with Marilyn? I don't usually include plays, ever, but this is a good play and since it's a thinly veiled account of the McCarthy black-lists I had to include it.

Native Son by Richard Wright -- Native Son neatly dissects race relations in America (set in the 1930's but could just as easily be in the present) and focuses on the effects that deeply systemic racism has on identity. Bigger Thomas, the novel's protagonist is a murderer and a rapist. He is also Black in America. While Bigger's personal responsibility always exists, actions cannot be divorced from larger cultural contexts, from history, from a life-time of abuse and denigration. It's not a question so much of whether Bigger is wrong, of course he is, but whether American society and policy is contributing to the fall of marginalized people.

Have a great weekend folks, I will think of you often and fondly!


Photo from New Zealand History Online Archives

Alex Snider is a Toronto-based writer and student. She is learning Ojibwe and can now say "I'm feeling tired" (nicaakii). You can read more of her work at her blog, What Fresh Hell is This? where this post originally appeared.


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