Freedom to read celebrated

Jan DeGrass/Arts and Entertainment Writer / Staff writer
March 7, 2014 01:00 AM

Writer Heidi Greco tells the audience about Lawrence Hill's banned book at a Freedom to Read event at the Gibsons library.

Every year in North America books are banned or challenged. Sometimes they are withdrawn from schools and libraries, often at the request of parents.

In other parts of the world the censorship of books may be more extreme. Witness the threat to Salman Rushdie's life after his publication of The Satanic Verses, described as religious blasphemy by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini. To this day, there is a price on Rushdie's head.

Every year for the past 10 years, poet Marion Quednau of Gibsons and writer Heidi Greco of Vancouver have come together to produce an event for Freedom to Read Week, Feb. 23 to March 1. This year they teamed up with the Gibsons and District Public Library on Feb. 26 to share readings from banned books.

The results were surprising.

Quednau talked about some of the more beloved children's classics that have been challenged: Harry Potter, for example, for its alleged occult and anti-family themes and Beatrix Potter's delightful bunny books. A reading from a 1980 kids' book, The Indian in the Cupboard by a former teacher, showed it to be a charmingly written story of the imagination, but it was banned for stereotyping First Nations - some might say with good reason.

Selecting this book was a reminder that not all challenges to reading material are clear cut. The literary magazine Descant writes: "We most often assume that someone wants to censor a particular book because he or she is prudish in some way. But identity politics and cause-oriented claims are also powerful and contentious. One person's edgy is another person's over-the-edgy."

Margaret Laurence, a giant of Canadian literature, was reportedly hurt and angry when school boards and fundamentalists challenged her novels time after time. The Diviners, a masterpiece, was attacked for its "profanity and explicit sex" as was her A Jest of God. She pointed out that her books were not taught to kids below Grade 11, and she was determined that the constant challenges would not change the way she wrote. Other great writers who have had their work scrutinized include George Orwell's 1984, for its allegedly pro-communist content and Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye for many counts including being "obscene" and "blasphemous."

Greco talked about Canadian writer Lawrence Hill who published his award-winning The Book of Negroes. Citizens of Suriname, South America, threatened to burn it because of the reference to the hated word negroes in the title. Hill responded that his title was based on historical fact, the British military register for the migration of thousands of blacks to Nova Scotia after the revolutionary war. A copy of Hill's response to the Surinamese, titled Dear Sir, I Intend to Burn Your Book, became a door prize for the library event.

Freedom to Read week is intended to encourage Canadians to reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom.

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