SU professors emphasize reading banned books focusing on gender, sexuality

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In 2018, author Margaret Atwood came to SU to discuss her passion for feminism and literary legacy.

Her book “The Handmaid’s Tale,” published in 1985, depicts the dystopian society of Gilead, where women are effectively second-class citizens. As a result of plummeting birth rates, some women are assigned to the role of “handmaid,” and are forced to have children for upper class couples. The book has long served as a feminist warning that places emphasis on the importance of gender equality.

“The more gender equality there is in a society, the less abuse there is,” Atwood said during her 2018 visit to SU. “Because abuse has a lot to do with respect, and a lack of respect has a lot to do with inequality.”

Despite being published nearly 40 years ago, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is highly controversial and disputed in the modern public discourse for the story it tells. The book landed on the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books in 2019, and has been banned across school districts nationwide for even longer.

Books related to gender and sexuality consistently fill the ALA’s top ten most challenged books list. Books written by LGBTQ+ authors are also disproportionately challenged, according to The ALA began tracking challenged books 20 years ago. From Jan. 1 to Aug. 31, 1,651 individual books were challenged, the highest since the organization began tracking them.

In 2014, a North Carolina school banned the book because parents found it to be “sexually explicit, violently graphic, morally corrupt (and) detrimental to Christian values,” according to Similarly, a mother in Georgia protested alongside staff, administrators and other parents when the book was on her son’s summer reading list, claiming it contained “porn and gore and cursing.”

But Katherine Kidd doesn’t shy away from challenging texts. Since she was a child, Kidd can remember reading books that other people told her not to open. Now, as an assistant teaching professor and English studies coordinator in the College of Arts and Sciences, Kidd has embraced texts that censorship groups shun, even teaching a course on banned books while they were a professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

Kidd’s appreciation of texts that are perceived as shocking has informed the way they teach their literature courses. Often Kidd will strive to include novels and readings that are controversial as a way to expose her students to viewpoints and ideas that differ from their own. Identifying what is so controversial about books that are banned in the mainstream is one of the best ways to accomplish what an author is asking readers to do while reading, she said.

“I do try to introduce students to not only banned and contested texts, but also perspectives that might be alternative to what they’re used to,” Kidd said. “I always tell my students, ‘I don’t expect you to agree with this point of view, I don’t expect you to sympathize with this point of view, I just need you to read it and think about it.’”

Kidd’s ideology aligns closely with that of many scholars fighting against censorship and book bans in academia. On a national level, the ALA publishes an annual list of the top challenged and banned books in the United States. The top three most challenged books of 2021 were all challenged, banned or restricted for including LGBTQIA+ and sexually explicit content.

Kidd didn’t see why “Gender Queer,” which is by Maia Kobabe and was the most challenged book of the last year, was as scandalous as the public perceived it to be. The book is a graphic novel memoir that traces Kobabe’s life through adolescence into adulthood, describing the challenge of navigating sexuality and gender identity in and outside of the gender binary. People challenged it because “it was considered to have sexually explicit images,” according to the ALA.

Kidd said restricting a book like “Gender Queer” solely on the basis of it being sexually explicit limits discussions about young adults’ discovery of gender identity in relation to their bodies, and erases the fact that people do experience things similar to what Kobabe describes. Seeing a book like “Gender Queer” be challenged for pornographic material is scary, Kidd said, as the ultimate message of the book relies more on the “revelation of a personal experience of self discovery,” than the images it’s being censored for.

Ethan Madarieta said he has been lucky enough to work and teach without feeling the impacts of censorship. Madarieta, who is an assistant professor of English, has taught classes pertaining to queer and Latinx literature at SU and other universities.

But the prevalence of the practice encroaches dangerously on identities that are already underrepresented in literature, Madarieta said. Reading literature that features ideas and identities that are not dominant in society is a way to explore the world and understand human relationships, they said.

“To somehow close off experiences that people in the world have — and then portray narratively — is at its base, and maybe most generally, an attempt at silencing and disappearing those experiences and identities,” Madarieta said.

More often than not, books pertaining to queer people of color are often the most challenged LGBTQ+ stories, Madarieta said. George M. Johnson’s “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” which is a non-fiction “memoir-manifesto” following the author’s life as a queer Black man, was the number three most challenged book on the ALA’s list in 2021.

As a professor, Madarieta has seen how engaging with texts that include marginalized characters has encouraged students to reflect on their own identity while becoming more socially aware of other people’s experiences. Including literature in the classroom that is contested or restricted fosters conversation, whether or not the students agree with the point of view of the novel, Madarieta said.

“When we read a book, the knowledge is not in the book. The knowledge is that which we make together through discussion,” Madarieta said. “I think it’s very important to have those points of discussion even when they begin with contestation.”

According to the ALA, 44 percent of challenges to literary works happen in school libraries. To Madarieta, fighting against censorship is one of the most important ways to promote diversity and inclusion, both inside and outside the classroom. Especially at the college level, they said, engaging in challenged texts is a way to open discussion and promote new ideas.

“The work we do is actually to discuss these ideas, to evaluate them through particular analytics and then to make our own decisions based on the evidence that we’ve raised through discussion,” Madarieta said. “To censor or ban a book is anti -academic at its base.”

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