Following parents’ objections to sexual themes in Julia Alvarez’s How the García Girls Lost Their Accents the book was banned from Johnston County, NC, classrooms and school libraries despite the approval of a review committee, which recommended that it be kept in schools. A district committee appointed by the school board disagreed, banning How the García Girls Lost Their Accents from the school district.
The school board also decided to use lists of previously challenged books to “weed out” potentially offensive materials in school libraries. NCAC was joined by the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) and PEN American Center in sending a letter to the school board condemning both the ban of García Girls and the policy.
Julia Alvarez is a highly-acclaimed author of over a dozen books and numerous essays and poems. She has taught students of all ages and is currently Writer-in-Residence at Middlebury College. We asked her about the controversy in Johnston County, NC, and her experiences with censorship:
NCAC: How the García Girls Lost Their Accents has been widely acclaimed and won many literary awards. The book has been assigned for class-wide reading programs at colleges, such as Mt. Holyoke College and Smith College, and it has been selected frequently by cities for community-wide reading programs. How does it feel for this same book to be the center of a censorship controversy?
Julia Alvarez: Every writer can tell you that a book is only truly alive when it finds passionate readers who bring it alive in their imaginations. So, as writers, we can only do half the work. It's always gratifying to hear from a passionate reader, and as a longtime educator, I'm especially pleased and heartened when that reader is a young student who is inspired to write me and let me know that my book has helped him or her find her way.
So, when schools like Smith College and Mt. Holyoke as well as different communities select How the García Girls Lost Their Accents in order to come together as a community and discuss issues and challenges that concern us all, I feel deeply affirmed in what I consider my calling, what I am on this earth to do! And what I love about this calling is that stories are about all of us in the human family, they are inclusive, they keep alive important information we mustn't forget about what it means to be a human being. Everyone is welcome at the table of literature, as stories are about all of us in our human family.
Believing that stories can do this, I am disheartened and saddened to hear that those divisions that tear us apart as a human family, and which stories can mend with their deeply humanitarian message (we are all the same), that those divisions are being used against the very books that can help us understand each other and come together.
NCAC: Most of the recent focus in the news on How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents has been directed at sexual themes in the book. What role do those excerpts play in the narrative as a whole?
Julia Alvarez: In some ways, I have to laugh when I hear that I've written "pornographic scenes"! Truly, I wouldn't know how to do this. Like Carla in "Trespass," I'd be speechless before that challenge, as I don't have the vocabulary, or maybe even the experience to write a truly raunchy scene!
But that's neither here nor there. The passages that I've heard quoted from the novel are taken out of context. I'm sure many parents who then go on to vote against the book have only read these excerpts or even worse, only read a summary of these excerpts, and rightly imagine the book is inappropriate for their sons and daughters.
Just as an example: I read an article in which a reporter explained that some parents were upset with the book's "scene with a pedophile." This phrase makes it sound as if there is an actual sex scene between an adult and a small child. In fact, the story, "Trespass," focuses on a shocking encounter in which a young immigrant girl has a very upsetting encounter with a "sexual offender," who basically "flashes her" and she runs off terrified. Her mother calls the police but the young girl is only just learning English and can't explain what happened. Now, that's hardly "a scene with a pedophile." And the horrible thing for the young girl is that she is disgusted and terrified (as were the concerned parents) but unlike them, she has no power, she has no words, she can't describe it, she is silenced.
Silenced by her lack of English in the story, and now, silenced by those parents who say her experience is pornographic.
As an educator, I would welcome the opportunity to use a story like this to talk with students about the power of words and stories to convey to others those awful moments when we are bereft, helpless, and need to share our story in order to feel human again.
Students are facing these kinds of challenges in their lives all the time! And one of the great things about literature is that it provides them with a way of talking and feeling and assessing experience within the safe confines of a story and a classroom. Keeping all these issues out of the classroom only leaves our young people with no way to understand, feel, defend themselves against these situations when they happen in "real life."
NCAC: Did you anticipate any controversy over or challenges to the book as you were writing it?
Julia Alvarez: The only controversy I imagined was from my own family. That is, as has happened to many an ethnic writer, your own family or ethnic group gets upset when you tell stories for the larger community that show that group in a less than perfect light.
But I told my family what I would tell these parents who wanted the novel banned, that literature grants us our full humanity, our good and our bad sides. Literature is about being a complex, contradictory human being. Terrence, the Roman slave who freed himself with his writings, once observed, "I am a human being. Nothing human is alien to me." That could be the motto of literature! When we read, even if the characters are tragic or sad or disturbing, these are our brothers and sisters in the human family. How do we understand our complex humanity? Reading and thoughtfulness and openness are the best way, I should think, to begin to address the richness that is in each of us.
But no, I didn't anticipate controversy from this home of the brave and land of the free, the country we looked up to from our dictatorship, the nation that is a beacon to the whole world as a society where there are basic inalienable rights, freedom of expression, public schools and libraries where we can have access to uncensored materials. Coming here is what allowed me to be a writer in the first place. Otherwise, as a Latina female in a dictatorship, I would never have become a writer.
NCAC: Is this the first time one of your books has been banned outright? Have there been other challenges to books you have written?
Julia Alvarez: There have been controversies. García Girls has been challenged four times before – this is the first time that it has been banned. In the Time of the Butterflies was also challenged. There the issue was not pornography, but because it was a considered a “security risk” because one of the characters drew a diagram of a bomb.
In Chicago, District 214 also had an effort to ban García Girls, but they did not win.
Also, a few years back, I was asked to write a story for an Absolut ad, in which an Absolut bottle appeared. Every writer's ad would have his or her name. Mine was ‘Absolut Alvarez.’ I wrote a short story about a bogus priest in a country like the Dominican Republic who uses an Absolut bottle in a phoney, makeshift altar. The character and situation were totally fictional. The Catholic League reacted – they were very upset. Absolut withdrew the ad from all the magazines. The Catholic League had said that they would tell all of their members to boycott the Absolut brand.
NCAC: As a teacher, have you ever faced a challenge to a book you were using in class? Have any of your students ever objected to any of the material you’ve taught in class? How did you deal with the situation(s)?
Julia Alvarez: In the first course that was taught at Middlebury College on Latino literature, we read Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory, and some of the Latino students in the class totally disagreed with the author. They came to class without their books. When I said, “Where are your books?” they said that they had burned them. I was very upset! I said, “We don’t do that with books, books are how we talk to each other. Even one you disagree with is an opportunity to have a discussion. You polish your thinking, and you hone your argument so you have an informed and thoughtful opposition to it. You don’t ever burn a book.” I was really, really upset with them. And they got it.
NCAC: What do you hope teachers and school administrators take away from the controversy over García Girls?
Julia Alvarez: I think it is important to know how to teach new material to help young people grow and learn. It would be wonderful to have a workshop with parents and to have them read the book. I wonder how many parents read the book? The school could create an opportunity for them; it could give them a new way to think about reading. And what it is that you try to do in the classroom. As an educator you learn not to leave anybody out. Could it become a learning situation for the parents, too? Then parents could talk about why we read books that are sometimes disturbing, why this is important for our kids to have a framework, to have a way of talking about these things. It could be about making a difficult situation into a learning situation for the whole community.
NCAC: How does removing a book from a school district affect students’ educational experience?
Julia Alvarez: The sad thing about the controversy, over and above the fact that students have missed out on the reading experience of that book, is what this models for them about an experience that is difficult or upsetting. I grew up in a dictatorship, where you couldn’t talk about difficult situations – there was this culture of silence. We would run into a problem and have no one to talk to. What’s modeled there by banning the book is what I find most upsetting: that it is appropriate behavior in a free country when someone is expressing something we don’t want to hear, to silence them.
NCAC: Why do you think it is important to teach literature that some might deem controversial or difficult?
Julia Alvarez: Schools provide safe spaces to talk about controversial issues, and literature presents characters portraying human experience in all its richness and contradictoriness. Reading is a way to take in the difficult situations and understand them. The whole point of reading a book in class is to have discussion about what these situations are like. You have writing, discussion, and classroom exercises on it, and kids come out of it having digested the experience with ways to feel and talk about it. How wonderful!
I feel bad also for the teachers. How can you have an open, safe, welcoming classroom if you are feeling like, do I dare bring up the subject?
NCAC: What would you tell other authors who are facing censorship?
Julia Alvarez: Not to let bitterness poison the breadth of imagination and compassion required to tell a good story. To remember that it is precisely to enlarge our understanding and make our human family more expansive and generous-hearted that they are writing. The poet, Robert Desnos, who died in a concentration camp, once wrote that "the task of being a human being is not only to be oneself, but to become each one." That elasticity of imagination and compassion is what writing and reading promote. So writers faced with censorship should feel this evidence of small-mindedness or hard-heartedness is more of a reason to keep writing, to keep widening the circle.
© 2008 The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC). All rights reserved.