This week, Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, Victory City, hits the shelves. This is a significant occasion for celebration because Rushdie, who has been one of the world’s strongest advocates for free expression and against censorship, has not been silenced in spite of the brutal attack upon him last August.

It has been 34 years since Rushdie published The Satanic Verses, which was accused by some of being blasphemous to Muslims and incurred the fatwa from the Ayatollah Khomeini calling for Rushdie’s death, eventually including a bounty of $3 million. That was followed by years in hiding for Rushdie (chronicled in his fascinating book, Joseph Anton), the public burning of his books, the bombing of bookstores in the U.S. and the U.K., and the murder of his Japanese translator. In recent years, Rushdie had been able to return to public life, continued to publish, and has worked arduously for freedom of expression, including serving as President for PEN America.

What a shock it was for him to be savagely knifed at a reading in New York State last year, an attack that led to a lengthy hospitalization and the loss of his sight in one eye. Most of us know Rushdie’s experience with the fatwa as the most extreme modern assault on free expression and the most violent and egregious manifestation of “book banning” in our lifetimes.

So, his return to writing, with a fabulist tale of an epic poem that becomes a city of words in medieval India, is being justly celebrated. But those celebrations are muted by the recognition that this last year in the U.S. has sadly been: the year of book banning.

Yes, this has been the year of banning books in public school libraries. Books challenged and removed from shelves grew from 273 in 2020-21 to over 1600 in 2021-22, powered by coordinated actions to ban books in Florida and Texas. As an educator working with students who come to college largely from our public K-12 system, I find the removal of books from school libraries harmful and ominous. Here’s why it is something we should all take as seriously as Salman Rushdie does.

First of all, what is being banned? The most commonly removed books fall into two categories: Young Adult (YA) novels that include LGBTQ characters, and well-known literary classics by Black authors depicting racism. A superb study by PEN America tracks the 1648 banned titles and demonstrates that 41% have LGBTQ themes or protagonists and 40% focus on people of color.

The complaints usually single out scenes that have some frank depiction of sex, sexuality, or violence or at times depict characters using obscene words. But those passages are not the real drivers of opposition.

Parents, often part of organized groups, generally avoid identifying the socio-political themes that anger them. They are aggrieved that the books present LGBTQ individuals as healthy, complex and sympathetic characters, and they are offended that other books depict racism so candidly. How else to explain the prominence of Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison’s books on these banned lists (her prize- winning novels are often taught in upper-level and AP classes)?

Now not all books are appropriate for young people, and libraries select only a modest number of books to stock: they don’t try to include everything. If only we had professionals who were trained to identify age-appropriate and valuable books for school libraries! Indeed, we do have such people: they are called librarians, and they draw on their expertise and the recommendations and lists from librarian associations and specialized reviewers to curate collections.

What’s happening now is that politically motivated individuals are going through the catalogs of school libraries and demanding that books—generally by or about LGBTQ persons or Black people—be removed from shelves. They argue that these books (or brief passages in them) will be harmful to children and teens–that is, harmful to people already listening to contemporary popular music and consuming social media, videos, and animation.

Writing in The New York Times, columnist Charles Blow talks about the role libraries played in his life: “it was in libraries that I found myself, not only physically but spiritually. It was in books that I first saw and read about openly queer people, that I first read about the Stonewall riots and the gay rights movement. . . . In the stacks, I learned that my difference wasn’t anomalous. Up to that point, I had never met a person who was openly queer.”

Books can play a powerful role in assuring young people that they are not alone or anomalous, but part of a diverse human community worthy of empathy and love. So many people, especially LGBTQ individuals but also members of racial minorities and immigrants, tell the same story of finding validation and hope in reading.

And we go to books not just to find ourselves–to identify–but to encounter others who are very different in background and culture but still part of the diverse human fabric. Yes, books can be dangerous—all art is—but reading is also affirming and enriching and inspires empathy. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, one of the most banned books in the United States, is tough reading in its depictions of the dehumanization and brutality of slavery. At the same time, it is a book that reclaims American experience by using fiction to imagine the kinds of voices lost to us by slavery and genocide. Many readers have felt what critic John Leonard expressed, “Beloved belongs on the highest shelf of American literature. . . . I can’t imagine American literature without it. Without Beloved, our imagination of the nation’s self has a hole in it big enough to die from.”

The move to remove books like Beloved or Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home from school libraries reflects antagonism toward a more diverse and equitable world–not a concern with explicit content. It is a wedge issue being exploited for political gain, and our children will be the worse for it.

Polls show that Americans of all political stripes generally oppose banning books from school libraries. The challenges to books are often framed in terms of “parental rights” and the challengers presented as concerned parents. But, in fact, these challenges are often related to newly enacted or proposed state laws and are advanced by political organizations, as PEN America reports: “PEN America has identified at least 50 groups involved in pushing for book bans at the national, state, or local levels. This includes eight groups that have among them at least 300 local or regional chapters. . . . These groups share lists of books to challenge, and they employ tactics such as swarming school board meetings, demanding newfangled rating systems for libraries, using inflammatory language about “grooming” and “pornography,” and even filing criminal complaints against school officials, teachers, and librarians. The majority of these groups appear to have formed in 2021, and many of the banned books can be linked in some way to their activities.”

In the face of this assault on free expression and school libraries, it is fitting to give Rushdie the last word. And what words they are! From an address to PEN America in 2022, only a month before he was brutally assaulted at a public reading:

“We are engaged in a war of narratives, incompatible versions of reality, and need to learn how to fight it. A tyrant has arisen in Russia and brutality engulfs Ukraine, whose people, led by a satirist turned hero, offer heroic resistance and are already creating a legend of freedom.

Meanwhile America is sliding back toward the Middle Ages, as white supremacy exerts itself not only over black bodies, but women’s bodies too. False narratives rooted in antiquated religiosity & bigoted ideas from centuries ago are used to justify this, and find willing audiences.

In India, religious sectarianism and political authoritarianism go hand in hand. Violence grows as democracy dies. . . . False narratives of Indian history are at play… that privilege the majority & oppress minorities, and. . . are popular, just as the Russian tyrant’s lies are believed.

This is the ugly dailiness of the world. How should we respond? It has been said. . . that the powerful may own the present but writers own the future, for it is through our work—or the best of it. . . the work that endures—that the present misdeeds of the powerful will be judged.

How can we think of the future when the present screams for our attention, and if we turn away from posterity and pay attention to this dreadful moment, what can we usefully or effectively do? A poem will not stop a bullet. A novel cannot defuse a bomb. Not all satirists are heroes.

But we are not helpless. Even after Orpheus was torn to pieces, his severed head, floating down the river Hebrus, went on singing, reminding us that song is stronger than death. We can sing the truth and name the liars.

We can stand in solidarity with our fellows on the front lines and magnify their voices by adding our own. Above all we must understand that stories are at the heart of what’s happening, and the dishonest narratives of oppressors have attracted many.”

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