Sherman Alexie: Censorship of Any Form Punishes Curiosity

According to critically-acclaimed author Sherman Alexie, “Book banners want to control what every child reads,” and that “censorship of any form punishes curiosity.” In an interview with Ed Winstead of Guernica Magazine, Alexie discusses being the author of banned books (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven) and the overall effect of censorship on a society.

Alexie notes that the various attempts to ban The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian are “always the work of conservative Christians who often demonstrate they haven’t actually read the book by citing imaginary sex scenes.” Religion plays a large role in the attacks on Alexie’s works, and the author pulls no punches in not only defending his work but attacking those who seek to have that work banned. It is clear that Alexie pays attention to challenges to his work, noting “a woman in Georgia insisted that my YA novel contained blowjob lessons and a woman in Missouri claimed that my book’s two lead male characters sexually assaulted women by grabbing their breasts. Those scenes were not in my book.”

The author expresses both confusion and sadness over the motivations behind attempts at censorship. He wonders “why would a supposedly moral person invent such aggressively and/or felonious sex scenes out of a book whose main sexual content is that of a teenage boy expressing how much he enjoys masturbation without any masturbation scenes?” Or why someone would apply a racist label onto a book that contains an anti-racist message: In True Diary, the teller of a vile, racist joke gets punched in the face by our hero. I think that’s a pretty clear anti-racist message.”

For Alexie, the overall attempts at book banning appear to stem from ultra-conservative Christians. Noting that “book banners are terrified of the human body,” he argues that the school districts that attack his work are “almost always exclusively white and heavily Evangelical Christian.” Alexie does see the issue as being more about religion than race, as he acknowledges that “the Christian fundamentalists in my tribe held book-and-record burnings every now and again. So, yes, fundamentalist assholes can also be brown-skinned.”

There is, of course, an important racial and political component to the banning of Alexie’s books in particular, and Native American texts, in general. This past January, the Tuscon Unified School District decided to end the Mexican American Studies program and removed several books by Mexican and Native authors from classrooms. According to Ed Winstead, “among the texts removed was The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Alexie’s 1993 collection of short stories that received a PEN/Hemingway citation for Best First Work of Fiction. Alexie wrote in response that ‘Arizona has made our books sacred documents now.'”

He believes that children and their parents should decide on what to read and how to react to it:

I believe in any kid’s ability to read any book and form their own judgments. It’s the job of a parent to guide his/her child through the reading of every book imaginable. Censorship of any form punishes curiosity. […] I refuse to censor myself and kids will find their own way to my books and to all of the books that matter to them. As I write more honestly more kids will make their way toward me. And in subverting their repressive parents kids will learn the value of subverting the repressive nature of all authority figures.

Alexie feels a dual sense of sadness and amusement about censorship: “Sad to think that such archaic and potentially dangerous censorious beliefs still exist, and amused because these censors only make a book more powerful and seductive when trying to ban it.” Instead of being discouraged by censorship, however, Alexie is emboldened by it, noting that “I love to scare the already terrified assholes.”

In closing, Alexie makes a strong anti-censorship case when he argues that every text has a value to it, and that disliking a book’s themes is not a valid reason for having it banned. “We can all learn from every text,” he insists. “Reading the work that disgusts you can only strengthen your core beliefs. I could teach a semester-long course based only on reading the local telephone book. All stories can be taught in valuable ways.”

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Mark Bousquet is the Assistant Director of Core Writing at the University of Nevada, Reno, and reviews movies and television programs at Atomic Anxiety.