A Night of Silenced Voices- Banned Books Week

My friend Sarah Gonzalez always hashtags #WritersaremyRockstars! She is so right! What’s even better than meeting these writing stars? Performing alongside them at an event dedicated to celebrating diverse voices.

“This year’s Banned Books Week – the annual celebration of the freedom to read – focused on diversity and celebrating literature written by diverse writers, especially those that have been banned or challenged. It is estimated that over half of all banned books are by authors of color, or contain events and issues concerning diverse communities…”

Maggie Jacoby and the other sponsors of Banned Books Week curated for an inspiring evening of readings celebrating the work of diverse writers and authors. Readers included Daniel José OlderIbi ZoboiTaran MatharuTiffany D. JacksonCharles Rice-GonzalezGabby RiveraSydney Valerio and Mariela Regalado (yours truly!).  This event is held in conjunction with open mics hosted at partner bookstores around the country on this date.

I was familiar with banned books and lists of books deemed”inappropriate” for schools and libraries. But I didn’t know that there was an actual committee that decides this. Also, I didn’t know what was the criteria for it being “banned”.

A challenged book is one that is sought to be removed or otherwise restricted from public access, typically from a library or a school curriculum. This is a list of the most commonly challenged books in the United States. It is primarily based on data gathered by the American Library Association‘s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF). The OIF gathers their data from media reports from reports from librarians and teachers.[1]

According to the Association, the top three reasons for challenging such materials were that they contained “sexually explicit” content, “offensive” language, or were “unsuited to any age group”. Thank you American Library Association for “shielding” us from such books. But I ask you, what message are you sending young readers when a large portion of such books are written by Writers of colors? Does the underlying message become that our stories are too explicit, the content of our lives to offensive? I have been an avid book reader ever since I won my first story telling contest in the second grade. Since then I have been reading books obsessively. The first time I read a book written by a POC? The 7th grade when we read “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison. A book that has also made the Banned Books List. That same ELA teacher put the book “The House on Mango Street” in my hands. I fell in love so much with the book, that I stole it from the school’s library so I could own it. That Cisnero’s bestseller is also banned in certain school districts and libraries. One of the contributing readers, Tiffany told her story of trying to read the book Push by Sapphire. She check her school’s library and they didn’t have it. When she tried requesting the book the librarian told her she couldn’t read it, it was inappropriate. What’s inappropriate about a book that details a raw and poignant journey of an obese and illiterate 16-year-old girl who lives in Harlem with her abusive mother Mary. The book deals with rape, trauma, the way our public school system fails students of color, poverty, etc. This book is categorized as Fiction, it is also dubbed “street literature”or “urban fiction”. The Literary cannon has always been so white it hurts my heart to read some of the NYT’s bestseller lists. Its even crazier to see that when a multitude of authors of color have very few choices in publishing houses  they need to have it deemed as “not real literature”. So, 1. If we write our stories, our books might join the other WOC in the Banned Books List 2. If we write about our socio economic reality painted in our inner cities it will get dubbed a “urban fiction” or “street literature” and 3. with little access to publishing, if we self publish our books its not “real literature”? CAN WE GET A BREAK HERE?!

One way to change this, is to start talking about it. We need to have a seat at the table. We need to facilitate these conversations, have allies within this literary world. That is why I am super thankful to Maggie Jacoby who curated our voices for this event. An event where we were able to stand in a recognizable and iconic bookstore in Manhattan surrounded by white faces. We had a stage, and their ears and we told our stories. We asked questions. Best selling author, Gabby Rivera asked “If they’re banning me than who are you protecting?” By banning books you ban people, you ban who we are, or maybe you are banning our right to tell our own stories. 

In looking for inspiration on how to tell my story, I reread books I read growing up and scoured Google’s search engine for “Dominican Writers” “Latino Writers of color” and other variations. I was also able to make a shirt that was a positive affirmation for me as a woman writer of color. Taino Ink, a small latino owned business in the Bronx helped it come to life. A shirt paying tribute to some of the biggest baddest Latina’s in the literary game and then leaving room for more. The shirt lists Santiago, Alvarez, Cisneros, Allende, Esquivel y yo. All those women (minus the future WOC writer) have had books banned. Esquivel’s “Like water for chocolate” was banned because of its “sexual situations”. The House on Mango street was banned in the state of Arizona for allegedly “focusing on a specific ethnic group: Latino-Americans. ” The House of Spirits was deemed “filth” and “despicable” by a school board in North Carolina. Think about this, I made a list of mainstream Latina Authors and they ALL fit on the front side of my shirt. I’m sure if i was listing dead white men whose books we still read that shirt would be drastically different. Essentially when you ban writers of color from telling OUR stories you are banning US. Here’s a hopeful post with a recap of a great event, that one day real soon our stories will not be censored.

HERE to Listen:

“A young budding nerd of color –Daniel Jose Older

“This sh*t ain’t true…You’ve been dead before…when you remember all the ways you’ve been killed. – American Street by Ibi Zoboi 

“Banning a book is a direct assault in your intelligence and -their- comfort level-Tiffany D Jackson

“There is a history that is being told through literature…if black, latino, gay, asian, etc. voices are not being told robustly in America then we are not moving forward…-Charles Rice-Gonzalez” 

“They didn’t ask questions about my book. They wanted to know what nationality I was? Where was I born? They were seeking a role model, someone like them, whose achievement they could follow.- Taran Matharu” 

“How did I get here? A little chubby nerdy Puerto Rican from the Bronx- Gabby Rivera” 

 

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