BOOKS ARE A GATEWAY DRUG
Librotraficante caravan to smuggle banned “wet-books” back into occupied Arizona this spring break, leaving networks of Underground Libraries in its wake.
WHO CONTROLS THE PAST CONTROLS THE FUTURE
WHO CONTROLS THE PRESENT CONTROLS THE PAST
- George Orwell, 1984
On January 10, 2012, employees of the Tucson Unified School District entered classrooms, snatched books by Latin@- and Native-American authors from students’ hands, boxed them up, and sequestered them in a storage facility. Copies of the books are still available in school libraries, officials say, but teachers are prohibited from including these voices in their curricula, so they are effectively banned from the classroom.
This indignity-this act of cultural theft and de facto censorship-was too much for Houston author, educator, and founder of the literary non-profit Nuestra Palabra, Tony Diaz to bear, so Diaz coined the term “Librotraficante” (i.e. “book smuggler”) and organized a caravan from Houston to Tucson to raise awareness about the issue. Perhaps more importantly, the caravan will rally a network of local activists along the way. The idea has caught fire, and Diaz, along with Liana Lopez and Bryan Parras of Nuestra Palabra, met with hundreds of Latin@ authors, academics, and student activists from across the country just last weekend at a conference in New York City. Arizona’s actions have awakened a sleeping giant.
The caravan will leave Houston on March 12 and stop in San Antonio, El Paso, Mesilla (New Mexico), and Albuquerque before arriving in Tucson on March 16. At each of these stops, local libraries and community centers will host readings and “banned” book giveaways, and many of the “banned” authors will participate, including Sandra Cisneros, Luis Alberto Urrea, Dagoberto Gilb, and Rudolfo Anaya, among many others.
I think I might join the caravan, myself, but first, a little background. My name is Harbeer Sandhu and I am a proponent of hyphen-American literature.
Two years ago, the Arizona legislature passed House Bill 2281, which prohibits schools from offering courses or classes that “promote the overthrow of the United States government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group, or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” That sounds pretty reasonable, but I am here to tell anybody who alleges that “ethnic studies” and “ethnic literature” promotes societal fragmentation has got it all wrong, and their plan is going to backfire. Respecting our diverse backgrounds brings people together-it promotes inclusiveness through mutual respect-whereas consigning our dearest, most respected authors to collect dust in a warehouse in favor of an infantilizing, sanitized version of history does much more to promote ethnic/racial/class resentment than any boring, coming-of-age story about grandma’s mangoes.
YEAH GEORGE WASHINGTON OWNED SLAVES, CHILDREN, BUT SO WHAT HE CHOPPED DOWN CHERRY TREES AND DIDN’T LIE ABOUT IT-ISN’T THAT AWESOME???
Tony Diaz says he was in college before he ever read a book by a Chicano author. It was Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas, and it changed his life. He has met scores of hyphen-American who had that same experience of that same book. I can’t speak to Diaz’s experience, but I can tell you about my own.
I was in college before I learned the meaning of the word “Eucharist.” I’ve always been a heavy reader, but my family is Sikh, so I only ever went to a Christian church a few times when I was growing up, and the ones I ended up at tended to refer to the sacrament as “communion,” in the vernacular, rather than the Latin “Eucharist.” So I didn’t know what “eucharist” meant, along with a lot of other stuff that white Christian authors routinely referred to in their writings. Shrug. That comes with the turf-“minorities” deal with this kind of stuff all the time. (And in my own fiction, I sometimes use Punjabi words without always defining them. I try to give my reader enough context clues, but sometimes I feel like it’s OK if they don’t understand every word-and if they really want to know, they can look it up and learn about my culture in the same way that I learned stuff that is irrelevant to me, like “Eucharist.” That’s called mutual respect.)
So I read all kinds of boring crap that had nothing to do with “my” culture in high school-The Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, The Awakening, The Scarlet Letter, Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights…I mean, the list could go on and on. Oh, sure, it wasn’t just all long-dead white authors that we read-there was some African American stuff like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry thrown in there, but it wouldn’t be until I got to college that I got turned on to “ethnic” fiction in a way that really hit home.
I was an English major at New York University in the late 1990s, and my two most favorite classes were “American Fiction Since WWII,” taught by Professor Philip Brian Harper, and “The Literature of India,” by Professor Wendy Fairey. Dr. Harper is a gay black man most famous for his book about gay black masculinity, and Dr. Fairey is a Jewish woman from Brooklyn whose course covered English-language (i.e. not translated) literature by South Asian authors both in the Subcontinent and the diaspora-imagine a Jewish woman from Brooklyn teaching a classroom full of South Asian kids about “their own” literature-it was beautiful-and it also included a few British authors like E.M. Forester, George Orwell, and Rudyard Kipling who were born in India or had spent time there. That’s how culture works, but more on that, later.
In Harper’s class, we read many of the books and authors who are now on Arizona’s de facto banned books list-Rudolfo Anaya, Leslie Marmon Silko, Sherman Alexie, James Baldwin. We also read books like John Okada’s No-No Boy, Philip Roth’s Jewish coming-of-age Portnoy’s Complaint, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, Rudulfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima, and too many other novels to list here. Many of them dealt with some of the same issues I had dealt with growing up with one foot in two cultures-stuff like not fully fitting in anywhere-not among Indians and not in the dominant white-American culture, either. And the more I learned about other ethnicities and the history of race-relations in the United States, the more I realized that I was not some isolated freak but the exact opposite was true-EVERYBODY goes through this. So, for example, John Okada’s novel about a young Japanese-American man who was interned by his own country during World War II did not make me feel more *excluded* from America, it showed me that there are other Americans who have felt the same way-that I was not alone, and my country may not be perfect but at least we can openly talk about this stuff so we can make it better in the long run.
BORDERS LANGUAGE CULTURE
I have a neighbor, a “white” woman married to a Chicano Republican, who has a bumper sticker on her car that reads, “BORDERS LANGUAGE CULTURE.” Turns out this is one of right-wing talk radio jerk Michael Savage’s catch phrases. One of these days I’m going to make a sticker that reads “are fluid and porous” to append to her bumper sticker. I want to tell her that her word for her night clothes-pajamas-is an Indian word. I want to tell her that I AM THE JUGGERNAUT, BITCH, and even the word “juggernaut” comes to English via India. How’s that for your purity of language, idiot? Oh, and she’s an elementary school teacher.
What we are seeing here, in my opinion, is the last gasp (I hope) of white supremacy. By 2042, according to the US Census, there will no longer be a single ethnic/racial majority in the United States-we will all be minorities. This is leading to a cultural shift-led by advertisers, mostly-where you’re going to see a lot more shit like the Cosby show and Asian reporters like Tricia Takanawa. This is freaking a lot of old white folks out. Why? I’m not sure.
Back when I was a professor, I used to teach an essay called “Models of Ethnic American Relations,” by George M. Fredrickson. Fredrickson describes four different models of race relations, which he calls, Ethnic Hierarchy, One-Way Assimilation, Cultural Pluralism, and Group Separatism. Ethnic Hierarchy is what we consider traditional racism-one group is superior, another group is inferior, other groups are somewhere in between, and nothing can be done to change this. Nobody in the contemporary openly espouses Ethnic Hierarchy any more-not publicly, at least. The second model he examines is One-Way Assimilation-in this model, one culture is held up as superior, but people of other cultures can “rise up” to that level of superiority if only they abandon their own culture in favor of the dominant culture-that is what the patriarchs of Arizona want all us brown people to do-to abandon pride in our own history and accomplishments, including our contributions to America’s greatness-in favor of some watered down soupy white bread cockamamie bullshit. They feel threatened by what Fredrickson calls Cultural Pluralism but is more commonly called “multiculturalism”-the idea that culture is fluid, that human beings have been exchanging ideas and practices since the dawn of human beings, that we have much to learn from one another, and that as long as we’re not doing fucked up shit that infringes on the rights of others (like female circumcision or tossing widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres) we ought to afford each other a minimum of respect. (Group Separatism, the fourth model, is where we all splinter into our own ethnic ghettoes, like turning the southwest US over to Latin@s, the Pacific Northwest to rednecks, the South to African Americans, etc. Nobody except the most extreme racists take that idea seriously.)
To kick off these lessons, I would put a few lists on the board of things like horses, tomatoes, potatoes, Taco Bell, hamburgers, hot dogs, rock and roll, hip hop, apple pie and ask them to associate these things with particular cultures. The Mexican students would immediately put Taco Bell in the “American” category, but they didn’t always get that “hamburgers” come from Hamburg and “frankfurters” allegedly come from Frankfurt. Since we would have recently have read a story by Sherman Alexie, they might be inclined to associate horses with Native Americans, but then I would tell them that there were no horses in the “New World” until Spaniards brought them over-and that the Spaniards, in turn, got horses from the Arabs. Rock and roll is “white” music, right? Maybe…but it comes out of the blues, which goes back to African-American slave culture, which then reaches back to Africa-and guitars have their roots in Arabia, too. And hip hop? Well, OK, it was invented by black people in the Bronx, but they were sampling stuff like the Kinks and Aerosmith and playing it on turntables and mixers made in Japan. And can you think of Italian food without tomatoes or Irish people without potatoes-both come from the “New World”-potatoes and tomatoes have been in Europe for a relatively short blink of the eye in human history.
Anyway, a fellow Free Press-er recently posted on Facebook that he hates Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. I haven’t read the book, but I have a feeling I might hate it, too. I’m inclined to believe that it’s a little dated-it’s from an earlier generation of hyphen-American literature, which I believe we’re past. My analog to this would be stuff like Chitra Divakurani’s Arranged Marriage or The Mistress of Spices, which exoticize Indian culture, or Jhumpa Lahiri’s fiction, which is about boring characters who are constantly gazing at their navels and wondering if they are Indian or if they are American. I haven’t read Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, but that another familiar example of what I’m talking about here.
I think we’re past all that. I favor polyphonic fiction which features a cast of characters from diverse backgrounds-getting into trouble together and celebrating their differences but not dwelling on them in a boring, exotic, fetishizing way. I think the Brits have a head start on this-Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, which features British-Indian punk rock kids and queers and anti-capitalists really changed my world, and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth brings together a hilarious cast of colorful characters ranging background from Brittain to Jamaica to Bangladesh.
Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, which tells the story of an integrated platoon in the South Pacific during World War II did that in 1948. Most recently, New Jersey’s own Junot Diaz’s novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao wove together stories about a Chinese man living in the Dominican Republic, a Dominican kid growing up as a comic book nerd in New Jersey, and his nerdy Indian sidekick.
This is all to say that I felt *more* alienated and *less* American until I found this literature. This literature taught me many things, one of which is that there are many ways to be an American. Borders language culture my ass. In the words of the great American songwriter Woody Guthrie, you fascists are bound to lose.