I had no idea I was born to be a rabble-rouser. I didn’t rebel during my adolescence; I had no desire to make war where a tasteless facsimile of peace had reigned for so long. I wanted to be quiet and good. I idolized people who loved the world unconditionally, who willingly swallowed sorrow, pain, and anger, and whose knowing and enigmatic smile was their only condemnation of the senseless acts of those around them.
But as I began reading Burn This Book, a collection of essays written in support of PEN—the world’s oldest literary and human rights organization—by the likes of Updike, Morrison, and Rushdie, I felt my spirit pick up its head like a bird who, after sleeping for a great age, senses something in the air that makes it want to fly.
Like most people who have enjoyed any lifelong privilege, I hadn’t given too much consideration to the idea that reading and writing are human rights—ones that are still too frequently curtailed. But as I contemplate it now, I can’t imagine not being allowed to read. I can never remember a time when I was banned from reading anything. My childhood home was crammed with books and, to the best of my knowledge, I had access to them all. I never had any notion that books could be dangerous or in any way evil. They might be poorly written, possess errant storylines, foul language, discouraging errata, explicit sex—but they were just words on paper; they couldn’t hurt you. I don’t know at what age I found out about the banning of books, or when I first saw movie footage of poor, little, innocent books being burned. But I do remember that the former occurrence baffled me and the latter made me physically ill.
It’s not just the great enjoyments I’ve gotten from books or the large, mind-altering things I’ve learned from them that inspires me so much. It’s the little ones too—the fact that even the tiniest morsel of the written word can have a lasting impact. It thrills me to realize that subtle aspects of books I read as a child still remain poignant to me—and not just the classics, all of them. I remember the lovely variances of the many cultures on display in Around the World Fairy Tales retold by Vratislav Sťovíček. The opening sentences of “Springtime à la Carte” from The Complete Works of O. Henry, still make me smile and encourage my fearlessness and irreverence. I have no idea why, but, even now, I think of the four girls in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women acting out Pilgrim’s Progress, making up bundles, beginning their trek in the cellar, and journeying to the attic. The primer in cellular biology I received from Madeleine L’Engle in A Wind in the Door has never left my side. The President’s Daughter by Ellen Emerson White provided me with a lasting education of what it means to run for office and opened my imagination to the notion of a female president (still waiting . . .). The Sweet Valley High books created by Francine Pascal informed me about the Sing it Yourself Messiah and eyebrow-plucking. The Iceberg Hermit by Arthur Roth taught me that alcohol makes you warm. The Night of the Whale by Jerry Spinelli showed me the terrible sorrow of beached whales. Barthe DeClements’ and Christopher Greimes’ book Double Trouble gave me my first look at astral bodies and auras. The King of the Dollhouse by Patricia Clapp taught me how to dust properly. Biographies of Lafayette and Robert Perry informed of me of what mottoes were in general and what these men’s were in particular (“Why not?” and “I shall find a way or make one”, respectively). And all this before I had entered middle school.
Now, when I hear about the high rate of illiteracy among women in Afghanistan and other places—when I think of all that I have been given access to and all that they have been denied, I get choked up. And a few months ago, when Iranians were again told to shut up and accept their newly “elected” president, when their safeties were threatened for writing anything to oppose him or the legitimacy of his election—either on posters or the internet. . . I felt a sorrow and helplessness I can’t adequately describe.
I can’t imagine not being able to write. Actually, I take that back—I too have been the victim of censorship—my own. There used to be things I thought I couldn’t write about. And there were things that I would write about, but refused to share with others. No good, I thought, could come from my voicing certain beliefs, relating certain tales. They could only hurt. I was wholly interested in being responsible—not seeing that responsibility may take a different form in the hands of an artist. According to Salman Rushdie “A poet’s work is to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, to start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.” But it could be argued (and it often has been by me) that writers use this type of rationale to write whatever they want, for whatever selfish reason they want, and get away with it. I have been loathe to fall into this category and, as a result, have bent over backward to be fair, to question my motives, to consider the feelings of others—even though my mother frequently tells me “that’s not your job”.
“A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.” When a statement like this comes out of Toni Morrison’s mouth, it sounds completely reasonable and wholly accurate. I don’t care whether you loved or hated Beloved; we needed her to write that book. But when I take Ms. Morrison’s quote to heart and apply it to myself, I run into a little trouble. Are these words I write truly necessary? How about these? Again, such quotes may lead us into self-indulgence and over permissiveness: “The world needs to hear my opinion about everything from emotional abuse to M&Ms to flatulence, so I will write it all down and consequences be damned!” And yet, when I think of people not being allowed to write and not being allowed to read, I start to feel that even the most inane jabbering on Facebook becomes a glorious thing. Is it right to announce someone’s wrongdoings to the world? I don’t know. But sometimes, it is definitely necessary.
So as it turns out, I am not a “sit quietly and take the world as it is” kind of gal. (Really, my red hair should have been a clue right off the bat.) I am nice and loving and kind. But I am also opinionated and intelligent, and I refuse to yield to any fear that tells me not to use my brain, my voice, or my pen, because doing so would be to disgrace those who have given their very selves for my right to read and write; it would be to unforgivably dishonor those people who, even now, are fighting with their mighty pens to be heard.
For more information about PEN go here: http://pen.org/
For a closer look at Burn This Book go here: http://browseinside.harpercollins.com/index.aspx?isbn13=9780061774003