Challenged and Challenging

How do you face a challenge? Are you quietly scared and nervous? Do you bluster and bull your way through? Do you take a deep breath, find out what is involved, and then act? Or do you avoid doing anything? What do you do when that challenge is posed by a book—or what other people are saying about a book?

Today I am posting about two sets of controversial graphic novels. But first I need to tell you how and why I selected Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis 1 and 2 and Kim Dong Hwa’s Color trilogy as my focus. I want to highlight them because these vivid, masterful works have been challenged by some parent or community groups as inappropriate reading for students. Recent local uproar over a different book, Rainbow Rowell’s award-winning teen novel Eleanor&Park, has brought censorship—including the banning and literal burning of books—front and center in my mind.

Eleanor & ParkUnlike the parents who objected to Rowell’s novel, taking its use of obscenity and profanity wrongheadedly out of context (from my point-of view), I found Rowell’s dialogue fresh and natural, her insights into teens and adults sharp and nuanced. I thought it ironic that while her character Eleanor finds safety with an uncle in St. Paul, author Rowell had been ‘uninvited’ to speak with students in St. Paul’s neighboring Anoka-Hennepin School District. Now, nearly two months later, I am pleased to learn that the St. Paul Library itself has invited Rowell to visit and has selected Eleanor & Park for its community-wide Read Brave Program. By the time this blog entry is online, Rowell will have appeared at the first of these community gatherings.

The brouhaha over Eleanor & Park calls to mind the misgivings some people once had about almost all comic books. In the 1940s and 1950s, acting on the mistaken idea that reading comics led to juvenile delinquency, some U.S. communities even tolerated the public burning of piles of comics.  This bit of U.S. history horrifies me, particularly coming so soon after the end of World War II, when Nazi atrocities first became known world-wide. Hitler had fulfilled the ominous prediction of 19th century author Heinrich Heine, who wrote “Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people, too.” Public burning of books that Nazis considered decadent or dangerous began in Germany in 1933, and just a few years later the mass extinction of similarly labeled authors, readers, and finally entire populations began. Viewed within this historical context, the censorship or banning of books is the first, dangerous step on a devastatingly slippery slope.

PersepolisYet challenges of individual books—including graphic novels—continue to be made by concerned parents and community groups, occasionally even educators, for a variety of often well-intentioned reasons. And sometimes (from my point-of-view) their objections have some merit, although I would argue that censorship is not the solution to the problems, real or potential, they identify. One case of this is the Spring, 2013 challenges brought in Chicago to Marjane Satrapi’s acclaimed Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. (Nowadays this memoir is also published together with Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return in one volume titled The Complete Persepolis.)

Satrapi’s memoir of her childhood in Iran, from the ages of six to fourteen, focuses on events after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, when she was nine years old. Islamic law and rules of modesty, including headscarves for all females and figure-concealing clothing for women, were soon enforced—sometimes brutally. Educational and social activities also became restricted. When Marjane and her schoolmates first receive their “veils,” they do not understand how their lives will change. A first-page panel shows the schoolyard games they play with these scarves, bold black-and-white drawings capturing the care-free humor of this active play. Another early panel symbolizes the dislocating impact of the Revolution on Marjane and all Iranians: her figure is split in half, with the short-haired, Western-garbed side shown against a black background displaying white scientific gears and tools. Marjane’s black-veiled, hajib-wearing half stands out against a white background decorated with the typical non-representational swirls of Islamic art. Iran will similarly be ‘torn apart’ by the demands of its new, theocratic government. Persepolis also depicts the impact of the long years of the subsequent Iran-Iraq war on young Marjane, her family, and their acquaintances.

from Persepolis by Marjane Satrapis

Throughout this book and its sequel, which follows Marjane into young adulthood and marriage, Satrapi continues to employ varied, sophisticated visual techniques. Overlapping panels; dramatic, sometimes full-page black backgrounds; and repetition of small images as borders or within entire panels communicate her experiences and opinions clearly and vividly. Ironically, it is Satrapi’s very success as a storyteller that led to the Chicago challenge and limited banning of Persepolis. In a decision eerily reminiscent of Iranian censorship, Chicago school officials first removed Persepolis from one high school and then ordered it removed from all district classrooms and libraries. Its language and images were termed too “graphic,” in the negative senses of that word. After protests by students, teachers, and anti-censorship groups, district officials backtracked on this decision, limiting the ban to 7th grade classrooms.

Officials cited one panel depicting torture of a political prisoner as the reason for keeping Persepolis out of the hands and curriculum of 7th graders. I confess I find their concern a valid one, although I vehemently reject the decision to which it led. Satrapi depicts torture and body dismemberment not just in one panel but on an entire page. I agree with the Chicago Public Schools officials who called these “powerful images of torture,” even though Satrapi herself disagrees. She has responded that her “black-and-white drawing … [is not] extremely horrible” and is not comparable to “photos of torture” or other things 7th graders can see “on cinema and the internet.” I think her response, while true in some ways, does not give her own achievements enough credit. (And, just because Persepolis describes the experiences of a child and young teen, the age of this figure does not, as some anti-censorship groups note, mean that the book is meant to be read by this young audience. That logic would suggest that Persepolis is not worth the while of adult readers!) Instead of removing and banning this book from 7th grade classes, I would have urged a letter be sent to teachers with information about how to discuss the torture and other government actions depicted in Satrapi’s work. Censorship only abets the abuse of power, which still can be seen in Iran today, where too little has changed. A recent graphic novel depicting contemporary government oppression there, including the torture and murder of dissidents, shields its creators with pseudonyms. “Amir” and “Khalil,” the author and artist responsible for Zahra’s Paradise (2011), fear reprisal for their families and themselves if their true identities became known in Iran. This work contains—along with scenes of rape, torture, and public execution—some panels depicting consensual sex. Iran’s banning of all R-rated, critical works such as Zahra’s Paradise, its criminalization of their authors, are all the more reason to avoid censorship here.

Colors by Kim Dong Hwa

It is sex—specifically, nudity, sex education, and sexual explicitness—that in 2011 made Kim Dong Hwa’s Colors trilogy (The Color of Earth, The Color of Water, and The Color of Heaven) the second most frequently challenged book for young readers in the United States. Yet this series has also been acclaimed and its first volume singled out as one of YALSA Top Ten Graphic Novels for Teens and one of Booklist’s Top Ten Graphic Novels for Youth. I heartily echo this praise. Author/illustrator Hwa does a splendid job depicting the lives of a widowed mother and her young daughter in early 1900s rural Korea. Their close, loving relationship as the mother runs a small tavern to support them is depicted in acute, sensitive detail, as is village life in general. The psychological development of daughter Ehwa and her playmates, ages seven to thirteen in The Color of Earth, is also handled deftly. Believable situations lead them from discovering the physical differences between girls and boys, to first menstruation and wet dreams, onward to first innocent “crushes” and the realization that adults experience such emotions, too. In The Color of Water, Hwa includes teen masturbation and adult sexuality—topics which have also proven to be ‘red flags’ to those who wish to censor his work. In The Color of Heaven, Hwa further develops his life cycle approach towards emotional and physical development by depicting 17 year old Ehwa’s wedding night and the sexuality of village elders, whose bodies sometimes fail to ‘rise’ to their desires.

Colors by Kim Dong Hwa

Throughout the trilogy, Hwa uses symbols in words and images to represent sexual feelings and emotions. Randy men are beetles, children becoming adolescents resemble new butterflies, while different emotions and people are associated with individual kinds of flower. These connections, often rooted in Korean folklore, are noted by asterisks in the text, with brief, helpful explanations then given at the bottom of the page. Hwa conveys the joy of Ehwa and her husband Duksum through images of waves, clouds, and bright sunshine, as well as partial glimpses of their nude bodies. Throughout the trilogy, Hwa uses a range of line drawings to show village settings and outdoor scenes in skillful, realistic detail. One’s eye lingers on the page to absorb their intricate, satisfying patterns, textures, and details. Yet at other times Hwa employs some non-realistic visual conventions—such as ‘cat tongues’ on the faces of mischievous kids and ‘stitched’ mouths on the faces of embarrassed characters—typical of both manhwa (Korean comics) and manga (Japanese comics). (Unlike manga, Korean comics are published and read “Western style”—front- to- back and left- to- right.) Hwa also varies panel and image size to great effect, using double-page and one-and-a-half page spreads for dramatic emphasis.

Because both the Colors trilogy and Persepolis challenge readers to think and feel deeply about important topics, simultaneously cultivating and satisfying our visual awareness, I believe these books should be accessible to tweens and teens. The adults in their lives may want to explain or comment on some of the content in these works, but banning them from schools or libraries does a disservice to young readers. And such censorship, as history reveals, sometimes leads to further, dangerous legal rulings.

This month, movie-goers (who may have seen the 2007 film Persepolis, based on both Satrapi memoirs) will have another opportunity to revisit the horrific implications of book banning and burning. The filmed version of Markus Zuzak’s powerful novel about Nazi Germany, The Book Thief, debuts in wide-release. Its central character is a young girl named Liesel who loves books. In May, 1933, she rescues one volume from Munich’s huge pyre of burning books and also attempts, along with some German adults, to shelter Jews from Nazi persecution. Yet Dachau concentration camp, located just 10 miles outside of Munich, continues and grows, feeding the flames of its human holocaust for another twelve years. Not enough people challenged Hitler and his Nazi regime while there was still time to do this.

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