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You Can’t Read That! is a periodic post featuring banned book reviews and news roundups.

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YCRT! News Roundup

Edward de Grazia, RIP. I grew up in the 1950s and 60s, when he successfully fought the banning of books like Tropic of Cancer and The Naked Lunch, and quite naturally read both as soon as they became available to American readers.

I always knew there was more to Anne Frank's diary than the edited version I read as a teenager. Now the complete and unedited version of The Diary of a Young Girl is out, and has upset at least one parent in Michigan, who doesn't just want to keep her own kid from reading it, but all kids. Apparently Anne had a hoo-ha ... and wrote about it. In a rare bit of good news, the school district has decided not to ban Anne Frank's unedited diary.

The Middle School Survival Guide offers no-nonsense instruction to the challenges faced by preteens and teens in social and family situations and discusses sexual relations, including pregnancy and serious sexually transmitted diseases. That's too much instruction for one Philadelphia area parent, who succeeded in having the book pulled from the school library.

Imagine living in a country where a headline like this is considered unremarkable: Harsh Fines Cancelled, Banned Books List Publication Soon?

Despite it's own board's 4-2 recommendation that the book remain in the curriculum, a Chicago area school district, based on the objections of two parents, has banned The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

"Where they burn books, they will untimately burn people." But that only happened in Nazi Germany, you say? You're about to read about a book that has been burned not once, but several times ... in the USA.

YCRT! Banned Book Review

Bless Me, Ultima
Rudolfo Anaya

I read Bless Me, Ultima because it is frequently challenged, often banned, sometimes even burned. I read it because it has been banished from Tucson classrooms and school libraries. I read it because I live in a majority Mexican-American community in the southern slice of Arizona that until relatively recently was part of the state of Sonora, Mexico. I read it because many readers have praised it.

Anaya wrote his novel in 1972. Copies were confiscated and burned at a New Mexico school less than a year later. Burning, it turned out, was not to be a one-time aberration: Bless Me, Ultima has been burned again and again: the most recent burning was in Norwood, Colorado, in 2005.

My interest in what is sometimes called Chicano pride literature began in January 2012, when Tucson Unified School District administrators cancelled Mexican-American Studies classes in mid-session, pulling novels and textbooks from students' and teachers' hands and packing them in boxes labeled "banned books," a story that resulted in international outrage and made Arizona a laughingstock. Bless Me, Ultima was one of TUSD's targeted books.

Why do non-hispanics hate this novel? The most-often cited reason is that it contains profanity, violence, and sexuality. I can attest to two instances of the English word fuck. Then there's the Spanish word chingada, which roughly translates to the same thing. Chingada appears so many times that if you were to eliminate all the other words in the novel, you'd still have 20 pages of chingada. Also, the kids in the story frequently address one another as cabrón (asshole). Yes, there is violence ... murders among the adult characters, frequent fights among the schoolboys ... but I must say that if there's any sex I missed it.

Other challenges spell out what I consider to be more likely objections: the story is irreverent toward Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular, full of pagan mysticism, and frankly pro-magic (in that Ultima is a practicing medicine woman who uses her arts to stymie and even kill witches). This aspect of the novel, of course, should be neither here nor there in a society that respects the separation of church and state (insert ironic emoticon here).

Arizona State Schools Superintendent Tom Horne dared utter what I believe to be the real reasons behind white antipathy toward Bless Me, Ultima. In interviews leading up to the infamous TUSD book bannings he characterized Mexican-American studies and the books used in those classes as “civilizational war” and stated that in his view the histories of Mexican-Americans and Native Americans are not based on “Greco-Roman” knowledge and thus not part of Western civilization. Oh, yes, he really did say that.

So there you have the reasons Anaya's novel generates so much hate. Now I come to the difficult part, explaining why I didn't fall in love with the novel. I'll refer back to the 20 pages of chingada and a host of other Spanish and Indian words sprinkled throughout the narrative: yes, Mexican-Americans living near the US-Mexico border use Spanish and Indian words in everyday speech, but after a while all this multiculturalism becomes a burden.

Antonio keeps telling us Ultima is not a witch, but she has an owl as a familiar and she casts counter-spells against three known brujas (witches), killing two of them before she herself is killed ... not directly, but by the father of the witches, who kills the owl and thus Ultima. So she's a witch. C'mon.

Apart from Antonio and Ultima, the other characters are paper cutouts, acting and speaking in predictable ways. It was interesting to see Antonio begin to question the teachings of the church and to embrace the paganism of Ultima and the mysterious golden carp, but that was all the excitement the novel offered, and Antonio's doubts (like 20 pages' worth of chingada) grow tiresome after much repetition.

It's an okay story. I question how relevant it is to today's readers, but as a cornerstone of Mexican-American literature it is undoubtedly important. I'm glad I read it, but having read it, I remain more interested in the reasons white people hate it than I am in the novel itself.

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat May 18, 2013 at 07:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Baja Arizona Kossacks, Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter, and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  As usual, (11+ / 0-)

    it's interesting to see what other people don't want us to read. There are apparently ideas and words which are dangerous.

  •  If we accept reception aesthetics. . . (8+ / 0-)

    H. R. Jauss's work primarily set out to discover the monumentalizing of literature via an hermeneutic approach, but his argument that the hermeneutic encounter of any reader with a text (question and answer) is limited by the "horizon of expectations" and that, therefore those works that stand out as scandals and entangle political history (provoking bans and trials) are diagnostic of the limits of the culture's horizon of expectations, (as a reminder, the subject was "his argument") works. In fact, Jauss himself seems to be best at explaining works like Madame Bovary, rather than, say, Kipling.

    At least one critic has argued that Jauss and Marxist approaches need to be blended. At any rate, when we see works of literature cause people to bug out, the works are presumably touching a fissure or seam in the capacity to know (Jauss) or in their ideology (position of the concept of self with regard to the imagined position of production) (Raymond Williams). Thus, the books that are banned preferrentially, like this one -- banned only in places where there are substantial Mexican American students -- could tell us "white people/white-identified people cannot know this knowledge and therefore reject it violently" or "this shows where the weak spot is for the ruling elites."

    I never did pursue the issue of scandal books, but it's a deeply fruitful subject.

    "...ere God made us He loved us; which love was never slacked, nor ever shall be." - Juliana of Norwich

    by The Geogre on Sat May 18, 2013 at 09:50:09 AM PDT

  •  I taught in a suburban school near (5+ / 0-)

    Chicago that was over 90% Hispanic.
    "Bless Me, Ultima" was often required reading in the Freshman English classes. I taught remedial reading(Title 1) classes to Freshmen so I read it to see what some of the teachers were talking about when they said it was good and the "students loved it!" It wasn't much as you say. Not really that much action or drama or even character development and the plot was so, so.

    I enjoyed "Mango Street" much more. It was more like poetry and the passages were so multidimensional that it practically begged to be taught.

    I had an experience discussing teaching of the book with one Hispanic Teacher who just "loved" the book.  So I asked her if she brought the aria from Madame Butterfly in so students could hear the song that the mother sang....she didn't know that it existed. I also asked her about bringing in Tarot Cards to show the students what they looked like and what they meant....since the cards figure pretty heavily in one of the early passages.She didn't do that either; said she didn't know what Tarot Cards, it all depends on the interests of the teacher and the time one wants to spend talking about symbolism in a book.

    For some reason "Bless Me" was taught more than "Mango Street" (which takes place in Chicago in a neighborhood much like the one I lived in for several years). I am retired and still like "Mango Street" and cannot figure out why "Bless Me" is used more often.
    I guess it might have something more to do with the "generation gap" since Cisneros and I are almost the same age even if we are not the same ethnicity while "Bless Me" seems to stress ethnicity more.

    Character is what you are in the dark. Emilio Lizardo in Buckaroo Bonzai

    by Temmoku on Sat May 18, 2013 at 02:26:26 PM PDT

  •  The summer my father was 10, he had to hide in the (2+ / 0-)

    hayloft in order to read Tom Sawyer and also Huckleberry Finn. This was in 1910.  

    Both novels were widely considered seditious by authoritarian parents.

    He didn't mention how he obtained copies of the books, but I suspect he was very resourceful.

    Fiscal conservative: a Republican ready to spend $5 to save a dime--especially if that dime is helping a non-donor.

    by Mayfly on Sat May 18, 2013 at 04:49:58 PM PDT

  •  Thanks (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    You read it so I don't have to. But I might buy it. After all, all those book burners deserve to have us buy it.

  •  Thanks for another interesting read. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest, CanisMaximus

    It was surprising to read that apparently we are contemporaries having read the Tropics at about the same time.  I also read a fascinating discussion of the vindication of Behind the Green Door leading me to study that work at length.

    Censors are so stupid in promoting the works that so terrify them.  Unfortunately they are tireless.  I only wish  Agnew had declared that "those who burn books can bank on being burned."  At least they presumably have to pay for the copies burned......

  •  If you were raised in the 50's and 60's.... (3+ / 0-)

    ..and you were raised catholic, you were quite familiar with the Legion of Decency and their monthly list of movies and books which were allowed and which were not.

    Which, of course, lead me to read all SORTS of forbidden literature, as ponderous as some of it was. Nabokov's "Lolita" comes to mind. It didn't come off as "sexy" so much as depressing and sad. Of course, I was about ten or eleven...

    From the dawn of Genus Homo, we have that peculiar strain of person in the human family who cannot stand the fact someone else is doing something that they forbid themselves. For whatever reason, they believe they have the right -nay!- the DUTY to make sure nobody ever pleasures themselves again.

    "Wealthy the Spirit which knows its own flight. Stealthy the Hunter who slays his own fright. Blessed is the Traveler who journeys the length of the Light."

    by CanisMaximus on Sun May 19, 2013 at 12:18:48 AM PDT

    •  Lolita. . . sad? alienating, erotic, creepy (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      CanisMaximus, RiveroftheWest

      I read that novel at the peak of hormonal intoxication. While I was attempting to read it for literature, it was difficult for me, as a 17 year old man, to do so.

      The sadness is supposed to be there, without any doubt, but, then, that's asking for us to forgive and to accept the narrator's version of his pedophilia. More, we have to accept from him that it's a refinement, or at least not a perversion, while Lolita herself assures us that it is every bit of a perversion.

      The novel asked to be offensive. It employs an inclusive narrator, so the reader is drawn into the ego and desire of a social and psychological criminal, and therefore the readers are asked to find erotic (and therefore be alienated and attentive to) things forbidden or rejected. Meanwhile, the "nymph" is anything but a nymph. It's too strong a novel to ban or, honestly, to read more than once; it's also, though, a novel that resists any single adjective.

      (My female friends have been quicker to find the humor in the satire or the sadness.)

      "...ere God made us He loved us; which love was never slacked, nor ever shall be." - Juliana of Norwich

      by The Geogre on Sun May 19, 2013 at 06:30:09 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I'm surprised- I thought it was the descriptions (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Russ Jarmusch, RiveroftheWest

    of menstruation and Anne's crush on Peter that were the reasons parents didn't want her Diary read. I didn't realize I had missed some parts that were censored when I read it in the 1970s.
        Recently I was totally shocked by someone who tried to tell me that 'actually' the whole diary itself was a fraud and not written by "a young girl." That idea came out of left field to me (especially since I had just seen a display that included her original plaid diary) and I told him that, having been, at one time, a thirteen-year-old girl, I thought it sounded pretty authentic and that it would be awfully difficult for someone to fake that unless they were a brilliant writer. What's up with this "it's not even real" tactic against this book? I understand there were some legal arguments etc, but...

  •  What a shame (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    that Greco-Romans didn't have as much knowledge as they thought they did, and that according to Mr Horne, Western Civilization will forever be only partially complete. He's got just enough education to be a fool!

    "Arizona State Schools Superintendent Tom Horne  stated that in his view the histories of Mexican-Americans and Native Americans are not based on “Greco-Roman” knowledge and thus not part of Western civilization."

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