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girls4Recently, Johnston County removed Julia Alvarez's How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents from the curriculum and school libraries because the parents of a 15-year-old West Johnston High School student protested the many "F" bombs and pedo-perv sexual scenes in the book.  And school officials are looking to weed more books that may offend.

According to Keith Beamon, associate superintendent  for curriculum and instructional services, as reported in The Dunn Daily Record online January 22 -- "We are just simply looking back through the titles to see if there are any red flags out there.  It's not that we are looking for any particular title, it's just a broad review just to see if there is anything out there that jumps out at us. If you've got a leak in one place in your house ... we're just kind of checking everywhere else just to make sure there are no other leaks," Mr. Beamon said.

The knee-jerk response is to condemn censorship on all levels, and point out the folly of leafing through suspicious volumes and checking for salacious passages which, of course, mark the pubescent child's first foray into "marginalia" -- a place in the text he or she marks for later perusal.

virgin2Alvarez's memoir-vignette-story-cycle novel is about a first generation Dominican-American born group of sisters, the four Garcia girls, struggling with cultural adaptation and coming of age.  The book was published by the trailblazing Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill and won the 1991 PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Book Award for works which present a multicultural viewpoint.  But the book as a book is not as challenging as the coming of age story in The Virgin Suicides, and not as literary or multiculturally complex as The Joy-Luck Club.  The book is more autobiography than fiction, more tale-telling in an anecdotal way than engaging the imagination to wonder -- another example of memoir-based fiction that has been coincident with the rising popularity of reality TV.

For teachers, the problem always has been, and will be, how to choose what might benefit young people, inspire them, lead them to good lives, engage their imagination so they create for themselves and for the world what they can imagine.  This is the noble enterprise on the grand scale that often drops from view during the minute to minute rigors of teaching 35 middle school or high school kids whose minds may have been already seduced by Lil' Kim, RAW, or America's Top Model.  Moreover, some times, teachers are more familiar with the books they have met in college than they are with the students and families in the communities in which they find themselves teaching.

joyluckIn this particular case, the rationale behind choosing Alvarez's book apparently involves using fiction as something that teaches a lesson or raises an awareness -- fiction's lower levels of aspiration -- and perhaps this is one of the goals that has been set for curricular objectives. The book, too, in its achievement corresponds to that goal. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, indeed, may be offensive in a few spots, especially to people who are not necessarily literary, and who are worried about F bombs in a surprise attack and wary about "perv" encounters that may appear almost anywhere. [After all, according to parental wish-logic -- schools and libraries and books teach the child only "good things" in the literal, non-discursive sense.]  Yet more to the point, these incidences in the book, though they are vulgar and part of the fabric of reality whether it is American, Dominican, or Greenland, become a sideshow to the better possibilities inherent in fiction.  When I tell you a story, what is it that engages your finer virtues and how has the world become a larger place?

Alvarez, herself, has responded testily to the Johnston County case: 

"The novel is no slight 'pornographic' hack work that got into curriculum as a misguided selection by clueless teachers who are corrupting the minds of young people ... Perhaps the high school teachers who selected the novel for Johnston's high school students knew (they) were in fact making an informed and intelligent choice."

garciagirlsFor all the wrangle and politically-correct muddle of it all, one can understand the author's indignation, and also sympathize with the parents.  If you permit me, I suppose their view may be this: "If kids want to hear the 'F' word or see an erection -- that is everywhere, everyday, in the high school parking lot, on the internet -- why should literature pander to these realities?  For the sake of verisimilitude?  For the sake of seeing them in context with other realities for purpose of value judgment?  How is that enlightening and in what sense?" Unfortunately, amid all this parental hand-wringing, nothing is remembered of the complexities of cultural assimilation and multicultural identity.  The parents, meanwhile, demand answers to their questions.

[In this scenario, the confrontation between book and community could be the first step that needs to be taken. Of course, a second step would be equally important.  Moreover, Alvarez does take time out to disdain these incidences in the book with low-grade adjectives and leaden-hued adverbs, but the parent may not notice this.]

Furthermore, parents, many of whom are living in ever-changing socially fluid communities, are more paranoid than ever since loco parentis went out the window with grammar, and are still hard at work building little kingdoms (however futile and temporary) for their children against the outside world of bad influences, a world complicated in the recent decade by the internet, cell-phones, and omnipresent media.  Subsequently, the schools become the focus of what little control parents feel they have, their illusions notwithstanding.

Beyond expressing sympathy and understanding for this latest assault on free speech, the implications of the Alvarez case point to the changing nature of reading and reality to which fiction must be subject.  For a child growing up, there will be enough of the objectionable and shocking realities (the main dish of realistic fiction) evident elsewhere in the ubiquitous forms of media without literature, too, holding them up as a part of life.  Perhaps, fiction, and in particular the novel, could try something new.

--Tom Douglass


Copyright © 2008. ECU  Department of English.