Amused by Silly People
It has occurred to me that the title of this blog might be more appropriately (out)rages of a grad student instead of (a)musings of a grad student, since it seems that most of the time I am outraged rather than amused. But in the case of this story, I find myself more amused than outraged.
One California parent is refusing to abandon her campaign to have sexually explicit books removed from classrooms in her school district. Pamela LaChappell has been calling on the Modesto City School Board to drop the offensive literature from its required reading list.
For months now, LaChappell has been warning parents, grandparents, and taxpayers in Modesto that some of the literature being used in the city schools’ advanced English classes is sexually explicit and so offensive as to be considered X-rated. She has taken her concerns to the school board, which so far has refused to drop books containing graphic details of child rape, incest, and necrophilia. Instead, the board has released an annotated list providing brief summaries of each required reading selection.
Naturally I thought Playboy must be available on the magazine rack and there must be video porn on the shelves of Modesto’s school libraries. Not so.
The works that have La Chappell so upset are Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits and David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars. Both are suggested reading in the school’s International Baccalaureate program.
I have not read Guterson’s book but Allende is one of my favorite Latin American writers. Building on the tradition of magical realism embodied by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez (another of my favorite writers), her books are stunning meditations on the violence of Latin American military dictatorships, with more subtle themes about colonialism, racism, and sexism mixed in. Yes, there are rapes in her books–truly horrific ones. It is disturbing to read about the rape of a young Indian woman by a powerful white landowner, or to read about the rape of that landowner’s granddaughter in a military internment camp. But these scenes speak to readers metaphorically as well as literally: the highly stratified class systems of Latin American countries and the power of the military “rape” entire countries and this rape is symbolized in the violation of individual characters. It is no accident that Isabel Allende writes about these topics: she is the niece of Salvadore Allende, the elected socialist president of Chile, who was killed in Pinochet’s CIA-backed coup d’etat. For students in the IB program, understanding the history and literature of other cultures is key. Reading Allende’s work is one way of accomplishing this, and getting students to think about tough issues.
I am amused by LaChappell’s inability to see into this supposedly “x-rated” material’s true meanings. I know I should be more concerned, especially since my own school district went through a spasm of book banning with similar allegations when I was in high school, but it seems the issue is getting very little attention in Modesto (a quick search of the archives in the Modesto Bee revealed no recent stories about obscene reading material). Interestingly, Mrs. LaChappell’s children don’t even attend public school: she home schools her children.
Which of course begs the question: why does she care so much what other children read? Beats me. It has always been a mystery to me why people line up to denounce obscenities in books they’ve never read, and why anything foreign to their own experience automatically becomes filthy, evil, and corrupting. But there you have it. When I read stories like these one, at first I laugh. But then the sadness kicks in. The imaginations of Pamela La Chappell’s children must be barren indeed.