Speak Loudly and Carry a Big Typewriter

If there’s one thing in this world I unilaterally hate, it’s book banning. And yet, book banning also speaks to the immense power the written word has; that a book can be so threatening that people think it needs to be banned says a lot about writing, and the responsibility writers have, and the great things we can do with the written word. It’s September, which means that calls to yank books out of school libraries are in full force, and, just in time for Banned Books Week, a man named Wesley Scroggins has decided to lobby for removal of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak from school libraries. Pastor Scroggins gets his hate on for a number of books, calling them ‘soft pornography.’

Speak is being compared to pornographic material because it contains a rape scene.

Says Anderson:

The fact that he sees rape as sexually exciting (pornographic) is disturbing, if not horrifying. It gets worse, if that’s possible, when he goes on to completely mischaracterize the book.

I agree. I am deeply disturbed by his characterisation of the book as ‘soft pornography’ because it contains a rape scene. Speak is about enduring abuse in silence and gathering the will to say something, to put into words what no one should have to put in words, to speak, literally, into the void. It’s a book that had a powerful impact on me when I read it for the first time, and I am not the only one who feels this way, as the testimonies in my copy of the 10th anniversary edition say, very eloquently, and as many people said very eloquently yesterday on Twitter under the #speakloudly hashtag.

Speak reminded me of the power one voice has—one person speaking up can give others the courage to do likewise, one person refusing to perpetuate the silence can bring things into the light, where they belong, can remind other victims/survivors that they are not alone. Books like this are critical, and they absolutely belong in the classroom, especially when you consider sexual assault statistics for teens. This is something we need to be talking about, we need to be confronting, and I am pleased to see that so many teachers use this book in their classrooms and use it to spark important conversations among their students.

Anderson’s asking for help from the community of readers as well as lovers of books and freedom of speech in general, and the response has been quite incredible; I spent some time yesterday reading volumes of responses from people, including a number of Christians and teachers who wrote to defend the book, like The Newbie Novelist, who pointed out that as a Christian and a teacher who teaches banned books, she was incredibly angered by the proposal to ban Speak:

I am a Christian. I teach in public school. My students know that I’m a Christian—because it’s who I am. But I don’t preach in the classroom because A. that’s not appropriate B. I would lose my job C. it’s PUBLIC SCHOOL

Veronica Roth directly challenged Scroggins’ argument from a Christian perspective:

You can summarize Christian teachings in two parts: crucifixion and resurrection. Brokenness and mending. My concern with many Christians is their refusal to acknowledge brokenness. It’s all fine and good to walk around thinking “I’ve been saved! Woohoo!”, but seriously: saved from what? Sometimes I wonder if they even know, or if it’s too uncomfortable to think about.

And I read a lot of really powerful testimonies from rape victims/survivors:

And then I was ashamed because the whole neighborhood knew what happened to me. And the only reason I was ashamed is because people like Wesley Scroggins can’t tell the difference between rape and sex. Because people like Wesley Scroggins thinks that it’s immoral and filthy to be violated, and to actually say something about it. (‘Speak Loudly,’ content note, childhood sexual assault.)

As a Christian and a rape survivor, I want SPEAK to stay on the shelves. And I want others to write books about rape. Incest. Child abuse. Eating disorders. Multiple personality disorder. Post traumatic stress disorder. Because those are just as real, just as present, for some kids as worrying about grades and peer pressure are for others. Books can give children the language they need to be able to describe themselves and the things they’re facing. To silence the book could be to silence the child. (‘SPEAKing Out,’ content note, childhood sexual assault.)

It is interesting to see a book about the power of speaking out becoming the centre of a controversy over book banning. Speak reminds readers that words, their words, have power and do matter, and that they can be used for change. Book banning reminds people that words have such potency that challenging and frightening words must be locked away and hidden where no one can find them. Words like ‘if you are raped, you have the right to support’ and ‘your body is your own.’ Words like ‘I was raped.’

Scroggins wants to call this ‘softcore pornography’?

He doesn’t like that people are talking about sexual violence, giving it a name, and directly addressing the fact that sexual violence happens to teens? Well, I don’t like the fact that sexual violence happens. I’d rather focus on banning that, on making novels like Speak obsolete reminders of a grim and bitter time; I would like nothing better than to see this book become a museum piece and a horror story, rather than what it is, which is a frank, unflinching account of real world things that are happening right now.

Mr. Scroggins thinks sexual violence is something teens should not be exposed to? I absolutely agree; but I’m talking about actual sexual violence, not descriptions of such that occur in the context of a classroom environment, where a conversation happens, where speakers may be invited in to talk about rape and sexual assault and how to get help. Defining sexual assault and providing people with the tools to name what has happened to them and talk about it is an important tool when it comes to fighting sexual assault; so often, rape victims/survivors are told that what they experience ‘isn’t really’ sexual assault, that it was their fault, that they should just keep quiet.

Knowledge is power. Librarians putting books like Speak in my hands when I was young made a huge difference in my life and they continue to make a huge difference in the lives of teens all over the world.

My middle school librarian, Katy Tahja, was a formative influence in my development not just as a reader and writer, but as a person. That’s why I was stoked to see her working in the bookstore when I ran in to buy my copy of Speak:

Speak Loudly: An older woman with long dark hair and glasses holds a copy of Speak in the air, pointing at it and smiling.

Book banning often happens slyly and under the radar to avoid attracting controversy. Books are quietly removed from circulation or stolen or ‘moved’ and no one is the wiser and the contents of the American Library Association’s list of frequently challenged books might surprise you. It’s critical to push back on challenges and bans to books, to support librarians and teachers fighting to keep books in libraries and classrooms, and to support writers when their works are challenged.

Speak belongs in classrooms and on library shelves and anywhere else it wants to go. As do the numerous volumes challenged in school districts across the United States every year, from Tortilla Curtain to The Chocolate War.

Banning books about scary things doesn’t make those things go away. Banning books that allow people to  identify their lived experiences and talk about them just ensures that the silence continues.

Books like Speak end the silence.