Campus figures, local authors talk censorship

Reading events aim to spark discussion on academic access

Drama professor Tim Fort reads an excerpt from Thornton Wilder’s character drama, Our Town, as part of Freedom to Read week at Queen’s.
Drama professor Tim Fort reads an excerpt from Thornton Wilder’s character drama, Our Town, as part of Freedom to Read week at Queen’s.

An event in Stauffer Library this week has community members and local authors working side by side to defend their freedom to read without censorship.

Feb. 16 to 19 is Freedom to Read week, a library-sponsored event that invites local literature lovers to deliver public readings, with an emphasis on works that have been challenged or banned.

Rector Leora Jackson was one of the readers who presented on Tuesday.

“I think we spend a lot of time at university talking about academic freedom and the freedom to learn and pursue issues without censorship and without challenge,” she said, adding that she thinks participating in the event was a good way to express that freedom.

Jackson read an excerpt from Tony Morrison’s Beloved, a novel based on a mother and daughter’s escape from slavery in the nineteenth century. The novel is loosely based on the life of Margaret Garner, an enslaved African American woman who killed her own daughter rather than allowing her to return to slavery.

“It has been challenged a number of times, often in high school libraries and curriculum reading lists, in a large part because of its detailed depictions of violence and sexuality,” she said. “It depicts a very real history so I thought it would be appropriate.”

Library Communications Manager Jennifer Smith organized the event. Readers have been invited to select readings of their choice and present them in the spirit of celebrating intellectual freedom, she said.

Smith said she thinks intellectual freedom represents the freedom of access to information and a diversity of perspectives.

“Whether it’s material that we like and find inspiring or material that we find disturbing ... it’s important in an academic environment to have access to those works.”

Smith said she hopes the event will raise awareness of censorship, including past incidents of books being banned from schools and public libraries.

“You hear of a lot of issues and challenges that come up in the public school curriculum, for example Harry Potter,” Smith said. “It’s astonishing to see the books on those lists that people take issue with.”

Margaret Atwood, Alice Monroe, Mark Twain and even William Shakespeare are among many authors whose published works have been banned in the past, she said.

“Sometimes the authors are tackling difficult social issues and they’re trying to raise awareness,” she said, adding that one reason for censorship is the language they use within characters’ dialogue that readers find offensive. An prime example is the racist language used by some characters in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Smith said.

“What people are offended by is exactly the point the authors are trying to make,” she said. “They’re trying to shed light on those issues.”

University Librarian Paul Wiens said Freedom to Read Week is important in recognizing censorship issues in Canada, especially ones that are unreported.

Wiens said he’s heard about cases where the RCMP have invaded the homes of journalists over censorship issues. They have the power to remove certain controversial books from public libraries, he added.

“Public libraries, university libraries, bookstores and publishers are all involved in this celebration of the freedom to read,” he said. “This is one way of expressing awareness and encouraging people to not take that for granted.”

Kingston author Lawrence Scanlan read an excerpt on Tuesday from his book A Year of Living Generously: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Philanthropy.

In the book, students take on the roles of real people in the Kingston community who are in poverty.

“It really was an eye opener for me,” he said of his book. “It gave [me] an inkling to see what it’s like to be poor.”

Scanlan said he was surprised at some of the cases of censorship he discovered through the event. He doesn’t take for granted his right to speak freely, he added.

“Just hearing some of the books that have been banned, it’s just shocking,” he said. “You can’t ban a book just because it uses words that are not fashionable. ... We have to defend that right.”

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