English author Neil Gaiman’s fan base spread worldwide with his critically acclaimed Sandman graphic novel series in the 1990s. Since then he has solidified his literary mark with equally-impressive and award-winning novels. Last week, however, his novel, Neverwhere, became the target of contention that has engulfed a New Mexico community in controversy and debate.
Gaiman isn’t a newcomer to the minefield of censorship. Sandman has been censored in the past and he is co-chair of the advisory board of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. The CBLDF was founded in 1986 with a mission is to protect the First Amendment rights of the comics art form.
Gaiman responded to the issue via Twitter, saying, “Is anyone fighting back?”
Neverwhere began as a television series that aired on BBC in 1996 and was set in “London Below”, a magical realm coexisting with the more familiar London, referred to as “London Above”. Gaiman adapted the series into novel form in the same year.
The main character in the story is Londoner Richard Mayhew and tells of his trials and tribulations in the city. A young businessman, with a normal life- until he helps a mysterious young girl who appears before him, bleeding and weak, as he walks with his fiancée to dinner to meet her influential boss.
It’s a premise typical of fantasy and science fiction, both of which Gaiman is a master. So what could possibly be so bad about it that a New Mexico parent has their knickers in a twist?
Nancy Wilmott, the mother of an Alamogordo High School student, says that the novel is “inappropriate” for teenagers and was so prudish in her critique that she told the staff of KRQE, when asked to provide an example of what was so horrifyingly obscene, “I cannot read this to you and put it on the news. It’s too inappropriate. It’s that bad.” She expressed shock that the school was “forcing” her daughter to read it due to it’s “sexual innuendos and harsh language.”
The Arizona Daily Star describes the book as being “seasoned with a very adult dose of horror”; but school officials pointed out that the book had been on the English department’s recommended reading list for nine years without even a hiccup of disapproval.
What it came down to was a four-paragraph passage on page 86 that prompted Wilmott to light the flames and go forth with pitchfork in hand. It graphically describes an adulterous sexual encounter between a married man and a single woman, in which the word “fuck” is used three times.
That’s all it took for school officials to agree to “temporarily remove” the book from class curriculums, pending review and a final decision.
Superintendent Dr. George Straface said that he reviewed the language personally and “can see where it could be considered offensive.” He also said that, “although kids can probably see that on TV anytime they want, we are a public school using taxpayer dollars. On that basis, we have decided to temporarily remove the book until we can review it with our panels and make a decision.”
In an email, Wilmott was upset that she was not given proper notification about the text and its use in the classroom. She complained that she found out about the book a week after it was assigned. “I really think that the school needs to let the parents know what their students are going to read beforehand, not the day before or after.”
The school does have a process by which parents are informed of possible controversial material via a letter sent home with students, which gives parents the opportunity to opt out for a similar, “less offensive” assignment.
Wilmott said that she received no such letter; so, she places blame on the school.
Did she, or anyone else, bother to ask if dear daughter either innocently or maliciously failed to provide the letter for approval?
According to an e-mail sent last Thursday, and obtained by the Daily News, AHS Principal, Darian Jaramillo, who is not accepting inquiries from the media, informed several teachers and staff that she “would like the book pulled from the shelves and not used in classes.”
Since the incident, Straface said that “three or four” more parents have complained about the book. In addition, Straface said that a process will begin next week whereby a panel will review current and future complaints about books the school system uses in its curriculum.
Maybe that’s just me, but that sounds like the beginnings of a witch hunt.
Pam Thorp, a faculty member in the English department at the school, is opposed to what she says is nothing short of censorship.
“I cannot and will not condone the censorship this parent is promoting. The implication that we are careless or irresponsible simply is not true. Presenting challenging material of merit that may contain some foul language or mature situations, in a sensitive and academic manner, is part of our responsibility to our students in order to engage them in evaluating the human condition. I take that responsibility very seriously and strive every day to encourage my students to think… about the world, about their community, about their friends and about themselves. Censorship is the opposite of that.”
She said that Wilmott never contacted the teacher directly, instead going immediately to administration officials. The teacher in question, who has not been named, assigned the student an alternate book once she learned through the proverbial grapevine that there was a problem.
That was more than a week before Wilmott began emailing the administration and that she had been in contact with the teacher through the entire process.
It’s clear that the issue- once again, isn’t just that a parent wants to control what their own child reads, they believe in their own omnipotence that they know what’s best for everyone’s child and have the right to tell others how to parent.
As Thorp accurately put it, “It’s not about her child, specifically, anymore. It’s about censorship.”
Local and national newspapers reporting on the incident show strong comments from both sides of the debate on their respective websites, so to answer Gaiman’s Tweet: Yes, people are fighting this and, pending the results of the review, we can only hope that the voices of academic reason and justice prevail.
For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at http://bbark.deepforestproductions.com/
Sources: Wikipedia, Comic Book Resources, Hollywood Reporter, KRQE, Alamogordo Daily News
© 2013 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions