Freedom to Read Week - Canadian Literature
In our continuing series to mark Freedom to Read week, today we focus on three of this country's most beloved writers: Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood and Margaret Laurence. All three authors have faced challenges to their work, particularly from parent and church groups in Canada.
Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women is one of the most celebrated books from one of Canada’s most celebrated writers. Published in 1971, it tells the story of an adolescent girl as she learns about life, sex and mortality from the women in her life, including her mother, their boarder and her best friend. A few years after the book was published, however, the principal of a Peterborough high school removed the book from the senior English reading list despite protests from staff and students. Two years later it met a similar fate in Clinton, Ont., when parents demanded that it be removed from the school curriculum because of its alleged vulgarity and negative philosophy. The one positive was that it was in the wake of this attack against the book that the Freedom of Expression Committee of the Book and Periodical Council was founded, and they in turn spearheaded the idea of Freedom to Read week.
Margaret Atwood has been at the forefront of censorship issues and an outspoken advocate with respect to defending freedom of expression. Her 1984 novel The Handmaid's Tale in particular has been singled out on a number of occasions for censorship - ironic since thematically the book revolves around issues of censorship - by various parent boards in the United States, but also recently in Canada . A formal complaint was filed in 2009 by the parent of a 17 year-old in the Toronto District School Board who argued that while the futuristic theme of the book is acceptable, its focus on "sex, brutal situations, murder, prostitution" is not. As he wrote in the complaint: the book "is rife with brutality towards and mistreatment of women (and men at times), sexual scenes, and bleak depression. I can't really understand what it is my son is supposed to be learning from this fictional drivel. I have a major problem with a curriculum book that cannot be fully read out loud in class, in front of an assembly, directly to a teacher, a parent, or, for that matter, contains attitudes and words that cannot be used by students in class discussion or hallway conversation. Let alone a description of situations that must be embarrassing and uncomfortable to any young woman in that class – and probably the young men, too." He added that if the book was anti-Islam, it wouldn't be allowed. The first pages of the original holograph draft of The Handmaid's Tale can be seen below.
Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners has also been challenged since it was first published in 1974. In particular, the storm over the merits of the book broke in 1976 in LakeField, Ont. - literally in Laurence's own backyard. Certain evangelical religious groups from the Peterborough area united under the banner of "Citizens in Defence of Decency" demanded that the work be removed from the curriculum of the local school district on the grounds that it was "unsavoury pornography” and promoted “degradation, indecency and immorality." Although their demands were ultimately rejected, the book was unsuccessfully challenged again before the same Board in 1985 by another group of Christian fundamentalists - they acknowledged that they had not read the work in its entirety. In a letter Laurence wrote to Margaret Atwood in 1973 (shown below) soon after finishing the manuscript, she worried about the reaction the book would stir, but was adament in her defense. "I'm a bit afraid of the editorial comment, Peggy, and also a bit afraid of the reviewers, and yet, in another way, not afraid at all, because I know that this is what had to be done, and it ain't done perfectly but it will be done as well as I can do it at this point in my life, and I would stand behind it, and risk my life upon it, so one cannot do more or differently. I could be accused (and no doubt will be) of dealing with topical themes - Women; Metis; New Pioneers; etc. All rubbish - I'm not dealing with topical themes at all; I'm dealing with things close to my own psyche and heart, that is all. And one main theme seems to be Fiction - which could be myths of our own lives, and our parents, and our ancestors, etc. Fiction as History. History as Fiction."