I grew up in Manchester NH, and central to my life was the city library. Weekly, I and my younger brother, accompanied by our mother, stocked up on new treasures, new perspectives.
At home our parents occasionally challenged our imagination by telling us folk tales in Arabic; at home we never missed Pat the Bunny, Goodnight Moon and Babar.
I had parents who intuitively knew the urgency of literacy, the urgency of creativity and communication, and I had older brothers generous in introducing new ideas and broadening horizons.
Books – and libraries – made possible the life I’ve had and they inspire, in part, my willingness to challenge oppressive paradigms where some people are privileged over others.
I feel a need to pay it forward.
Recently I read a Jack Gantos short story, A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library, scheduled for publication this month by Abrams as a comic/graphic novel illustrated by Dave McKean:
“He is a boy and he is bored. He is wearing a lovely new red jacket which conceals a suicide vest which has been cleverly sewn into the jacket’s lining. … He has been told to fear nothing and that he will be perfectly safe in the library.
“Not even the secret police will think to look for him there because he cannot read.
“The boy is obedient and so he waits. It is hard to sit still because of the excitement of the day and the honor he has been given to blow up the enemy of his people.”
As he waits for further instructions he listens to a young man reading to a boy about a lost pet:
“He wants to ask what happens next in the story but he has been instructed to remain silent because books will master him just as they have mastered his enemies. He has been taught that books create a false life in a godless world that should not exist. Books cannot be trusted in a world where only God has the keys to paradise.”
Books cannot be trusted!
Someone thought that a story about a brown boy who couldn’t read wanting to blow up a library filled with literate white people was a good idea.
Someone thought it was a good idea to publish a book about a Muslim boy that directly contradicts God’s first revelation to the Prophet Muhammad:
“IQRA, READ. Read in the name of thy Sustainer, who has created man out of a germ-cell! Read – for thy Sustainer is the Most Bountiful One who has taught (man) the use of the pen taught man what he did not know!” (Qur’an 96: Asad)
Word of the book’s scheduled publication quickly spread and its publication was spiked.
An open letter from the Asian Author Alliance, signed by more than 1,000 writers, teachers and readers, called the book “steeped in Islamophobia and profound ignorance. … The simple fact is that today, the biggest terrorist threat in the U.S. is white supremacy. … Abrams is willfully fear-mongering and spreading harmful stereotypes in a failed attempt to show the power ‘of story.’ ”
A book embracing Orientalist and racist tropes, undergirded with messages about white privilege and authority was being marketed at a time when discussions about privilege, white supremacism and racism are currently roiling America.
At a time when To Kill a Mockingbird and Heather Has Two Mommies are still being challenged and censored, where churches and synagogues and mosques and schools are being attacked and people are dying, someone thought it was a good idea to publish a story about an illiterate brown Muslim boy who wants to blow up children, books and ideas.
We live in a time when a federal judge feels free to rule that there is no constitutional right to literacy. Gantos’s assumptions of illiteracy, extended to absurdist extremes, risk creating a lot of bombers – literally and figuratively.
Why on earth would someone think such a book was a good idea?
While writers, artists and publishers have the right to produce whatever they wish, allowing market forces and critical reviews to determine success or failure, I’m concerned by the concept that young readers, themselves susceptible to societal tensions, prejudices and bullying – can you imagine being a brown middle school reader in New Hampshire – should be subjected by prejudice under circumstances where their ability to respond is limited.
This is punching down.
This is hate speech and, like works that defend sexual abuse, Holocaust-denial or slavery, has no legitimacy.
Gary Trudeau, creator of “Doonesbury,” calls it “punching down,” the targeting of marginalized communities – sometimes portrayed as illiterate brown people who want to blow up libraries – as being non-normative, non-white, non-Christian, Other.
Can you imagine being a brown or black or Muslim child reading Suicide Bomber? Can you imagine the turmoil and conflict of a white child who has read the book encountering a brown or black child wearing a red jacket sitting in a library.
I know people of color and minorities who have been targeted for less.
The deployment of Orientalist, racist and classist tropes – Mexicans are rapists, Muslims hate us, brown boys blow up libraries – to attack the non-privileged is outrageous and offensive.
After Abrams decided to cancel its publication, illustrator McKean told the Guardian it was “absolutely the right decision to bin (trash) the book.”
“A few factors changed from the initiation of the pro… ject until now. … I already had my doubts that a story like this should come from outside the community involved, and the arguments on Twitter convinced me that it shouldn’t,” McKean said. “I’ve listened and learned a hard but valuable lesson.”
Thank you, Dave McKean.
NB: The above column is excerpted from comments delivered on May 9 at the spring conference of the New Hampshire Library Association.