As an undergraduate, I attended the University of South Carolina. During the summer between my senior year of high school and my freshman year of college, we were assigned to read Persepolis, a fantastic graphic novel that is both a coming of age story as well as a first hand response to the changes in Iran. I actually read it before I was assigned to read it, and I definitely recommend it. I was excited to read it again in anticipation of college.
Many universities have Freshman Year Reading Experience (FYRE) books as part of their curriculum for University 101 or similar introduction to college courses (I was a Peer Leader and co-taught a U101 course during my senior year). They generally choose a book that talks about life changes or highlights diversity. Generally, the books they choose (at least at USC) are great. They’re also, as Persepolis is, no stranger to controversy and the possibility of being ‘banned’ in classrooms.
This year, College of Charleston freshmen have been assigned Fun Home by Allison Bechdel (best known for the Bechdel Test, but also a cartoonist). Fun Home is a graphic novel where Bechdel describes her childhood with a closeted gay father, who was an English teacher and owner of a funeral home; the trial he faced over his dealings with young boys; his possible suicide; and her own coming out as a lesbian. Palmetto Family, a Focus of the Family affiliate, is also considering ‘taking action’ because of how ‘controversial’ it is for innocent, naive, young freshmen in college.
Oran Smith, president and chief operating officer of Palmetto Family, said he has “a strong concern” about the book. “I found it very close to pornography,” he said, “way over the top.”
After emailing 10000 supporters, they are waiting for a response before ‘taking action’, saying they’re not sure yet what action the group might take. “We don’t think this book should be banned in America,” he said. “We don’t think it should be burned. It’s just not appropriate for college freshmen.”
It strikes me as strange that Mr. Smith deems this an inappropriate for college freshmen. A majority of these students are 18 and many more will be turning 18 over the course of the next year. They are, legally, adults and should theoretically begin making their own decisions and getting out into the world. It also highly likely that at least some of these students’ peers are LGBT. Is this book inappropriate for them?
Oran Smith also questioned whether a public university should be purchasing this book and paying for a visit by the author with state money. I will say that most universities that employ FYRE do this. Considering it comes out of the students tuition and they will be directly benefitting from it, I see no problem with this. We have Carolina Productions on campus that brings many speakers each year, often at an excess of $30000. Does he have a problem with this as well? (Probably, especially if he doesn’t agree with the speakers)
Bechdel says that her book has been assigned to many college students before, previously without complaint. Pornography is meant to cause sexual arousal in readers, she said, which is clearly not the intent of her book. It drags to light family secrets, which all families have, and freshmen are at an age where they begin to realize these secrets and are figuring out how to react to them. Ultimately this book is appropriate for freshmen because it deals with questions of identity, including, “Who am I and how do I fit in?”
To the College of Charleston’s credit, they aren’t planning on changing the book selection. Associate Provost Lynne Ford said the book was selected by a committee made up of faculty members, administrators, staff and students. The group solicits recommendations for books from the campus community and the public. “The book,” she said, “will help students to learn that they are not unique. Our experience is shared by millions.”
With the Palmetto Family group’s outrage and threat to potentially take action, it seems all they have managed to do was add this book to my hold list at the library.