Léna is also a Regional Manager for Writopia Lab whose mission is to foster joy, literacy, and critical thinking in kids and teens from all backgrounds through creative writing.

"Well, the question is, what do you want to believe? Do you want to live in a world where things are possible, or in one where they aren't?" Cin, Edges.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Wrinkle in an Hour's Time: Censorship and Adaptation

Censorship and A Wrinkle in Time? What???? Yes, this classic by my grandmother, Madeleine L'Engle is on many top ten lists of most censored books in America.

Okay, now that I've got your attention, my experience is not as crazy as all that. I was recently asked to do what I thought would be my Wrinkle in an Hour's Time workshop the other day at a local library.

What it turned out to be was an intense learning experience.

Wrinkle has been criticized from both ends of the spiritual spectrum - from the intellectuals for being too overtly religious and then from the evangelical Christians for being downright pagan. (Those rascally Mrs W's!)

Yes, our society is a beautiful and rich tapestry of different cultures, but Christianity is still the dominant religion. It isn't surprising that we see some sensitivity around this subject.

The librarian had set it up with me months ago to correspond with the first day of spring. We are on the heels of the 50th anniversary of Wrinkle - and the librarian had put it in the calendar as a "celebration". No problem - just add cupcakes to the mix and voila! You have an instant party situation.

Okay, what does this have to do with censorship and adaptation? Well . . .  I sent the librarian - who I really like and respect as a deep thinker - the outline of my workshop including the passages that I use.

She wrote back saying that it was great, but could I please not quote anything religious. I frowned at the email. It confused me. I am not "religious". I personally would never dream of pushing a religious agenda.

Could she mean the passage that I base the whole workshop on? The one that posits that it is our creativity that fights darkness?

    “Who have our fighters been?” Calvin asked.
    “Oh, you must know them, dear,” Mrs Whatsit said.
Mrs. Who’s spectacles Shone out at them triumphantly, “And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.”
    “Jesus!” Charles Wallace said. “Why of course, Jesus!”
     “Of course!” Mrs Whatsit said. “Go on, Charles, love. There were others. All your great artists. They’ve been lights for us to see by.”
     “Leonardo da Vinci?” Calvin suggested tentatively. “And Michelangelo?”
    “And Shakespeare,” Charles Wallace called out, “And Bach! And Pasteur, and Madame Curie, and Einstein!”
    Now Calvin’s voice rang out with confidence. “And Schweitzer, and Ghandi, and Buddha and Beethoven, and Rembrandt and St.Francis!”

Okay, so, there's Jesus and Buddha and Michelangelo. Is that religious?

Oh. There's that part where Mrs Who quotes the bible.

The librarian said that she would love to have a discussion about this, but that she didn't think the library was the proper forum.  I could have pushed, and I could have at least asked why, but I didn't. I wanted to act my way into flexible thinking.

I focused on loving the challenge of  adapting, of improvising. My original workshop closes with the above passage, and I like to give out a certificate to participants with that quote and their own name scrawled at the bottom. Of course it went over well for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine where I originally created it. And down South in Alabama, where folks are predominantly Christian.

I see that passage of the book as the ultimate interfaith message, and I know my grandmother. She saw the act of creating something, be it in the arts or sciences as an act of faith. And not limited to Christians. So do I.

Yet I have to give props to the librarian for knowing her patrons, and for making me think outside of the confines of my own experience. Yes, me, the free thinker.

But I still have to cop to being uncomfortable with not including that passage. For me it encapsulates the message of the book: that we ALL matter, regardless of our race, creed or religion. My grandmother was a devout Christian, so of course her beliefs informed her work. I am not, but I can't escape my upbringing, and the fact that I value faith as I seek to understand many religions and many points of view. I read stories to learn alternate ways of thinking and being. To teach me.

The arc of the workshop became more focused on the characters as archetypes and how we use books to learn more about ourselves and the world. We still did some group brainstorming and individual writing exercises. And I asked the kids to start looking at books, at stories, at characters differently. How does the protagonist view the world? How do you view the world?

Yes, thanks to the librarian, I looked past my own point of view, stretching myself and learning something through adapting.

It's certainly something to keep thinking and talking about.

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  1. OY VEY, Lena!

    Once again, that amazing passage - one of my favorites, raises concern. It is a universal, thought provoking, all encompassing, mind widening beautiful quote and it gets avoided.

    Yes, the librarian was wise, sort of, but how unfortunate for the participants who missed the exercise of hearing it 'out loud.' Schools and libraries become cautious and we need to be aware of the threat to creative forces.

    Here's another WRINKLE trivia - Do you know what your Gran had originally planned for Charles Wallace's request when Calvin was about to read Genesis? Talk about censorship!?!

    AND, next time you are in Chappaqua, perhaps you would like to do something quirky for me.......Go to 111 Commodore Road, knock on the door, introduce your wonderful self and ask permission to go out to the tree in the back yard (assuming it still stands).......on the far side at about eye level, my initials are carved. It happened in 1960 and I saw it again in the 80's. If you take the challenge and find it, please take a photo.


    1. Oooh Mary Jo, I love a challenge! xo

    2. YEA LENA!! GO FOR IT!!! I CANNOT WAIT TO ENVISION YOU RINGING THAT DOORBELL!!!Be sure to carry a copy of EDGES with you. Ya never know...........

      Trivia answer - Your Gran originally was going to have Charles Wallace request LITTLE BLACK SAMBO but publishers thought perhaps it would be offensive -so she went with Genesis. Of course, we were embarking on the sixties political correctness at that time.

  2. People get a little emotional when it comes to anything with a faint whiff of religion-or even spirituality. I can see both sides, but it still ruffles me when I hear things like this. I mean that passage is so obviously all-inclusive.

  3. One more thought... having heard librarians talk to this issue, I think THEY are frustrated from dealing with zealous parents, and so they are prone to be overcareful to avoid getting yelled at by an hysterical parent, you know?

    1. Thank you Catherine - I just revised the post, hopefully I sound more understanding!

  4. So...do these overzealous parents blacken out the "religious" parts before they allow their kids to read it? I'm sorry. I think this overly-sensitive, overly-PC culture is INSANE! For the record, I'm Catholic but would NEVER be offended by a great story that happened to have a Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim or atheist reference in it.

    Props to you Lena for adapting, even though you should never have been asked to do so.

  5. I have to hand it to you . . . turning a bit of innocent outrage into a learning experience. Obviously, if I were in your position, I would have adapted as well. Doesn't make me any less incensed over the implications. As Anonymous says in her wonderful comment, 'oy vey.'

    1. I was in the middle of revising when you were commenting! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  6. The problem with censoring books for any sort of religious reason is that none of us can account for an author's intent...besides the author. Plenty of books could have been inspired by the bible, or the quran, or the Torah, and while there are plenty of authors who will be open about what drove them to write a particular story, there are also those who may choose not to disclose that information. The thing about writing is that regardless if it is fiction or not, you are always drawing from the world around you. As you said, the society we live in is LARGELY christian, so it's only natural that a lot of literature on any bookshelf today is somehow influenced by Christianity, either in small or large ways. I can understand why some educators are not as interested in having children "analyze" a book in this way as they are...getting them to read period, but recognizing these influences in text is a part of the experience of reading.

    I think in a lot of ways what you did is exactly what reading is about; Adapting.

  7. We, as human beings, tend to have a very narrow focus. Most of us tend to have a revelation at some point in our childhood that we aren't the only people who can think for ourselves and have strange thoughts. It seems like we all have different opinions, endless points of view, and reasons for motivation. Anyone with their eyes open can see that and realize that we only know what we perceive and we only perceive what we have already seen, tasted, and heard. The bible is after all interpreted very differently across the world. That is why it is very disappointing to see censorship. We have a drive to support and share for whatever reason you may think of beit due to evolution (the social contract: I want to be fed in my time of need, so I'll help out and feed you now) or due to some higher power (we all have some innate goodness built into us) We also, however, have a drive to protect ourselves and our own items from thieves and predators (humans or other animals), and I think both of these natural animalistic traits are starting to become intertwined so that when someone threatens our beliefs or tries to rip these precious beliefs from our hands, we get offended and fight them (either physically or mentally). I think it's sad because, obvoously, the only way this world can progress is through the sharing of ideas, and this can't happen if censorship exists. Your grandmother attempted to open people's minds to the fact that Jesus was one special guy who fought for us and tried to open our minds, but really other people have made this world great as well and we should cherish them just as much. According to certain religious books, we are all god's children, so why not cherish them all? But who can say? Like the bible, it's all open to interpretation. I like how you adapted to the situation. In many ways you were explaining what I've been saying (and possibly setting the stage for a further discussion on the path of literature later), but, and I agree that this time and place probably wasn't worth the effort for a long time debated subject, I do think everyone should stand up against any kind of censorship.

  8. There’s that joke about the Buddhist priest who goes to a hotdog stand and says make me one with everything. Yet a common theme in literature (and our existence) is to realize the differences that separate us are not as strong as our similarities. Often a struggle within ourselves (especially us self proclaimed free thinkers!) is to operate outside our normal circumstances and appreciate that not everyone thinks the way we do. I identify with your experience of doing that through this assignment and applaud you for practicing the free thinking that you so highly value. I also do feel the lesson your grandmother is teaching in the quotes you picked out is an important one about how we are really all the same. And what do people use as the biggest way separates us more than religion?

    For me the presence of quotes from the Bible is not as much an endorsement for the entirety of Christianity but an appreciation for bits of wisdom that exist in the world, no matter their origin. For example I use Nike’s slogan “Just do it” as a motto at many times in my life although I certainly don’t endorse the entirety of Nike as a company. The fact that the Bible quotes are in the company of quotes from other “greats” of the world demonstrates that things only have meaning that we assign to them but that we also must respect that others hold certain things with great importance just as we hold certain things with great importance. Although I wish that the children could have interacted with the wisdom contained in these quotes, I see your revisal of the workshop as exactly the type of tolerance and respect that your grandmother aimed to teach.

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