Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home
Every year, PEN America asks PEN members, supporters, and staff—writers and editors of all backgrounds and genres—to celebrate the freedom to read by reflecting on the banned books that matter most to them. This is our way of taking part in the American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week, which brings together the entire book community in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular. Check out this year’s Banned Books feature here.
At the beginning of Banned Book Week Sherman Alexie, consistently one of the most challenged authors in America, Tweeted “The real reason my True Diary gets banned? Because it’s about the triumph of a liberal Native American rebel.” To Native Americans and other minorities, including the LGBTQ community, it seems obvious that challenges to their work by school boards and libraries based on “adult content” or “inappropriate for the age” justifications are actually disguises for prejudice. This is backed up by a recent study that shows that books with any kind of diversity are disproportionally challenged versus books by and about straight white males.
Which brings me to frequently challenged graphic artist Alison Bechdel, author of the groundbreaking and award-winning graphic memoir Fun Home. The New York Times Book Review called Fun Home “a pioneering work, pushing two genres (comics and memoir) in multiple new directions.” And for good reason. The memoir chronicles her coming of age and coming out juxtaposed with her own father’s repression and suicide. Filled with literary allusions, the memoir loops and spirals through time, each painstaking panel (it took Bechdel seven years to complete the project) a marvel. It is no wonder she received a MacArthur genius grant last week.
Fun Home has been challenged for the very reason it so remarkable: it is an unflinching look at sexuality and repression, and at the same time a treatise on how reading can save your life. It is interesting to look at the language used when challenging Fun Home. In 2006, in Marshall, Missouri, it was attacked for being “pornography” and was temporarily removed from the library. More troubling, in 2013, the College of Charleston in South Carolina, included the book in its incoming freshman reading list. “Family” groups protested the inclusion as “pornographic” and the state legislature cut the school’s budget by $52,000, the exact amount the summer reading program cost. At least the legislators didn’t hide behind “adult content” or “pornography,” instead coming right out with their homophobia, one saying the university was “promoting the gay and lesbian lifestyle,” another saying, “This book trampled on freedom of conservatives.”
One wonders how an artist’s own story of discovery can “trample on the freedom of conservatives.” But such is the convoluted logic of the censor. And this is why it is so vitally important for us to fight the censor in all its ugly forms and call them out for what they are—not protectors of children, but racists, bigots, homophobes, and misogynists. Fighting these censors is truly a matter of life and death. If one lonely, afraid, suicidal queer kid in Utah or South Carolina gets his or her hands on Fun Home and it shows him or her that their complicated feelings are not unusual and that there is a place in the world for them, then we have a moral duty to fight the censors with all our might.