University Park, IL,
16:06 PM

GSU Student Perseveres During Banned Books Week

Write what you know; it’s the first rule of fiction. For Governors State University student Promise Jackson, who identifies as a “queer, Black female” and writes fiction and self-publishes digital art online, that means creating LGBTQ+ characters. She didn’t start that way. Jackson said her first stories conformed to what she saw as status quo characters—blond, pale, and straight.

A week before the kickoff of Banned Books Week 2017—while presenting at the September 18 Constitution Day at GSU (this year’s focus was on First Amendment rights)—Jackson spoke about her experience.

“I figured that the only way people would appreciate my stories was if all of the characters were white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, and abided by other general social norms,” Jackson said. “This wasn’t just a result of being on the internet, but it came from years of being told exactly that. I grew up thinking that a person with skin as dark as mine didn’t belong in any story outside of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air or My Wife & Kids … minorities like myself were meant to stay in our own lanes.”

Jackson said after four years of masking her identity in her art, she decided to “expand [her] horizons,” and when she started making her stories reflect her own experience, Jackson said she felt silenced by her peers.

“When I incorporated people of color, LGBTQ+ people, women, and the disabled in my stories and artwork, I was met with quite a few unique comments from my previous circle of friends. They said that my characters seemed ‘too smart and shy to be black.’ They questioned why I ‘had’ to make a character gay, and my personal favorite—they said, ‘Can you go back to writing about normal people?’”

Complaints like the ones Jackson experienced are not unusual for writers. In fact, the first five books on this year’s Top Ten Challenged Books list compiled annually by the American Library Association are challenged for use of LGBTQ+ characters. From children’s books and young adult (YA) literature to graphic novels, fictional portrayals of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender characters are under threat of being forced out of libraries for controversial content.

In a recent press release, the ALA noted a high level of complaints against books with gender and sexuality-based themes: “The Top Ten List also reflects societal issues of the time. For example, at a time when LGBT rights and racial equality are under siege, [ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom] found that attempts to remove books in 2016 targeted titles regarding race and gender identity.”

Dr. Amy Vujaklija, Assistant Professor in the Division of Arts and Letters at GSU, advocates for bringing those texts into the classroom. She said she first began incorporating books from the ALA’s list into her curriculum in order to intentionally challenge her young students to know and question their own constitutional rights; she was teaching eighth-grade English at that time. Now teaching at the college level, Vujaklija continues to include banned books in her classroom. She encourages future teachers to develop a rationale justifying their use of books with controversial content by utilizing a resource provided by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) that outlines the value of teaching controversial literature.

Vujaklija said she utilizes a theory of mirrors and windows sometimes used in English education. “As a teacher, we need to have windows. We need to be able to look into our students lives, step into those shoes even for the briefest time, and reading diverse texts helps us do that. It might not be a mirror where we’re seeing ourselves, but we’re seeing our students, hopefully. But in our classrooms, we really need to have both mirrors and windows. Students sometimes like to see, ‘Well, what is it like to be a Vietnamese child who didn’t grow up here? I was born here, but that’s interesting—I want to pick up this book and read it.’ But on the other hand, if everything is a window, if you’re always looking into someone else’s life, it doesn’t validate you own life. So students also need to see their own selves in the books that are on the shelves.”

Jackson said she’s undaunted by the resistance she felt to her characters.

“To this day,” she said, “I still get threats and ridicule for my stories, but I don’t take it too personally. I’ve learned from users on diversity-friendly websites how to cope with that because they, too, have gone through worse. It was also through these users that I learned more about different cultures and sub-cultures. I know that prejudice exists and people will hate and fear things that they don’t understand. Although I sometimes feel down that so much of my work gets snubbed over such a small detail, I ultimately feel happy.”

The GSU Library recognizes Banned Books Week annually by crafting a display of famously challenged books, and Dean Lydia Morrow-Ruetten said, “We are eager for all in the GSU community to become more aware of the issue of banned books and to celebrate their right to read by stopping in the library and checking out our banned books display. We are highlighting some of the more popular titles of books that have been challenged over the years.”

Campus resources are available to GSU students who identify as LGBTQ+ or are questioning their sexuality, such as the Gender and Sexuality Club (GNSX) and the Health and Student Counseling Center. Students interested in academically exploring gender and sexuality can major, minor, or take courses in the program.