Celebrities give a voice to censorship protest

Times Staff Writer

AUTHOR Toni Morrison was the first African American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. She won the Pulitzer Prize for "Beloved" in 1988. Neither of those accolades protects Morrison from the censors who want some of her books, including "Beloved," "Song of Solomon" and "The Bluest Eye," permanently off the shelves.

According to the American Library Assn., Morrison's "Beloved," the novel about slavery and its aftermath that is her most renowned, is No. 42 on the 100 most frequently challenged books of 1990 to 2000, for scenes of sexuality and violence. The complaints about "Beloved" elucidate Oscar Wilde's observation: "The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame."

At least Morrison is in good company. Harper Lee, Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut all make appearances on the challenged list. Even beloved Harry Potter and his Hogwarts pals have been accused of spreading witchcraft to young readers.

On Sunday, some of these writers will receive reinforcement: Morrison, Lee, Vonnegut and local writer Luis Rodriguez, among others, will be read by prominent actors and writers, including Eva Marie Saint, Tony Shalhoub, Carrie Fisher and Gore Vidal, in PEN USA's second reading event, "Forbidden Fruit: Readings from Banned Works of Literature." The event benefits PEN's Freedom to Write program, which battles censorship worldwide through letter-writing campaigns, public statements and legal action.

"Writers are under attack all the time," Adam Somers, executive director of PEN USA, says from Berlin, where he is attending a PEN International conference. "One of the features of a democratic society is the right to criticize freely, and the ways that is usually done is through plays, novels, poetry, movies and articles from journalists. The homily is live by the sword, die by the sword. And in some countries, that literally happens."

The idea of books being banned or censored may seem like a nightmare of fascist regimes past or a fictional fever dream out of "Fahrenheit 451," but censorship, from the stroke of the pen to the most gruesome forms of imprisonment and torture, is alive and kicking.

For instance, Iranian dissident journalist Akbar Ganji, who implicated several high-ranking officials in the 1998 murders of writers and intellectuals, spent six years in prison, where he was allegedly beaten and denied food.

Closer to home, Rodriguez, who wrote a memoir about his troubled teenage years in a gang, "Always Running," has had to battle frequent challenges to his book since it was published in 1993. He's attended community meetings in Rockford, Ill., and written for the San Jose Mercury News about why his book should be read in classrooms.

"I'll be the first to admit that it's a hard-core book," Rodriguez says. "It's real life, it had to be written that way. I honestly think the biggest reason it's banned from some schools is the concept of not having reality in the classroom. Life is not always idealistic, sometimes it's complicated, even horrendous, and that needs to come into the picture too."

Censorship is a gloomy topic, but Somers wanted an event that celebrated controversial texts while illuminating the problem. The idea of enlisting actors to read banned works of literature seemed natural.

"Unlike our sister organization PEN America [in New York], we're in L.A. We've accepted and embraced that Hollywood is here.... Intelligent actors are drawn to reading with us. The problem is usually the schedule, not the commitment."

For Academy Award winner Saint, who will be reading from "Beloved," the project was just as appealing. She made her commitment "as soon as they asked me."

"People need to give in to what they feel and write it and we need to accept it," Saint says from her Santa Monica residence. "Intolerance today is spreading all over our culture. In politics in particular, people are not listening to each other."

With 100 books on the ALA list from acclaimed authors such as Margaret Atwood, J.D. Salinger and Alice Walker, the choices were plentiful.

But Somers wanted to feature texts that have consistently been under attack, even as they continue to be held in high esteem by critics and pop culture.

"These are books that you'd think would not be controversial," Somers says, bringing to mind Shel Silverstein's "A Light in the Attic," which will be read at Forbidden Fruit.

"We don't pick the sexually explicit sections or raunchy parts and revel in the fact that we can read that. We pick pieces that make people think, 'How in the world could you be offended by this?' "

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PEN USA

What: Forbidden Fruit: Readings From Banned Works of Literature

Where: Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A.

When: Noon on Sunday

Price: $200 to $350

Info: (323) 314-7000

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