Or, How Four Years at an Assemblies of God School Taught Me to Value Literature
I got my bachelor’s degree at Northwest University in Kirkland, WA, which is known for being the school that guy from Pedro the Lion dropped out of, and also got a little bit of press while I was there for refusing to allow the Equality Riders to speak to any of the students while on their U.S. tour of schools that prohibited openly LGBT students from enrolling. (What, is it catching?) I studied English at that school, in a department that had some top rate professors and I felt like, within my major, I got an incredible education.
But I got a different kind of incredible education within the campus community in terms of deeply entrenched social mores, snap judgments, and the way that people can be trained to keep one another in line via social pressures and “friendly” corrections. I learned firsthand how journalism was a tool not for keeping an impartial watchful eye on society, but for acting as a “marketing tool” to promote an individual organization’s agenda. I learned that, if one had questions that were difficult to answer, one could choose silent compliance or extreme loneliness as one’s social options. I learned that a woman’s frustration and anger were patently unwelcome. I learned that school administrators could call me “girl” and openly praise young female students’ “womanliness” or “submission.” I was often scared to be alone with men on this campus, when I saw how readily they accepted the socializing that made them dominant over me and other women; I was scared to voice a differing opinion outside the safety of a classroom, with its intellectual, hypothetical veneer of protection; I was scared for professors who taught us to think for ourselves or to challenge the ideas we ran into, because they were wonderful and those kinds of things could be twisted until they were career ending. I was routinely scared that our department would be shut down someday, or worse, be coopted into something powerless and ineffectual. I was scared that no one in the real world would take my education seriously, and I was scared that I was losing bits of myself every time I walked into the campus chapel to hear about how my modesty or immodesty directly resulted in any random man’s purity of thought or sexual impurity. Rape culture, anyone?
My friends on the outside – for that is how I learned to think of the rest of the world – wondered why I stayed. The truth is, by the time I felt truly stuck and panicked about where I was, I really was truly stuck. Too many of my credits wouldn’t transfer. I wanted to get my degree and get out.
So, I set about doing that. I bit my tongue and ranted only in secret to friends when I overheard a Freshman’s mother complain to the campus bookstore workers that they were selling Harry Potter on the shelves (it had been requested for a remarkably informative and enjoyable Literature of Romance and Fantasy course). I quit the student newspaper in frustration when I got sick of being repeatedly thwarted and frustrated by the Vice President for Student Development and no one around me seemed to think that things like telling the truth and journalistic impartiality were vital causes worth putting up a fuss for. I directed plays in the theater department I thought were subversive but safe, plays I hoped would challenge people who were ready to be challenged but fly safely over the heads of the people who wouldn’t appreciate them. (It mostly worked.) And I worked at the campus library, where we celebrated Banned Books Week with a twinkle in our eye because we knew we got away with a lot only because no one was looking closely, where we could subvert the restrictive authority placed over us not by God but by human insecurity.
I read Reading Lolita in Tehran and wept because my privilege wasn’t fair but because I knew, too, what it felt like, a little bit, to read something that unfolded like that within you but that you had to bite your tongue about; someone saw the cover while I was in public and wanted to know why I was reading about terrorists. I wept again.
I read Yamanaka, Lalami, Lahiri, Mahfouz, Esquivel, McCullers, Tsukiyama, Atwood, Gish Jen. I read Shusaku Endo and the bottom fell out of the world; I read Anne Lamott and the world seemed to go right again. The ideas in these books, the characters, the struggles, the challenges were real to me, they talked about real things: lust, love, passion, fear, death, forgiveness, redemption, hope, paralysis, revolution. These were ideas that seemed a million miles away from this idiotic little campus and the walls of protection we lived within, so thick they stifled. These were ideas we couldn’t just talk about, not without talking about them right, not without taking the life out of them and making them into what they weren’t: religious analogies, metaphors, dead verbal weight, flogged horses.
I studied Marx, Freud, Wollstonecraft, Cixous, and Bakhtin and felt something harden steel sharp inside me. These people were telling the truth I knew brilliant and bright, that the voices of the people counted, that a diversity of ideas, even conflicting, made us richer as people, that all people were equal whether someone got that idea out of the Bible or not, that the rabble can be the riches and the unified voice is nothing but filthy doublespeak; beware. I wrote my senior thesis on Bakhtin’s theories of feasting & fasting, heteroglossia versus monoglossia, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I was excited but felt jumbled, and I couldn’t talk about my thesis idea not only because no one around me had heard of Bakhtin but because, also, Harry Potter was something taboo. The more lenient of my peers and out-of-department professors found my adoration of the series amusingly questionable at best; the others were anywhere from “concerned” about my interest to overtly condemning of it. Witchcraft is a sin.
The thing is, I’d been hearing about witchcraft being a sin since long before Harry Potter, and since long before my attendance at that school, too. I was repeatedly reminded that rebellion was equivalent to the sin of witchcraft when I was a child and more frequently when I was a teen with hard questions and a hard brow who wouldn’t just march that way because some adult male said so. And reading Bakhtin and Rowling in college, together, at this school where the kernel of truth in all books is a secret, where the best part of literature is the part you have to hide lest they see how dangerous it is and take it away, something clicked for me. It occurred to me that rebellion, literature, and witchcraft are all one and the same thing, and some people think they’re a sin, because this is how they work: they put some power inside you and take it away from the people trying to wrestle your heart to the ground. They put some power inside you and you know it. A witch is merely a woman who knows her own strength, a woman who learns how to use her power to manipulate the world around her. A book is merely a magic wand that lets her do it. Rebellion is what it looks like to people who have something to lose if that woman takes hold of her own agency, and owns her own authority.
Banned Books Week is special to me because it reminds me of a few things: that ideas are powerful, and scary to the people who hold fake, flimsy power over us. That no church, man, school, or body of so-called authority can divest me of my own agency, my own power. That being a witch, despite what I’ve heard, really isn’t a sin; the true sin lies in relinquishing your power without a fight, giving up on stories before they have a chance to get into your blood, allowing someone to stick you into some stock category of virgin or whore when you are both, and more, and so much more.
Margaret Atwood wrote this poem that grabbed at my throat and kept me from breathing right when first I read it. It’s called Spelling. In it, she equates the forming of words with the forming of magic spells, and these lines in particular slew me. These lines, here, told my truth back to me:
A word after a word
after a word is power.
Happy Banned Books Week to you, Persephoneers, you great witches, you readers, you women of power.