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Writers Speak Up for Academic Freedom After S.C. Gay Books Debacle

Local, National Writers Join Cause

By Rodney Welch
Wednesday, May 7, 2014 |
Writers across the country are wearing their thoughts on their shirts about South Carolina’s recent battle over gay-themed books in college courses.

Spartanburg’s Hub City Press has initiated a T-shirt campaign, Writers Speaking Out Loud, for which writers take pictures of themselves wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the message: “I’m Speaking Out! Support Academic Freedom. Fight Government Censorship.”

Those who sent in selfies range from the nationally acclaimed (Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz, Ann Patchett, Emma Donoghue, Dorothy Allison) to those with local or regional ties (Marjory Wentworth, George Singleton, Kwame Dawes).

The pictures are posted on a Tumblr blog, outloudsc.com, which is updated daily.

The book controversy began in March, when the S.C. House of Representatives voted to penalize two state colleges for their choice of books for freshman reading programs.

The College of Charleston, which offered Alison Bechdel’s memoir Fun Home, stands to lose $52,000. The University of South Carolina Upstate, which offered Out Loud, published by Hub City Press, could lose $17,142.

Although both amounts were restored last week by the S.C. Senate Finance Committee, the issue could be the focus of another Senate battle this week, with conservative senators Mike Fair and Lee Bright leading the charge.

Governor Nikki Haley has generally backed the colleges, saying that course offerings are a matter best left to college boards.

The controversy has both intimidated and energized schools, and has drawn notice from the national literary community.

“It’s really clear that this action by the state Legislature has had a chilling effect at the public universities,” says Betsy Teter of Hub City Press. “Faculty members now have to ask themselves ‘Do I get my university in trouble if I assign this book or that book?’ We’re watching this, and it’s not right.”

Diaz, who teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the real problem isn’t that there’s too much focus on issues affecting the gay and lesbian community, but too little.

“Most of our students,” he says, “are dying for a better, more realistic, more complex, more human vision of their world than the ones that these legislators are trying to sell. My impression of this madness? That this was flat-out hate masquerading as concern for ‘public sensibility.’ That our politicians are always looking for excuses to defund our educational systems and this gave them the added opportunity to bash a vulnerable community as well — which for them was sort of a jerkoff’s two-for-one.”

Out-and-proud Greenville native Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina, says in a phone interview from her home in California that legislators seem to think fewer queer books will mean fewer queers.

“If they’re under the impression that is the effect that it will have, they’ve sadly misunderstood the situation,” she says. “They got me with no encouragement at all.”

Kwame Dawes, who taught 20 years at the University of South Carolina, where he was distinguished poet in residence, says in a phone interview that it isn’t just a state issue.

“For me, my perspective is global, so anywhere in the world that there is the kind of repression of the freedom to speak about things is a concern to me, and therefore I don’t see it as a particularly South Carolinian problem.”

Writers featured on the blog hail from all over, and many posted comments with their pictures.

“Only morons and mean children are afraid of free speech and fairness to all,” writes thriller writer Dennis Lehane.

“All of us out here, even my conservative friends, are shocked with what’s going on over there,” say musician Marshall Chapman, a Spartanburg native now living in Tennessee. “That the S.C. state government would cut off funds to a state university all because of art presenting an alternative point of view.”

Teter says Hub City got the T-shirt process rolling by calling writers around the country, and they in turn called others.

They didn’t get many refusals.

“We know most of these people or we know people who know most of these people,” she said. “We’re one degree of separation from just about every major writer in America.”

With the help of local donors who helped foot the postage bill, Hub City sent out 48 shirts initially. As of Friday afternoon, they were preparing to send out 75 more.

“Not all of these people want to be calling legislators in South Carolina, but they are telling the people in their network what is happening here, and that is important,” Teter says.

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