Wordsmiths rage aginst censorship
By Jane Ganahl

San Francisco Chronicle
May 29 2004

Writers sure have gotten uppity lately. Whatever happened to the
stereotype of the agoraphobic attic-dweller who only emerges to check
the mailbox for rejection letters or residuals?

These days, you're more likely to see them on stage for a cause
that has nothing to do with their own fame. Earlier this month, it
was City Lights' "Manifesto," with 30 authors shouting three-minute
diatribes against complacency. Just last week, writers organized
by socio-political bulldog scribe Stephen Elliott did a benefit for
the liberal group MoveOn.org at the Makeout Room. The readings will
continue monthly until the election.

On this midweek night, it's another chance for wordsmiths to rage
against the machine. It is hot and uncomfortable, standing-room only,
in the tiny stage area of Bruno's. But it feels appropriate somehow,
because the subject matter of the evening is torrid and difficult:
violence, albeit literarily- depicted violence, in writings chosen
by 14 authors.

It's not a randomly chosen subject. Passages from "Macbeth" to
"The Odyssey" to "Charlotte's Web" are on tap, to both entertain and
solicit audience reflection on the issue of violence in writing. And
our First Amendment right to both read and write it, and feel inspired
or repelled.

"Fighting Words," sponsored by the First Amendment Project, has
billed itself as "a protest against youth censorship that celebrates
the vital role violence has played in our literary heritage." But
there is precious little rhetoric tonight; the written words --
some thousands of years old -- speak for themselves.

"Frankly, this is not pacifist lit," says Tamim Ansary, Afghani
writer of adult and children's books, before he dips into a section of
"The Odyssey" devoted to Odysseus returning home to find his friends
have taken over his house. Chaos and violence ensue -- poetically,
of course.

Ansary has done enough in one lifetime to forestall violence that he
need not ever apologize for exalting it. As the writer of the famed
e-mail defending his homeland that circulated after Sept. 11 --
sent to 20 friends and quickly circulated to millions -- Ansary's
plea for peace granted him international notoriety.

Swedish-born poet Agneta Falk has chosen a soliloquy by Lady Macbeth
about swords, although in the dimly lit room she has trouble following
the words on the page.

Tony Swofford, author of "Jarhead," reads a harrowing passage from
Mario Vargas Llosa's "The Feast of the Goat," which involves electric
chairs and testicles. After his reading, an elderly woman in the
audience has had enough, and quietly makes her way to the exit.

Michael Chabon, dark hair dangling to his goateed chin, plays door
monitor, standing alone by the swinging glass door that separates
Bruno's dining room from its entertainment venue. When the door
opens, exposing the room to outside noise, he quietly closes it
again. Brilliant words require silence.

Novelist/lawyer Ayelet Waldman peels off her fashionable long plaid
coat in the heat, and gives Chabon, her husband, a furtive kiss in the
dark. Daniel Handler, best known to the world as young adult fiction
writer Lemony Snicket, stands back by the bar with literary "it" boy,
Andrew Sean Greer, and fidgets when writers read past their suggested
eight-minute time frame, which is often.

Asked what he plans to read, the willowy-tall Greer whispers,
"something short!" In fact, Greer reads a selection from a metaphysical
mystery by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, "Chronicle of a Death Foretold." And
he does keep it short, leaving the audience thirsting for more of
the beautiful words.

Standing up for First Amendment rights is tough duty in a hot,
packed bar, but all 14 writers volunteered to do so. Some have even
put themselves physically on the line for the cause, joining in
protests of student expulsions at the Academy of Art College and
writing letters denouncing what they see as censorship.

And sometimes, as in the case of Micheline Aharonian Marcom, East
Bay author of the recently released "The Daydreaming Boy," testifying
in court.

"A student included a violent dream sequence in a story," she whispers
in the back of the room. "But because he used a classmate's name,
that was it. He was expelled."

She reads a heartbreaking passage from her own book, a flashback
sequence about the rape of an Armenian woman that is both horrifying
and hypnotic.

Later, she admits that it's not easy to read such things aloud,
but adds, "I feel strongly that these stories be told."

Ergo, the point of the evening.

Chabon reads Chapter 66 of "Moby Dick," his youthful voice evoking
strong visual images of fish carcasses, sharks and the terrors of
the sea. Waldman soon follows with a peppery reading of the gorgeous
prose of Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian," considered a landmark
of violence in fiction.

But Handler, ever the comedian wrestling with alter-ego Snicket,
gets the most applause for his reading of the first chapter of the
children's classic, "Charlotte's Web."

"It certainly has the threat of violence," he says, suggesting that
perhaps it might get author E.B. White in trouble today. "I think
I'd be speaking to the choir if I expressed my outrage over all this."

So instead, he leads off with "the greatest opening line of all time:
'Where's Papa going with that ax?' "

The audience roars with relieved laughter, happy for a relative breath
of fresh air.

E-mail Jane Ganahl at [email protected]