Allende, Author of ‘The House of the Spirits,’ Defends Book, Pens Letter to Watauga School Board, Staff

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By Jesse Wood

Nov. 21, 2013. Isabel Allende, author of “The House of the Spirits,” recently penned a letter to the Watauga County Board of Education, comparing the risk of her book being banned from Watauga County Schools as something that is common practice in Cuba, Korea or by religious fundamentalist groups like the Taliban.

“But I did not expect it in our democracy,” Allende wrote.

Allende

Allende

The letter was printed in its entirety on the School Library Journal website with the headline: “Isabel Allende Defends ‘House of the Spirits’ to North Carolina School Board” on Nov. 20. School Library Journal reported that Allende emailed the “impassioned letter” to school board members, interim Supt. David Fonseca and Watauga High School Principal Marshall Gasperson. She also sent them print copies of the letter with a copy of her book, too.

A public record’s request to retrieve the letter for High Country Press hasn’t been filled yet.

“The House of the Spirits,” by Isabel Allende, is a fiction novel that follows a family through the Chilean Revolution during the 1970s. The book was being read in 10th-grade honors English taught by Mary-Kent Whitaker, Watauga County’s Teacher of the Year in 2010-11. 

In October, Chastity Lesesne objected to two sections of the book: a scene of torture and the other of rape.

About two weeks ago, the Watauga County Schools released the committee members who would review the challenge of the book after the Media/Technology Advisory Committee at the high school unanimously voted to keep the book in the curriculum. Lesesne appealed that decision. 

Currently the book is on hold during the challenge process. 

The first of two review committee meetings took place yesterday, while the second meeting takes place Wednesday, Nov. 27, at 3 p.m. If the review committee sees the material fit for the curriculum then Lesesne can file the third and final level of appeal, which would be heard at the next regularly scheduled school board meeting. 

In the past month, community members have spoken out against the book before the Watauga County Board of Education, and GOP members of the Watauga County Board of Commissioners chimed in on the issue, describing the book with words such as “filth,” “despicable,” and the like. A majority of those members and commissioners admitted to not reading the entire book, one of whom said the book was too disgusting to finish. 

Allende contends that the sections of the book in question are taken out of context. 

“As you know, it takes just one parent who disapproves of a book to pressure the school and eventually the Board of Education. In this case one person has circulated fragments of the novel—taken out of context—among parents who probably have not read the book. The fragments refer mostly to sexual content. The plan is to gather support to ban the book completely, even as optional reading,” Allende wrote. “Since today TV series, movies, videogames and comics exploit sex and violence, including torture and rape, as forms of entertainment, I don’t think that young adults will be particularly offended by the strong scenes from The House of the Spirits, which are always part of the historical and political content of the novel.”

In her letter, she gave a brief bio of herself, noting her 14 honorary degrees, 12 of them from American universities and colleges. More than 60 million copies of her 20 books have been sold and translated into 35 different languages. She even listed the many awards the “The House of the Spirits” has received, including being named among best 60 books in the past 60 years by The Times in London.

See entire letter below.


Dear Watauga County Board of Education,

I find myself in the unusual and awkward position of having to “defend” my novel The House of the Spirits that risks being banned from a high school in Boone, North Carolina. Banning of books is a common practice in police states, like Cuba or North Korea, and by religious fundamentalist groups like the Taliban, but I did not expect it in our democracy.

No student is forced to read the book. Teachers like to teach it because they believe it gives the students insights into Latin American literature, history, politics, social issues, and customs. They usually offer their students other options but most students choose the book, they enjoy it and often they write to me. Their comments prove that they have understood the story and they are curious to learn more. The novel seems to open their minds to other places and peoples in the world.

Although it may look like an exercise in vanity, I need to explain a few facts about myself as an author and about the The House of the Spirits in order to make my point. I will be brief, please bear with me.

I have written 20 books, translated into 35 languages, and sold more than 60 million copies worldwide. Two movies have been made of my novels, Of Love and Shadows andThe House of the Spirits, released in 1995 with an international cast that included Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons, Winona Rider, Glenn Close, and Vanessa Redgrave.

I have 14 honorary degrees, 12 of them from US universities and colleges, and 50 awards in more than 15 countries. I am a member of the Academy of Arts and Letters in the US since 2004, of the Academy of Arts and Sciences of Puerto Rico since 1995, of the Academy of Language in Chile since l989, and Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France, 1994. (At www.isabelallende.com you can find my extended bio.)

The House of the Spirits is my first novel, published in Spanish in 1982 and in English in 1985 to stellar reviews, including the cover of the New York Times Book Review. It has been in print for over 30 years, it is considered a classic of Latin American literature and it is taught in high schools, colleges, and universities in all Western countries, including the USA for more than two decades. It has received many awards. To mention just a few: Best Novel of the Year (Chile, 1983), Author of the Year (Germany, 1984), Book of the Year (Germany 1984), Grand Prix D’Evasion (France, 1984), Best Novel  (Mexico, 1985), Point de Mire (Belgium, 1985), XV Premio Internazionale I Migliori Dell”Anno (Italy, 1987), Best Foreign Novel (Portugal, 1987), Books to Remember Award, American Library Association (USA, 1996), and The New York Public Library (2000). The Times (London) named The House of the Spirits one of the best 60 books in the past 60 years (UK, 2009).

As you know, it takes just one parent who disapproves of a book to pressure the school and eventually the Board of Education. In this case one person has circulated fragments of the novel—taken out of context—among parents who probably have not read the book. The fragments refer mostly to sexual content. The plan is to gather support to ban the book completely, even as optional reading. Since today TV series, movies, videogames and comics exploit sex and violence, including torture and rape, as forms of entertainment, I don’t think that young adults will be particularly offended by the strong scenes from The House of the Spirits, which are always part of the historical and political content of the novel.

I have become aware of this unfortunate situation, and I am sending you a copy of The House of the Spirits by mail, although I realize how busy you are and I cannot expect you to read it,

Sincerely,
Isabel Allende
writer


For more background on this issue, see the following stories. 

Nov. 18: GOP Commissioners Voice Objections To Watauga School Board Regarding ‘The House of Spirits’ Novel at WHS

Nov. 1, 2013: WHS Teachers Defend “The House Of Spirits,” Concerned Parent Moves To File Appeal To Review Committee

Nov. 6, 2013: Parents Opposed To ‘The House of Spirits’ Speak During School Board Meeting: ‘Not An Issue Of Censorship’  

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