From Issue 2.5 - March/April 1996

Censorship Trial Spawns Books

BOOK: Forbidden Passages: Writings Banned in Canada (Cleis Press, San Francisco, 1995)
INTRODUCTIONS BY: Pat Califia and Janine Fuller

BOOK: Restricted Entry: Censorship on Trial (Press Gang Publishers, Vancouver, 1995)
BY: Janine Fuller and Stuart Blackley

Reviews by Liz Highleyman

The front cover of Forbidden Passages contains part of the 1992 Regina vs Butler decision which sets forth Canada's censorship criteria: "...depictions or descriptions of sex with violence, submission, coercion, ridicule... which appear to be associating sexual pleasure or gratification with pain and suffering, and with the mutilation or letting of blood from any part of the body..."

If you're like many perverts, this describes much of your favorite reading material. Be glad you don't live in Canada.

Little Sister's Book and Art Emporium, a small queer bookstore in Vancouver, has been fighting a battle with Canada Customs since 1990 over the seizure of sexually explicit material at the border -- and in some cases, gay/lesbian and other material that is hardly explicit at all. In January 1996, the British Columbia Supreme Court ruled that such seizures were indeed discriminatory, but they did not forbid similar siezures in the future (see "Eye on Big Brother," this issue).

These two volumes present an excellent overview of the Little Sister's case and of the history and philosophy of censorship in general. "Restricted Entry", co-written by Little Sister's manager Janine Fuller, details the case and its background, while "Forbidden Passages" gives the reader a taste of some of the material that has been banned. The first book is interspersed with the thoughts of Fuller as she embarked on the case that would consume six years of her life (and counting), as well as excerpts from the testimony of several of the well-known writers, legal experts, and civil libertarians who testified in the trial. Excerpts of court transcripts may not sound like exciting reading, but the passion and wit of of the witnesses and the glimmers of sheer absurdity on the part of the state authorities make for an entertaining as well as educational read.

"Forbidden Passages" emphasizes the entertainment, but does not neglect the education. The book contains introductions by Pat Califia and Fuller that give a synopsis of the customs battle. With quotes like "gag the state before it chokes you," Califia sometimes lets her passion -- fully understandable in the context of having her works banned -- get in the way of coherent description of the facts. Fuller's introduction ably fills this gap.

The excerpts in Forbidden Passages are diverse and wide-ranging. Since the pieces are taken out context, the reader is sometimes left confused or, more often, hungry for more. It is definitely disconcerting to go from a David Wojnarowicz rant (from Memories that Smell Like Gasoline) directly to the calm expository prose of Jack Morin (from Anal Pleasure and Health). But the point of this collection is to give a taste of the kind of material that has been banned in all its diversity, and the book accomplishes this purpose admirably.

Contents include Jane Rule, from Contract with the World; Marguerite Duras, from The Man Sitting in the Corridor; Susie Bright, from Susie Bright's Sexual Reality; Joseph Beam, from In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology; Diane DiMassa, from Hothead Paisan; "Gay Studies as Moral Vision" by Richard Mohr, from Gay Ideas: Outing and Other Controversies; bell hooks, from Black Looks: Race and Representation, Kathy Acker, from Empire of the Senseless; and Dennis Cooper, from Frisk. I found the excerpts by Dorothy Allison ("Mama," from Trash), Wojnarowicz, and Califia ("The Surprise Party," from Macho Sluts) particularly enjoyable.

While one might expect the seizure of works by the likes of Califia, Acker, and Cooper, the presence of works by Beam, Mohr, and hooks defies explanation (unfortunately, the pieces are not accompanied by a statement of why they were banned, although hooks' work is said to have erroneously run afoul of the ban against hate speech). One can only concur with the Supreme Court judge who labelled Canada Custom's actions "plain foolishness."

As Califia and others have noted, it is important to defend censored works not only so that more "respectable" works (for example those on gay theory, health, and AIDS prevention) will be protected, but because smut is enjoyable and valuable in its own right.

The works in Forbidden Passages were donated free of royalties by their authors and publishers in supprt of Little Sister's. The book itself is a fundraiser for the Little Sister's Defense Fund. If you enjoy the works in this anthology -- and even if you don't -- your money will have been well spent.

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Last updated: 24 March 1996