Teaching Controversial Texts: In Defense of Kalpa Imperial by Angélica Gorodischer

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So I wrote a little blog post some many months ago now.  It was 2000 words long.  It was a furious little rant about how one of the books I teach in 11th grade IB English, Kalpa Imperial by Angélica Gorodischer, was being removed from, or at least being considered for removal from, or, as I see it now, being reconsidered for approval in our curriculum as the result of some complaints by parents and concerns by our principal.  I decided not to publish that blog post.  As I understood that the book was being removed, that blog essay was written in the heat of a full month of fuming and without ever speaking face to face with the parent or parents in question. The essay made some assumptions, perhaps, about the book’s detractors and might have been construed as mean-spirited and unfair.  While I am the kind of guy that likes to call things as they are and is not afraid of controversy, I also am a peaceful dude by nature, and cautious, meaning that I thought that maybe the way I saw things was not REALLY the way they were.  So I did not want to bring further conflict or distress on people I do not know, who then might take it out on people I do know and have to work with.  Hence, this resulting blog post, a kind of compromise, a kinder, gentler approach to the problem.

Our principal, to avoid further conflict and controversy, I suppose, and, for personal reasons, because she couldn’t see herself defending this particular title to the death, initially had simply asked us to consider another text to teach instead of Kalpa Imperial.  In some ways, this is not the most heinous or destructive or even prohibitive request a principal could make.  New books!  Whoopee!  There’s hardly anything more rewarding than being allowed to choose a new book to teach–it is a rare experience for English teachers, especially in times of budget difficulty, or in our case, crisis. But there are two problems with this request to replace the Gorodischer novel with another text.  The first is that we are in a time of budget crisis; and while the IB English program in our school has purchased two-plus year’s worth of new curriculum over the last several years, my English department colleagues have not had that opportunity. I could not tell you when last my fellow English teachers adopted a new title, let alone two year’s worth of new titles.  And the second problem with the request is this: no matter how sweet sounds the opportunity to adopt a new book, ultimately we would all be complicit in an act of censorship, of book banning–at least within the walls of a single classroom–because of a minority voice of dissent.

I want to keep teaching Kalpa Imperial by Angélica Gorodischer, translated from the Spanish by Oregon’s own Ursula Le Guin.  Here, I plan to talk about why this book is great, why it’s an important addition to our curriculum, but also to address as specifically as I can some of the complaints I understand my principal, parents, and their students have about the novel.

Kalpa Imperial is a fantasy novel, broadly speaking, and perhaps incorrectly so.  It’s also known as speculative fiction, or as a sub or side genre to fantasy called fantastic fiction–and fantastic here does not mean superlative in the way we mostly mean it when we use the word, but rather imaginative or fanciful.  The line that distinguishes fantasy from fantastic is fuzzy, but it is a distinction the author herself makes about her work, preferring the latter term. However, the basic premise of Kalpa Imperial, reduced to it’s very simplest form, is this: the novel sets out to tell several interconnected stories or episodes from the history of an empire, an empire of a totally indeterminate time and place, over the duration of a kalpa, a sanskrit word meaning aeon, or roughly 4.32 billion years. Each chapter in the novel tells the story of a distinct era in the empire, but as readers, we’re never quite sure whether these eras are arranged chronologically or not, how far apart the eras are from each other, or even if the empire described from one chapter to another chapter is geographically the same.  Time and place in this novel are slippery fish.  A narrative line that runs from start to finish, also a slippery fish, if not an altogether invisible fish.  The novel is unconventional, to say the least, and at times, difficult.  Some kids love it.  Some kids hate it.  The reviews aren’t often mixed–although some students, bolstered by curiosity and an inquiring spirit, wade their way through, ask lots of questions, and come to a deep understanding after all, despite their misgivings.  And these students are the real rock stars, because they are exhibiting characteristics of the kind of student who is most successful in an IB English class.

This is  unrelated, essentially, to the reason the book was questioned in the first place, but sometimes a book is controversial because it is difficult.  Kids and adults alike are often afraid of, suspicious of, or dismissive about things they don’t understand or don’t immediately “like.”  And yet IB English is a college level literature course.  And the IB learner profile asks students to be open-minded, inquiring, thinking, knowledgeable, and (especially relevant to the task of a rigorous and potentially controversial curriculum), risk–taking. Sometimes the language in the novel is difficult, sometimes the sentences are complex, but the difficulty of reading Gorodischer’s novel is much more related to the description above. The aspects of the novel that make a long work of fiction accessible to most readers, namely, a through plot, an identifiable setting, and the contiguous development of a group of characters, are mostly slippery fish in Kalpa Imperial. 

Nevertheless, Kalpa Imperial is a masterful novel and it is unlike anything students have likely ever read.  Novelty alone does not make a work of art great, but there is profound educational reward, I think, after studying through one’s entire school experience works of drama, fiction, and poetry that are conventional or traditional, and mastering the language and academic concepts that apply to that kind of reading, in discovering something new, something that defies the rules, that flies in the face of all the conventions in one’s previous understanding.  That is learning–real learning–in the most powerful sense.

Stylistically and structurally, Kalpa Imperial  is inventive, but its cohesion and its real value comes, I believe, from its thematic arc, from its philosophical implications.  Paradoxically, while the whole novel is “spoken” by a series of storytellers, the novel is less about story and more about idea. Each tale in the series of chapters raises powerful and thoughtful questions about themes that are relevant, useful, challenging, and intriguing to anyone who cares about the way societies work, the characteristics of effective leadership, the truth and how one arrives at truth, how history is recorded and by whom, the ways in which power is used and abused, where wisdom is found, encounters with “the other,” the way in which culture is spread, the way culture changes and mutates over time.  Most importantly, perhaps, Kalpa Imperial, through its succession of various speakers, talks about the importance of storytelling as a key device for passing on culture, values, meaningful ideas—which touches the very heart and soul of any serious study of narrative art. It is my belief that these things completely and utterly outweigh the potential controversy caused by short sections of the novel.

Kalpa Imperial does contain potentially controversial material.  It contains description of violence and battle scenes, explicit in varying degrees from very general to mildly graphic.  There are short scenes that could be seen as sexually explicit—or potentially explicit, and these particular scenes are the ones that seem to be raising the most hackles. These scenes include one very short passage in which an intersexed military leader plans and fails to sexually abuse a male prisoner of war, and an absurdly comical scene in which a human curator of a freak shop wishes to have relations with some kind of fantastical bug.  These two scenes take up less than a paragraph of the novel’s whole. There are other chapters in which gender is ambiguous—potentially controversial for some readers, perhaps, uncomfortable or limited in their own understanding of gender roles and gender identification, or the possibilities thereof.  There are chapters also that deal with issues of spirituality unrelated to any known world religious practice, but perhaps analogous to some eastern religious philosophies—again—this could be controversial for readers who are hyper-sensitive about these things or otherwise intolerant of religious views different from their own, or who cannot imagine a world, fantasy or not, that does not include their own spiritual practice, as was the case in our school’s recent controversy over Life of Pi, when parents and students could not fathom or tolerate an interfaith person or character.

In each case, it seems to me, where Kalpa Imperial dips into controversy, the argument against the censorship of such material is easy to make.  What does literature do?  Often, even in the fantasy genre, great literature describes the world as it is–and not as we’d like it to be.  And as the world contains ugly stuff, literature often portrays that ugliness.  It does not condone the ugliness, it only describes. If it condones or glorifies the violence or if it titillates the reader with graphic sexual content (healthy or not, abusive or not, intersexed or not), we’re not dealing with literature any more, but with pornography–and Kalpa Imperial is no Fifty Shades of Grey.

In a recent meeting between my principal, two administrators from the district office, myself and my IB English teaching colleague, the question was posed: why this particular book? Good question.  But why any particular book?  As an IB school, we must choose a text from a prescribed book list on which Kalpa Imperial is listed with hundreds of other titles.  IB makes no claim that any of the books on their list are superior or more worthwhile than any other books on their list.  Schools must choose.  And we chose this title because it fit certain characteristics we were looking for: it was written by a woman (our literature program is notoriously and traditionally male), it was written in Spanish (our neighborhood is becoming more and more Spanish speaking), we liked it (it’s no fun teaching a book you’re not interested in), and it provided sufficient rigor and challenge for a high school English class through which students can earn college credit.  There it is. And, lest I forget, it was contemporary; no more stodgy classics for our kids! (I personally love the stodgy classics, I just prefer not to teach them).  And yet, even here, by choosing contemporary literature, we run the risk of controversy; the more modern the text, the more risks in this vein it is likely to take.

But ultimately, my final argument is that controversy in a literary text should be embraced and not shunned, for all sorts of reasons, but primarily, because it gets us thinking, it gets us asking questions, it asks us to examine our values. Will it corrupt us?  Not likely, because most often, I believe, great literature is moral–even if it describes the most heinous of heinousness–and Kalpa Imperial is tame compared to some of the alternatives, alternatives far steamier and more violent, alternatives that are indeed on the IB prescribed book list. And this novel, I find, is particularly moral in light of all of the thematic implications I’ve listed above.

It looks like, as of this writing, Kalpa Imperial has won a reprieve.  I will be teaching it this year. But the conversation and the commitment to teaching intellectually challenging and controversial literature will continue, I am sure of that, and we will see what next year brings.

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Filed under Education, Literature, Teaching, Writing and Reading

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