What Banning Maus Means for the Generation of Artists It Inspired
Amy Kurzweil Considers the Benefits of Chorus Over Canon
My friend, a poet and professor, was telling her nine-year-old daughter last week about the banning of Maus. She explained that Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel about the Holocaust had been banned, and that it’s especially important to shine a light on dark histories when certain communities are attempting to silence those stories. “It’s banned?” The daughter processed, “Can I still read it?” “Well, yes,” her mother explained. “It’s not banned here, where we live, but in Tennessee, it’s been removed from school curriculums.” “So,” her daughter worked it out, “can the kids in Tennessee still read it?”
The answer, of course, is yes, and reading Maus is what many people have been doing since the Maus ban. The only thing really keeping people from reading Maus is all the people reading Maus—the book is currently backordered on Amazon, Bookshop.org and in many other bookstores.
I count myself among the community of people whose lives were changed by Maus and whose work continues to be validated by it. When a new acquaintance, hearing I’m a cartoonist, wonders if I work for Disney or Marvel, I mention Maus, see the flicker of recognition, and am gladly spared the burden of explaining too much more about my first book in polite conversation. When I set out to write a graphic memoir about my grandmother’s escape from the Warsaw Ghetto, the death of her entire family, and the traumatic echoes of those losses, my family did not need to wonder if the world would accept a book that used humor and pictures to tell a story about the Holocaust. It felt impossible to tell my family’s story without humor (how else could you bear it?) or without the embodied and cathartic act of drawing (what else would I do with all my feelings?)—but this was not intuitive to most readers, until Maus.
That I also wrote a graphic novel about the Holocaust is really not such a coincidence. Maus galvanized a generation of comics creators to fill bookshelves with graphic narratives about the Holocaust and its inheritance and inspired a community of thinkers to engage analytically with these stories. There are academic books out there with titles like Holocaust Graphic Narratives (Victoria Aarons) and Comic Books, Graphic Novels and the Holocaust: Beyond Maus (Ewa Stańczyk). Art Spiegelman proposed the marriage of the Holocaust and comics, a medium uniquely suited to documenting traumatic memory and significant history, but stories about the Holocaust, like the history itself, are multitudinous and irrepressible.
Upon hearing news of the Maus ban, my enterprising mother emailed me: Someone should send your book to Tennessee. Maybe our Holocaust story is better for Middle Schoolers. I wrote back reflexively: My book also has curses in it, and I don’t think Tennessee is really looking for more Holocaust books. I see now that my mother was taking the McMinn County School Board at their word—they do want to teach the Holocaust, they just can’t stand the curses and the naked woman—while I was playing the culture wars in my mind.
My response did not articulate what my unconsidered resistance was really about: discomfort, familiar to me by now, with the promotion of a story about my family and my culture’s greatest tragedies. This guilt—they were hunted and you sit safely, selling their stories?—is a shadow of the guilt that pervades everything in the presence of survivors (You don’t want to finish your cottage cheese? Do you know what it feels like to starve?). This guilt is made manifest by the writing of the story, and yet the writing of the story is the only way to survive the guilt of your own existence.
Maus was the first book I read that articulated this feature of my Jewish life so precisely. The murky inheritance of Holocaust stories, their responsibility and their burden and the cruel meta-consciousness of turning trauma into coherent narrative and saleable art is the most moving aspect of Maus for me. The particular grammar of comics, its ability to show and tell overlapping stories, helps Art Spiegelman communicate this complex psychology so successfully. In one haunting page from Maus 2, Art Spiegelman is pictured at his drawing desk, as the narrative recounts a timeline of Art’s life and work. He relays the success of Maus, fifteen foreign editions, four offers to turn the book into a movie, which would surely make him and the work even more famous, but “I don’t wanna,” he says.
As the panels zoom out, we see Art’s desk is precariously perched atop a pile of dead bodies dressed in stripes, he and they and his art encircled with flies. Movie deal or not, Maus made Art Spiegelman famous, but it did not seem to make him feel less alone. But Art Spiegelman is not alone. Other comics creators are here, born in his shadow, grateful for his ambivalent leadership.
I think it’s important to understand what’s really happening when we talk about books being “banned” in this country. Many have made the point that a prohibition on teaching in eighth grade classrooms is not a literal ban. It’s true, in other episodes of literary history, authorities have gone to greater lengths than the McMinn County School Board in their attempts to erase an important book’s message or punish a creator for a book’s existence. Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, arguably the second-most-famous graphic memoir ever written (whose creation was partially prompted by Maus) was never officially translated into Farsi, and the popular film adaptation was condemned by members of the Iranian government.
My friend, writer Ahmed Naji, was sentenced to two years in prison in Egypt because his book, Using Life, caused a private citizen “heart palpitations and a drop in blood pressure.” When we talk about books being banned in America, what we fear is a slow creep into ignorance. We have chosen the word “banned” for political reasons, knowing the designation will inspire at least momentary action. There is urgency in the case of the Holocaust. Survivors are in their waning years—my grandmother is 96—and those of us guarding this legacy feel the history’s real risk of fading into lore.One anything shouldn’t become our touchstone for something as vast, varied, and catastrophic as the Holocaust, or any significant historical tragedy.
Art Spiegelman has understood the anxiety about lost stories for a long time. At the core of Maus is the death by suicide of Art’s mother, and the burning of her diaries by his father. This is arguably the greatest trauma of the book for Art. A quite literal book banning—a book burning—this eradication of his mother’s words and memories, the denial of access to the light of posterity, is an unforgivable violation. Yet for readers, this literary loss can’t help but pale in comparison to the slayings and starving of Auschwitz recounted by Art’s father.
One parent’s story never felt like enough for Art, and one book shouldn’t be enough for us. If Maus is the only book we read about the Holocaust, the experiences of women, for example, are lost to the flames. Canonizing one story shrinks our collective cultural understanding down to a tokenized experience, and it pushes a sole creator ever higher atop an uncountable number of dead bodies, asking them to speak for the mass. One anything shouldn’t become our touchstone for something as vast, varied, and catastrophic as the Holocaust, or any significant historical tragedy. This is a shared legacy—together is the only way we can bear it, and through many voices is the best way to receive it.
What if we channeled our anxiety about book banning away from the canon and toward the chorus? Let’s read Miriam Katin’s We Are on Our Own and Letting It Go, Bernice Eisenstein’s I was a Child of Holocaust Survivors, and Leela Corman’s We All Wish for Deadly Force. Check out my book, Flying Couch (my mother thanks you). Or Martin Lemelman’s Mendel’s Daughter, Julia Alekseyeva’s Soviet Daughter, Joe Kubert’s Yossel, April 19th, 1943, Pascal Croci’s Auschwitz, Ken Krimstein’s When I Grow Up, and Nora Krug’s Belonging.
Art Spiegelman has called comics “the gateway drug to literacy.” Let’s let Maus be our gateway to comics about the Holocaust. We can pepper our reading lists with multiplicity, a necessary condition for diversity, the only path to real nuance, and the most thoughtful way to say “never again.” There are many mice in the sea.