Stop Rewriting Historical Texts!

Have you seen this article?

Roald Dahl books rewritten to remove language deemed offensive

I read it and was incensed. Thinking about it now, a day later, and I still feel angry. This is what I immediately posted on Instagram after I read the article:

Some people want so badly to change what has already been done rather than doing better going forward. Stop trying to rewrite history; stop editing people’s words to make it more comfortable for you. People write for their time and their experience (even if it is racist/sexist/offensive in some way [or all the ways]). That doesn’t mean you get to change what someone has already written to make it suit your current sensitivities. Leave what is alone and just do better.

I have more thoughts….

I understand wanting people to enjoy stories without feeling triggered. However, that’s for journalism, not fiction.

Fiction is supposed to trigger people. It’s supposed to make people angry, sad, excited, hopeful… it’s supposed to make people feel. It’s supposed to touch the best and worst parts of us at the best and worst times.

As a writer, the thought of someone taking my work and rewriting it for an artificial and perceived societal comfort level makes me livid. I spend time crafting intentional stories, using intentional words in my stories, and sharing my experiences (personal and in relation to society) through my stories. For someone to change what I’ve written after it’s been published, and especially after I’m dead and cannot protest to it or have a say in it, is an assault to my work and my life.

Roald Dahl wrote based on his world view and the period in which he lived. I’m not saying nothing about what he’s written is problematic. However, the words “fat” and “ugly” are not problematic, triggering, or offensive for a lot of people when reading literature (as opposed to having insults hurled at them). Rewriting entire lines in stories and descriptions of characters changes what the author initially intended. It may even change the point or progression of the story.

The Roald Dahl Story Company is quoted in that article to say it’s not unusual for them to revisit works and “update” them. Change the cover, fine; change the page layout, cool; but the text should remain unchanged.

We’re not talking about journal articles with misquoted information. We’re talking about fictional stories and fictional characters.

As a Black woman, what makes me angry is the connection between rewriting fictional work and the censoring of Black history and experiences within society in U.S. school systems. To deny slavery, Jim Crow, systemic and systematic oppression; to refuse conversation about how Black people have experienced this “great American society” both presently and in the past; to erase from textbooks the incidents Black people experienced so as not to have an historical framework for the incidents Black people are currently experiencing… that is offensive.

[Side note: a helpful article on the distinctions between “systemic racism” and “systematic racism”. I don’t know everything, and I don’t expect others to know everything, so I like to provide helpful references when I can.]

I’m angry as a writer and a Black woman. I am angry for young people who aren’t being taught an accurate history of their ancestors and for those who are being robbed of truth so they don’t repeat the mistakes of their ancestors (like some of their parents and grandparents are hellbent on doing now).

I am angry for those who aren’t being taught the value of analyzing Literature for its content in context to when and how it was written and then comparing it to how people write in the present time.

Literary Theory was one of my favorite courses in college. We spent the semester reading works and making assumptions about what the author was alluding to (hint: our professor thought all descriptions and references were sexual). We were all probably wrong, and it is possible if the author were still living, she would let us know she really was just describing a lock and a key.

That is the joy of literature.

All people do not hold the same offenses. Because of that, removing “offensive language” is subjective and, therefore, a detriment (further, a harm) to every single one of us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s