Laura Mandanas reviews Forbidden Passages

Forbidden Passages: Writings Banned in Canada is a book of essays, short stories, and excerpts of texts that have been seized and censored in Canada. The collection features a broad range of perspectives and does not shy away from any subject. (Due, unfortunately, to the fact that Canadian censors shy away from just about everything.) Readers who are weak of heart or stomach, consider yourself duly warned: on topics of transgressive sexuality, many of these works are unflinchingly graphic.

So do I recommend this book to you? Honestly, I’m not sure. If you read cover to cover, you will almost certainly encounter things that are not to your taste. When I got to “Spiral” by David Wojnarowicz (excerpted from Memories That Smell Like Gasoline), I started gagging and had to put the book down. It was, like… graphic, rape-y scenes between men and boys who weren’t even old enough to legally consent. Not my cup of tea.

On the other hand, there were also some real gems. I totally loved the excerpt “Mama” by Dorothy Allison, from her 1988 classic, Trash. In particular, I really appreciated the casual treatment of sexual orientation here; the main character’s lesbian identity wasn’t the be-all and end-all. Instead, the focus was on the main character’s relationship with her mother, whose wrinkled hands and gravy-thick accent practically leapt off the page — so skillfully did Allison bring them to life. It was sublime.

Another fine piece of writing: Kathy Acker’s “Dead: Carved Into Roses”, from Empire of the Senseless. Wow. The raw power of her imagery completely blew me away. Also: “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance” by bell hooks, from Black Looks, Race and Representation. Fantastic. Though at times dry and academic, the otherwise frank and intelligent discussion of interracial attraction was spot on. Ooh, and can we talk about Pat Califia’s descriptive detail in “The Surprise Party” from Macho Slutsfor a minute? Excruciating. Whether that’s your scene or not… That, my friends, is how you write pornography. Oof.

For all the good bits, I’ve got to say, this still isn’t a book I’d casually suggest to friends. And if my little sister asked to borrow it, I’d probably conveniently misplace my copy for the entirety of the next decade. Really and truly, this is a book for mature readers who know what they’re getting into. But if that’s you? By all means, go for it. You may be surprised by what you end up liking.

– Laura

[Danika: I read this book recently as well, so I thought I’d chime in. There’s definitely a wide variety of writing in this collection. I had to put down the book at the same spot. I felt physically ill. And I have to admit, some of the academic writing went right over my head. I think the value in this collection is the context: these are all writings banned for similar reasons, as if they are all equivalent. Seeing the erotica, the violence, and the academic writings all side-by-side shows how ridiculous it is to treat them all as the same.]