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The Fight For Literary Freedom Told By Patsy

Amid contentions surrounding the resurgence of book banning in America, Nicole Dennis-Benn’s novel “Patsy” shows us why we need to fight for literary freedom.

Shutterstock/On The Run Photo

Why do we tell stories? Narrative tales have always been a hallmark of our lives, both as individuals and for humanity as a whole. They allow communities to unite and thrive based on shared empirical or emotional information. Stories act as verbal bridges; book banning threatens to burn them down.

The evolutionary advantage of storytelling shows that we are more likely to remember and follow precautions presented through narratives. Stories bear interpersonal significance by encouraging readers and listeners to generate empathy toward and reduce biases against others.

We can extract intrapersonal benefits as well. Christine Hennebury states an idea both comforting and humbling: “A story’s most important function is to remind us that we are not alone in the world.”

Book banning has resurged in America over the past year, actively limiting stories shared. Supporters remove books from libraries and school curricula, citing “a desire to protect children from ‘inappropriate’ sexual content or ‘offensive’ language.” Here is a list of banned books for reference.

Although individuals and institutions fight against the ever-growing banned book list, the movement has gained an alarming amount of traction. State legislatures have implemented over 100 state legislature bills in the past year to censor teachers and teaching material.

One of the most frightening bans is occurring in Florida, where presidential candidate Ron DeSantis heads the charge.

The Florida bans predominantly target books that feature and challenge topics of gender, race, sexual identity, mental illness, and immigration– all of which are present in Patsy.

What is Patsy?

Patsy, a novel by Nicole Dennis-Benn, follows the eponymous protagonist and her daughter Tru as they navigate their lives separated by country but bound by blood.

The novel delves into parent-child dynamics, sexual identity, and the complexities of confronting one’s truths amid personal choices or circumstances.

I read Patsy as part of my school curriculum. While I couldn’t personally relate to every detail in the novel, being a cisgender, heterosexual, white American woman, I deeply connected with its profound exploration of universal themes such as love, community, and womanhood.

The arc of the story–in which Patsy struggles to ignore the crueler aspects of her past and present and to keep these facts from Tru until she realizes that doing so is only hurting them both–is in many ways analogous to the trend of book banning.

Patsy illuminates societal issues often overlooked and underscores storytelling’s profound significance in cultural representation. It allows readers to better understand the hazardous nature of book banning as it is happening in real-time.

And it is a novel I firmly advocate for keeping or implementing in secondary school curricula.

Author of
This novel, published in 2019, will inspire ideas and emotions that remain relevant for decades to come.
Credit: Oprah Daily: Patsy, by Nicole Dennis-Benn.

Connections between Patsy and book banning

In the first half of the novel, Patsy actively suppresses her memories and feelings about her sexuality as a queer woman and her role as an absentee mother. She surrenders to indifference, believing it is “better to exist numb, a mere husk that could float even on the most treacherous seas, than to feel pain.”

This choice reveals its own harm: Patsy becomes a “husk,” a shell of a person, allowing her to keep her head up “even on the most treacherous seas.” But is it worth it? Should one sacrifice autonomy and psychic fullness to avoid sinking, or dare to learn to swim and face life’s challenges?

Meanwhile, Tru grapples with serious questions about her gender and sexuality. She feels out of place in her own body, lacking exposure to people or resources that could help her understand her experience. She resorts to self-harm as her only way to express her internal turmoil, and at one point, she almost takes her own life due to her profound sense of alienation.

What we can learn from Patsy

You may ponder how Tru’s life could have been different discussing her gender and sexuality with her mother. They notice parallels between Patsy and Tru, envisioning growth and connection through shared stories and confronting truths together.

Patsy shields herself and Tru from painful realities, unwittingly denying them the honesty and exposure essential for their progress. This sequence of events mirrors what happens when families and governments ban certain books, highlighting the dangers of such censorship.

written letters
Although the truth can be frightening to tell and to hear, in the end, Patsy shows that the freedom it provides overcomes such fear.
Credit: Shutterstock/Ajibola Fasola.

It is only once Patsy allows herself to acknowledge all the aspects of her past and present that she can begin to progress in her life and let Tru do the same.

In a letter to Tru–the first one she’s sent in ten years–Patsy writes, “I was guilty because I had brought you into a world I could not change–a world I feared would break you, too… Never let anyone define you. Always know that you matter… The least I can do is set you free.”

When Patsy openly divulges her thoughts, feelings, and actions, she provides Tru with a basis for understanding, connecting, and ultimately forgiving.

For Patsy, the letter is raw and confessional, somehow trying to make up for a decade’s worth of silence. For Tru, it’s a frightening and perilous potential to either be pulled into her mother’s spiral or lose connections forever.

But Patsy’s closing sentiment–“the least I can do is set you free”–underscores the importance of the letter’s existence. Through Patsy and Tru, readers see how truth and knowledge are keystones in inter- and intrapersonal connection and contentment.

People grow and thrive not through coddling or controlling but through freedom—intellectual, psychic, and otherwise. Freedom to learn, and from there, freedom to choose; stories both stem from and supply that freedom.

…And how that learning will help us

Patsy is a story that should always be told. Many of the critical topics and themes it covers are being targeted and remaining untaught now more than ever. The novel underscores the harm of feeling alienated or unrepresented in one’s identity within their environment.

In a secondary school curriculum, Patsy could act as a catalyst for generating understanding and empathy.

What’s more, though, is the parallels that one could draw between events in the novel and modern American book banning.

If we follow Patsy and Tru, we’re in for a rough ride until we can recognize our wrongdoings.

Stories are an integral part of how societies function and flourish. We can’t villainize or exile certain ones just because they seem scary or unattractive. Banned stories possess power over us instead of being a resource for expanding and enriching our lives.

Through misunderstanding and neglect, they become an obscure fog. They hinder us from bridging our differences through dialogue, essential for understanding and connection in society.

I’m not saying that we should sit kindergarteners in front of R-rated movies or give fifth-graders play-by-plays of horrific events. Banning books to shield children only deepens the evils we’re trying to hide from them, fostering apathy and ignorance.

Written By

Hi, I'm Caroline Heath, and I write for the News section of Trill. I grew up in New York City, and I currently go to the University of St Andrews in St Andrews, Scotland. I am particularly interested in sharing stories related to education, literature, and writing/language.

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