Interview with Author Claudia Johnson
How and when did the idea for this book come to you?
As I say in Stifled Laughter, “From the beginning, the fight to restore literary classics to the classroom seemed important, historic.” So I kept a meticulous record of every article published about the case, audio tapes of school board meetings, and transcriptions of sessions in federal court, amassing a mountain of research and information, with no intention of writing a book. I just wanted to preserve the historical record. But I also kept a daily journal, tracking the five-year-long fight and the impact it had on me and my family. When the fight ended in 1991, I reread my journal and realized what an amazing story it was and how profoundly my family and I were changed, even empowered, by this battle for freedom of speech. I knew then that I had to write a memoir.
How did writing the book help you make sense of all your work to stop book banning in Florida?
Writing Stifled Laughter helped me understand how my efforts to stop book banning evolved over time and became more effective. In Lake City, where the school board voted unanimously to ban my two favorite classics, I was, frankly, confrontational. And unsuccessful. But when my family and I—sickened by the book banning—decided to move to nearby Live Oak, where a fundamentalist preacher asked the school board to ban Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men because it was “vuglar” [sic], I helped build a grass-roots coalition of teachers and librarians and parents opposed to banning Steinbeck. This is the most important wisdom I can impart to empower others who want to know how to stop book banning in their public schools. Organize a local, grass-roots coalition of teachers, librarians, parents, grandparents, and others opposed to book banning. Attend school board meetings together—there’s power in numbers. And speak out in a unified voice. Because, as I’ve learned over and over in the book-banning wars, the answer to less speech is more.
Can you tell us a bit more about the title?
I was shocked, outraged, and mystified when I discovered that a fundamentalist preacher in Lake City, Florida, wanted to ban Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale” and Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, two of the greatest works of comedy in the entire English canon—and my two favorite classics. Why would anyone want to suppress this glorious laughter? This was the inspiration for the book’s title. But Suppressed Laughter was a godawful choice. So my brilliant wag of a mother said, “How about Stifled Laughter?” And I knew that was the title. It also resonated with me because when I lost my sense of humor during the sometimes-discouraging fight, my family would get me laughing again and give me the perspective I needed to go on.
How has republishing a new, updated edition of the book changed (if at all) how you see book banning in the United States?
After doing extensive research for the new edition of Stifled Laughter, I now understand that the stakes for fighting book banning have never been higher. “Because it isn’t just books that are imperiled,” as I say in the new Introduction. “It’s public education, the bedrock of democracy. And our democracy itself. If you doubt this is true, read Kathryn Joyce’s three-part investigative series in Salon, where she reports the ‘marching orders for the right: Defund public universities, discard academic freedom, remove credentialing requirements for K–12 teachers and generally foster so much anger against public schools that it drives a nationwide popular movement to privatize education.’ They’ve publicly announced their agenda, and they’re executing it in plain sight. Their long game is to undermine public education. Once it’s privatized, they can impose on students a curriculum that conforms to their right-wing political and moral views. Their endgame is to undermine democracy and replace it with theocracy, never mind that the First Amendment opens with ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.’ Which is where Stifled Laughter begins . . .”
How has censorship changed since the publication of the first edition—and now as we publish the second?
Book banning is far worse now than it was when the first edition was published in 1994, due to the proliferation of right-wing organizations backing book banning—and social media as the accelerant of willful misinformation about books in our schools. “The scale and force of book banning in local communities is escalating dramatically,” as PEN says in their survey “Banned in the USA.” They also document a “profound increase in both the number of books banned and the intense focus on books that relate to communities of color and LGBTQ+ subjects.” During Banned Book Week in September 2022, PEN reported that more than 1,600 books were banned in over 5,000 schools during the previous school year, a staggering statistic that makes it even more urgent that we fight book banning and defend our teachers, librarians, public schools, and democracy.