The August 21 story in the Duke Chronicle entitled “Freshmen skipping ‘Fun Home’ for moral reasons” begins by stating that “several” incoming Freshmen have chosen to forgo the recommended common reading for the incoming class of 2019 because they objected to the “pornographic” nature of Alison Bechdel’s award winning memoir Fun Home. The Duke Chronicle article has by now circulated well beyond the Duke community, and responses range from people outraged that students would reject a book without reading it first to people lamenting the loss of traditional conservative values at Duke.
With around seventeen hundred students in the incoming class, there were bound to be some people who reacted as these abstainers did. But it might be helpful for the Duke community and the larger world to place those “several” abstainers in the context of the otherwise enthusiastic reception of the student body to both Fun Home and Alison Bechdel. Thursday night, Bechdel spoke to a packed house of students at the Durham Performing Arts Center and received a standing ovation. Earlier that day, Bechdel gave a question and answer session with equally excited students at the Duke Coffeehouse. Hosted by the Program in Women’s Studies, approximately 150 LGBTQ students and allies convened to listen to Bechdel talk about her work, including the difficulties in writing a story that illustrates for the world both her own family’s particular tragedy and her own intellectual development, a topic to which all students should be able to relate. For many LGBTQ students, the Bechdel events this fall may be the only time in their four years on campus that the topic of queer identity will be widely discussed. At the event, over a dozen students, including many first years, lined up to ask Bechdel a series of great questions ranging from technical queries about how she works to questions about her family’s reaction to the release and popularity of Fun Home.
For many first year students, the experience of being asked to read Fun Home was both exciting and unexpected. Zephyr Farah, a first year student who attended the Bechdel lunch on August 20, described to us the “surreal” feeling she experienced when finding out “a book that talked so frequently and so deeply about being a lesbian was assigned [as] summer reading for school.” Farah grew up in places as far apart as Qatar, Angola and Texas, and was shocked at the openness she found when she got to campus, based on discussions of Fun Home. Marveling over the moment when she had the chance to shake Bechdel’s hand, Farah remarks, “It wasn’t the basketball, the school spirit, or the enormous Brodie Gym that excited me about Duke; it was the acceptance, the advocacy and the willingness here to treat people as people. Fun Home is a symbol of that for me.” Zoe Abedon, a first year student who came to Duke from her hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, noted that, before arriving, she was happy to see that Fun Home had been chosen as the first year reading despite the controversy over the same choice at the College of Charleston last year. Abedon had the chance to talk with Bechdel about the Charleston issue, and told Bechdel “how gratified” she was that despite the outcry in South Carolina, Duke had chosen the Fun Home as the summer reading, a move that showed the university’s willingness to take on the debate.
It is unfortunate that the Duke Chronicledid not reach out to some of these students, LGBTQ or not, who have engaged so thoughtfully with Bechdel’s work. For example, Duke student Jasmine Lu told us that she was glad that Fun Home was selected as recommended reading because she had “never familiarized [herself] with the very common identity crisis that lesbian women go through.” She points out that while she appreciates the book for how it opened her mind to thinking about the difficulties that face LGBTQ people in coming to terms with their identities, what she got most out of the book was a meditation on how Bechdel’s relationship with her father had shaped her life. Lu wrote to us, “It was [Bechdel’s] revelation to us on how much of a mystery her father was even after all the facts of his life came out that really resonated with me as I’m sure it could with almost anyone. It was the fact that we can know a person our whole life and still not understand who they were/are completely, and that’s perfectly fine. In terms of that aspect, the book was very comforting [to] me so while I respect the others’ choices to not read the book, I’m also sad that it wasn’t able to touch them as it had touched me.”
There is, of course, room for dissent in the discussion of any cultural object. But the object must actually be examined before it can be dismissed, discarded or, perhaps, silenced. The legacy of longstanding silence about “the love that dare not speak its name” is precisely something Fun Home takes on with nuance, humanity and wit, to the benefit and edification of its readers. As first year student Zoe Abedon remarks, it’s important that “the media doesn’t try to depict the opposition to Fun Home as being widespread,” noting that she had not personally met anyone at Duke who was opposed to the book.
During her conversation with students at the Duke Coffeehouse, Bechdel reflected on how much easier it was to be openly gay now than it had been for people in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Despite the truth of this statement, it is also important to remember how hard it is for many, even on Duke’s campus, to be open and comfortable with their sexuality, especially when we promote a culture of keeping quiet to avoid upsetting people with moral objections. In the spirit of openness and acceptance, and to overcome the deafening silence that often follows the objections of the few, we urge all Duke community members to have a conversation about Fun Home or other taboo subjects with your colleagues, classmates, co-workers, students or professors. You might be surprised by what you learn.
Jessica Namakkal is an Assistant Professor of the Practice of International Comparative Studies and Women’s Studies. Gabriel Rosenberg is an Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies.