(First published in my defunct blog in 2012. Somehow with the circumstances of 2017 I really want to re-air it. Much like laundry…)
As a child, I was lucky to attend a small summer camp in Vermont. There were things about the camp that were wonderful: three to five weeks of focusing on horses, riding skills, free swim periods in late afternoons. There were aspects of life there that were a little austere: one piece of candy, one soda, one ice-cream cone on sundays IF you attended Methodist services in town. Ultimately, camp was an escape into the green leaf-lit canopy of trees, animals, dirt and cats that I loved. One July day, when I was about twelve, I had come to another tent looking for my friend Kay and found it empty. On the floor near the older girl’s bed was a book I hadn’t seen before, The Persian Boy, but I knew the author; my mother had given me another book by Mary Renault that year. I sat down on the damp and age softened wood floor of the tent and opened it.
The hot summer day and the green and blue tent shadows in sunlight vanished. I was with the boy, Bagoas, in the high mountain country of Persia, then the sordid eunuch slave markets of Babylon. I had no idea what the word ‘eunuch’ meant. I didn’t care. I crept through the cool, dark corridors of the ancient and exquisite palaces of Ekbatana and Susa and watched the sun flash on the gold fish tiles of pools and fountains. The dust of the Gedrosia choked me and I froze in wonder (and sympathy) in the mountains of the Khyber Pass. There was a lot I didn’t understand. I could see that Bagoas suffered shame and loneliness with Emperor Darius and that he loved Alexander the Great with all his heart. Still, Bagoas spoke to me, not just drawing me into his world but transcending the barriers of time, of place and even my own sheltered ignorance until what he said made sense, not necessarily in every detail, but in what he heard, felt and saw, in what he tasted and smelled, in his sadness and fascinations.
Suddenly I was jerked back into the reality of the warm tent and the green-laden air of the Vermont forest when I heard my friend exclaim “Oh God, what are you doing? I have to read that book for school. It’s absolutely disgusting, all about gay sex and prostitution and harems! If anybody catches you with that I’ll never hear the end of it for letting a younger kid read it-“ or something to that effect. I had no idea what she was talking about and needless to say, Kay never enlightened me beyond repeating her initial torrent in a gentler voice.
The Persian Boy remains one of my favorite books today. I love it for the empathy of Mary Renault’s words, the bridge she built between me and a young man dead for over two thousand years. I value the book for the memory of how I first found it. That moment taught me that beautiful things can be censored, by prejudice and hatred for the unknown. Because I felt the loss of Bagoas’ story in my heart, and the pain of separation from his truth, his experience, I learned that even if this censorship came from the kindest intentions, that it was not something I could accept.
It would be years before I found my voice on Civil Rights, Freedom of the Press or Speech and began fighting for them and for the Humanities as well. I didn’t realize at the moment the book was pulled out of my hands, that I had any recourse but the sadness of not knowing the end of Bagoas’ story. I didn’t understand that that moment made me as much of a rebel as Bagoas himself was, in refusing to tamely accept his fate. All I cared about was the story I had been ripped away from. Managing to reclaim that story, to finish it and to come to love it as I still do, these years later is something that doesn’t always happen for the child when someone pulls the book out of their hands. We need to fix that.