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QUESTION:

An interesting discovery today during class discussion of Ender's Game. I had asked a reflective question on the study guide: "Do you think Ender and Alai are seriously racist, or are they just playing around?" The question was meant to refer to page 61, where the following exchange occurs:

"Let's freeze a few," Alai said. "Let's have our first battle. Us against them."

They grinned. Then Ender said, "Better invite Bernard."

Alai cocked an eyebrow. "Oh?"

"And Shen."

"That little slanty-eyed butt-wiggler?"

Ender decided that Alai was joking. "Hey, we can't all be niggers."

Alai grinned. "My grandpa would've killed you for that."

"My great great grandpa would have sold him first."

"Let's go get Bernard and Shen and freeze these bugger-lovers."

One of my students asked what I meant by the question, so I directed the class's attention to that page and read the passage. There was an outburst when I got to the racially charged word. It doesn't appear in most of the kids' version of the book. Instead, their version reads thus:

"Let's freeze a few," Alai said. "Let's have our first battle. Us against them."

They grinned. Then Ender said, "Better invite Bernard."

Alai cocked an eyebrow. "Oh?"

"And Shen."

"That little butt-wiggler?"

Ender decided that Alai was joking. "If you didn't hold yours so tight it would wiggle, too."

Alai grinned. "Let's go get Bernard and Shen and freeze these bugger-lovers."

I was shocked. When did Card decide to change this passage? He doesn't seem to be the type to give in to demands from the special interest groups.

My class is eager to find out what happened and why...

-- Submitted by Ryk Stanton

OSC REPLIES: - September 20, 2000

About the Removal of an Offensive Word from Ender's Game

Ah, the dread monsters Censorship and Bowdlerization rear their ugly heads, and all the world shudders ...

One thinks at once of the "sanitized" version of Shakespeare's tragedies that held the stage in England and America for many years -- you know, the Lear in which Cordelia is saved just in time; the Romeo and Juliet in which Friar Lawrence arrives (of course) just in time; the Hamlet in which all is revealed and Hamlet is saved to marry Ophelia; the Macbeth in which ... well, there was no saving Macbeth.

The audience simply could not bear genuine tragedy, the noble heart-wrenching deaths of those who should not die or who could have avoided death, had they only chosen a different course. So the stories were changed "just a little" to make them acceptable. After all, times had changed, and the plays had to change with them.

So widespread were these new versions that almost no one had even heard of the original tragic endings. Shakespeare was even criticized for "his" implausible last-minute rescues. When the original versions were revived, published, and produced, it had an invigorating effect, and from that time on, bowdlerization -- named for Mr. Bowdler, who presumed to clean up indecorousness in dead writers' work, so that a more delicate audience might continue to enjoy them -- has been regarded as such an awful literary crime that there is no other comparable to it.

But I know a worse one. That is the sin whereby, in pursuit of one small aim, the artist puts something in his work that causes it to be less effective, and then refuses to correct the flaw because that would not be "true" to the work.

Let me be specific. I made up Ender's Game. It is what I made it to be. So if, in seeing its effect on the audience, I come to realize that a particular scene is not working, and that it is not working solely because of the use of a particular word, what kind of fool would I have to be to allow the dead me -- the me of 1984, who wrote that scene -- to prevail over the living me?

Even as the old obscenities dealing with sex and excrement were unleashed upon the public, new obscenities moved from the realm of the merely indecorous to the sinful. What f* and s* (and worse words) had once been, now n* has become. And, just as there were prudes who screamed in outrage and demanded that any work containing those old bad words must be banned, so we have a new group of prudes making identical demands about works containing the new bad word.

The prudes are always with us. They are wrong to impart deep moral meanings to words themselves, regardless of context: there is no word which does not have a context in which it is not only the best word, but the only word that is right and good. But they are right to this extent: that there are words which become charged with meaning that sparks and shocks the reader no matter what the context.

Such a word, today, is n*. In the scene just quoted, I had Ender using the word to wake Alai up to the fact that by calling Shen "slanty-eyed," Alai was being racist. A sort of tit-for-tat response: If you're going to call my East Asian friend "slanty-eyed," then you choose to live in the kind of world where you would be called "n*." Morally, this is clearly (to me, at least) a rejection of the kind of world where people call each other names based on superficial racial characteristics.

But, to show the scene and make it work, the word n* had to be used. Without it, there is no scene.

The trouble was, first, with the prudes. Despite the fact that, as with Huckleberry Finn, the word was being used in a work that opposed racism, the word was being treated as if it were an absolute. Denying that the word can ever have a context that makes its use morally right, the prudes would have Ender's Game banned from reading lists for young readers because of the mere presence of that word.

I could ignore the prudes -- I usually do -- but there was a worse problem. Because the word n* has been so thoroughly banned from public discourse (outside of Def Comedy Jam), almost all readers are shocked when they see the word. It stands out. It is as if, in the midst of hearing a play presented with normal speech, one word were suddenly screamed in a way quite inappropriate to the context. The audience, in such a case, is jarred, shocked, driven away from the scene that is going on before them, and forced to think about the one shouted word.

In other words, the presence of n* was causing readers to break free from the spell of the story. And so it had to be eliminated, for the sake of the purity of the experience of reading, just as surely as I also eliminate passages of language so pretty that it makes readers say, "Oh, how lovely," instead of concentrating on the onward-flowing tale.

Do you doubt that this was happening? The very fact that you were trying to build a class discussion about whether Ender and Alai were racist based solely on that word proves that the scene was an utter failure. The word was so potent and absolutely bad to you that you actually considered it to be a potentially sustainable proposition that Ender was racist solely because he used that word. The word forced itself out of the context and instead of being an answer, it became a question -- the opposite of the intended effect. If I had not already changed the passage, I would have changed it the moment I learned that a teacher was actually asking a class, "Do you think Ender and Alai are seriously racist, or are they just playing around?" In fact the scene should be absolutely clear that Ender is neither racist nor playing around, but is instead insisting that Alai not make racially derogatory statements about his friend Shen. If the word n* were not absolute in your mind, you would never have asked that question. So, while you may be "shocked" that I would change the passage, I can assure you, you, and those who would read this scene as you did, are the main reason I have changed it.

Which is not to say that I might not have made the same change simply to please the prudes. I don't care what the prudes think of me -- prudes of left and right both detest me and my work, and will continue to do so. But the prudes have the power to have my work banned from or made less accessible to young readers. Though I did not intend Ender's Game for a youthful audience, it has in fact proved to have some value and importance for many young readers. So, for the sake of that one word (and the short sequence supporting it), should I keep a portion of those young readers who might value the book from having a chance to read it? How impractical. How silly.

If this were a scene that had a central bearing on the main threads of the tale so that, by changing it, I changed the moral freight carried into the reader's heart by this book, then I might have found it more difficult to make the change. But it is not important -- the meaning of this scene is conveyed in dozens of other more effective ways elsewhere in the book -- and so I changed it without a second thought, and don't regret making the change.

If I were one of those writers who got all mystical about writing and thought some muse or other divine influence gave me the words I write, then I might regard them as sacred and unchangeable. But I am not one of those writers -- I am actually a serious artist, not a mystic, and I know that there are a hundred right ways to do every scene and every passage, and a thousand ways that seem right but are not quite right. Moreover, my training is in theatre, where playwrights know that they cannot know what they have wrought until it is before an audience, whereupon they begin serious revisions to make the play work properly as a tool for creating the story in the minds of the audience.

When the problem of using n* in Ender's Game was called to my attention, it was as if I were standing in the audience of my play and heard the people laughing in the midst of a scene where laughter was completely wrong. Whatever is causing inappropriate laughter, the playwright must eliminate it at once; so in this case, what was causing distraction, the word n*, needed to be eliminated for the overall scene to work properly, and for the story to remain accessible to its whole potential audience.

No one has ever missed the word or the sequence that it occurred in. Your class would not have noticed it, or valued the book one whit less, had you not called their attention to the difference. Indeed, the fact that now there is nothing to "notice" there, the fact that your class had no idea what you were talking about when you suggested Ender might be racist, proves that the change was necessary and effective.

Which is not to say I'll never use n* -- or any other word -- when I find it necessary and appropriate. In this case, it was neither, and so it's gone.

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