David Sedaris was born on this day in 1956. He is an award winning author and comedian, and he is a regular, longtime contributor to The New Yorker and the National Public Radio (NPR) show This American Life. His essays are known for their satirical and self-deprecating humor, and read like diary entries (which many of them are), a window into Sedaris’ clever mind.
Sedaris was born in New York, but grew up predominantly in North Carolina. He is the second of six children, which might seem wild and crazy in 2020, but, as he remarks in his essay “Now We Are Five”, was just a normal occurrence where he grew up. Coming from a large family myself, I have to imagine that experience informed Sedaris’ ability to zero in on the eccentricities of everyday life.
He moved to Chicago and graduated from School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1983, but the defining moment of Sedaris’ career occurred when radio show host, Ira Glass, discovered him reading diary entries in a Chicago club. This eventually led to him reading his essay “SantaLand Diaries” on NPR’s Morning Edition on December 23, 1992. He amassed a regular following of listeners, and from there, garnered a weekly spot on This American Life with the same Ira Glass, and a two book deal with Little, Brown and Company. 27 years, 12 books, and countless essays later, Sedaris is considered a staple of humor writing, and yet, like his ostensibly mundane words, he continues to surprise and delight readers with his originality and laugh-out-loud observations.
But, as they say, there’s no pleasing everyone, and Sedaris’ work is no exception. Despite its notoriety, his work has seen censorship attempts. One of the more notable instances occurred in 2009 in Litchfield, NH. Several parents vehemently objected to a section of a high school English class unit, “Love/Gender/Family”, an assignment to read four short stories, one of them being Sedaris’ “I Like Guys”. Their objection to this story was, in case you couldn’t guess from its title, its discussion of homosexuality. The assignment and stories were removed from the curriculum two days after the complaints, completely disregarding the school district’s protocol for challenged materials. The superintendent apologized to parents, calling the short stories “inappropriate” and vowing to ensure that all staff comply with school policies in the future (which is laughable, considering his own failure to adhere to school policy in the challenge process). This controversy eventually led to the assigning teacher, Kathleen Reilly, resigning from her position as head of the English department.
Censorship is endlessly frustrating. Even though this particular situation took place over a decade ago, censorship attempts like this are still happening. We, as a society, are still attempting to control what people, particularly children, read. And then we turn around and wonder why we’re not more empathetic, more loving, more understanding. If children are raised in a homogenous bubble, how are they to move forward as adults when, inevitably, they encounter viewpoints and experiences different from their own?
Stories like Sedaris’ “I Like Guys” are important. Not just for their pedagogical value, which I believe it has, and is a notable criterion for its inclusion in a high school assignment. Not just for its humor, wit, and clever writing, though I do consider those a plus when I’m selecting a book for myself. “I Like Guys” is important because in it, Sedaris describes his experience as a gay man, and as a gay teen, growing up in the 70’s, when he felt shame and sadness for his feelings. How many teens feel that way? For that matter, how many adults can relate to that experience? Stories like “I Like Guys” show those struggling with their feelings that they are not alone. And, ultimately, isn’t that what a good story does? It draws us in, until the story, be it an epic fantasy novel or a short story about a gay teen, feels like an old friend.
So thanks, David Sedaris, for writing stories in which we can see ourselves. And Happy Birthday!
Rebecca holds an MLIS from the University of North Texas and is a former teacher and school library consultant. Though not currently working in a library, she continues to fight against censorship and advocate for intellectual freedom rights, especially for children’s literature. When she’s not wrangling her two children, Rebecca enjoys reading, running, writing, and roaming the world.