by Kate Cuthbert
September 27th marked the beginning of Banned Book Week in the US, a week that spotlights the many, many books that have been challenged over the years for being offensive, politically, racially, sexually, or just about any other -ally that you can think of.
This is an issue that’s close to many writers, readers, and publishing professionals’ hearts – censorship has long, insidious fingers that can affect minds, thoughts, careers, communities, and societies.
This year it’s especially close to home as we reel from the banning of Ted Dawe’s Into the River in New Zealand for highly offensive language and gratuitous sexual content.
The story follows a young Maori boy who leaves an isolated community to attend an elite Auckland boarding school. The main character,Te Arepa Santos, struggles as he deals with his peers, his own journey into adulthood, intimacy, sex, drugs, racism, and death.
The leader of the conservative group Family First NZ, the group who called for the ban state,
“I’ve sat with a group of fathers, none of them want their children to be reading it. I wouldn’t want my daughter to be hanging around with people who have been reading it.” (link)
The author, Dawe, says his teaching career brought awareness of the difficulties of getting boys to read.
“Part of the challenge was to find books that ‘spoke’ to them. This meant books about issues that were relevant to them and written in a style that was authentic.” (link)
More important, perhaps, though is the role that YA plays in a reader’s life:
“There comes a stage in the life of a child where they make the transition to adulthood, they have to walk free of their family, have to walk into spaces which may be dangerous. This is what young adult fiction prepares them for. I understand adults who get upset (with some of the topics) but often their children are the ones who can’t discuss these things with their parents. In the safety of a novel they can learn about this.” (link)
This safe space is also something that romance readers talk about, when they talk about their love for the genre. Romance novels, where women are the heroes of the story, where they are allowed to be flawed, strong, whole, broken, silly, smart, sheltered, worldly, domestic, career-driven, brave, timid, or any combination of the above and still win, provide women with a safe space to explore their own emotions, their own situation, their own choices. Further, romance novels reflect the positive ramifications of taking control of one’s own life, of standing up for one’s own self, for making decisions based on one’s self, rather than others, of owning one’s mistakes, but learning from them – not being punished for them. Finally, romance novels allow women a safe space to explore their own sexuality – a sexuality that has been repressed, vilified, fetishised, but never respected.
In this vein, it is also curious to note that the Family First representative doesn’t want his daughter hanging out with people who have read the book (where, in the sentence before, he refers to his children reading it). Even in this regard, women are marginalised to the peripheries of men’s business – not only protected from reading censored material, but protected from reading altogether.
The world is a very big, very confronting space, and with 7 billion people on the planet, with 7 billion unique ways of approaching that space, a safe place to go and learn and think and analyse and critique, but ultimately to explore and experiment without consequences is not a privilege, it is a necessity. The best that we can do for the children (and indeed the women!) in our lives is give them that opportunity, and be there when they have questions in an open, positive environment that lets them make their own decisions, and see the world as the diverse, fascinating territory that it is.
And support diverse books.