An award-winning young adult novel has been banned by New Zealand's Film and Literature Board of Review (FLBR) amid mounting pressure from conservative Christians, who objected to the book's "detailed descriptions of sex acts, coarse language, and scenes of drug-taking."
The novel Into the River by Ted Dawe, 64, will be the first book the FLBR has banned from sale in more than 20 years. The book first came to the Christian group Family First's attention when it won first prize in the New Zealand Post's Children's Book Awards in 2013. Judges described it as an "engaging coming of age novel" that follows its main protagonist from the small rural Maori town where he grew up, to an elite boarding school in Auckland where he has to reconcile his cultural upbringing with his new environment. He does so, New Zealand Books: A Quarterly Review wrote, "on a corrugated road to sex, cannabis and vodka, renunciation, betrayal, and school theatricals."
Judge and author Bernard Beckett said at the time that he was "delighted to see a book that both engaged and respected older readers with material as subtle as it is honest and provocative."
But other readers found nothing praiseworthy about the book's provocativity. In a statement, Family First said Into the River was "laced" with profanity, drugs, sex, and other "offensive content."
Bob McCroskie, the national director of Family First NZ, told CNN that the book contains "highly offensive language and gratuitous sexual content," and he "wouldn't want [his] daughter to be hanging around with people who have been reading it."
But New Zealand Books: A Quarterly Review, the country's journal of record, said that anyone who condemns Into the River as "just pandering to sex and filth" must have read the novel "with their frontal lobes disconnected."
Similarly, Beckett said in a statement to the FLBR that the issue of cultural disconnection and "institutional racism" for young Maori men is one that needs to be explored in "an authentic manner."
"It's the sort of shock I'd like us to tolerate," Beckett said. "It speaks to the state of our society that this aspect of the book was largely overlooked in our glamour to excite ourselves over cussing and ejaculation."
'The book was never about sex and drugs, it was always about bullying people and how that damages people for the rest of their lives.'
Dawe, who works as director of studies at Taylors College in Auckland, told VICE the decision to ban his book was an indication that New Zealand is becoming increasingly conservative. "I grew up in the hippie period," he said. "We hunted down anything that would challenge — terrible language, excessive sexuality. Now it's much more buttoned up."
The FLBR has placed the book on "interim restriction," and will decide over the next month how it should be permanently classified. The "interim restriction" status means that anyone caught "distributing" or "exhibiting" the book will be slapped with a hefty fine.
McCroskie told CNN that he hadn't intended for the book to be banned entirely. Instead, the FLBR said Family First requested that the book be given an "R18 Rating with shrink-wrap."
Dawe said that making Into the River only available to readers over 18 would defeat the book's purpose, which the author said is to engage young readers by writing about issues that are relatable to them.
Dawe, who taught secondary-school age boys for years, told VICE, "If I can give some wayward kid a good reading experience I can turn them into a reader." With the kind of private, non-judging understanding that books can offer, wayward kids "might not become disenfranchised within our society," he explained.
The last book relegated to the dusty shelves of New Zealand's literary contraband was How to Build a Bazooka. The title is self-explanatory.
If permanently banned, Into the River will join a rich tradition of other titles deemed at the time of their publication to be too risqué for the minds of young adults, including Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird.
Evangelical Christian groups in the United States have frequently called for schools to ban the Harry Potter series on the grounds that witchcraft is a religion and that allowing the books in schools violates the separation of church and state.
In an interview on Monday with the New Zealand Herald, Dawe again defended his work, saying that censors had completely missed the point of his book.
"The book was never about sex and drugs, it was always about bullying people and how that damages people for the rest of their lives," he said. "That is really the underlying theme, everything else is just the trappings that go along with that."
Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen
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