Ted Dawe found out his novel Into the River was the first New Zealand book to be banned in 22 years the same way everyone else did—in the newspaper. On Monday morning, he opened the New Zealand Herald to see his face looking back from page four. It was now illegal to buy, sell, or lend out the book. Anyone caught doing so could face a $6,000 [$3,810 USD] fine.
In 2013 Into the River won the New Zealand Post Children's Book Award, but it was also immediately controversial for its frank discussions of drugs and unsentimental depiction of underage sex. While Ted insists the book is primarily about the lasting effects of bullying, it has become a marker for the strength of the conservative agenda. I called Dawe up to talk about all that stuff.
VICE: Hey Ted, so how did this happen? Into the River covers drugs and sex, but it's hardly the most graphic book in circulation.
Ted Dawe: My book was picked on because it won the book of the year and they thought young adult content shouldn't cover what I've written about. They said it shouldn't have swearing, drug use, and it was generally was a really bad thing to give to impressionable youth.
It's interesting—the last book to be banned in New Zealand taught you how to construct a bazooka.
But how did they justify coming down so hard on you when these are the same kids that go home and watch Game of Thrones?
When I spoke to the censor about it, they said most censorship now is to do with visual images—particularly DVDs and games—not 250-page books. But mine hit a nerve because it had been given society's endorsement by being awarded. They didn't like that.
Do you feel you're being made an example of?
Yes, I'm afraid I am.
You mentioned previous bans being focused on violent texts. Outrage over your book is due to sex and drug use. Is that a reflection of how concerns have shifted over 20 years?
I think there's a disconnect between the literary world and the world of literary alternatives—like the internet or video games. The literary world is held in high prestige; culturally we're put on a pedestal and asked to behave and follow various codes. If people feel you're violating those codes they cut up rough.
Has New Zealand become more conservative over the past decade?
Yes. I grew up in the hippie period. We hunted down anything that would challenge us—terrible language, excessive sexuality. Now it's much more buttoned-up. Today's kid is worried about their future, their jobs, everything. We didn't have those worries. It's a more circumscribed world now, I don't know if I'd like to be growing up in it.
As someone who writes for young people, especially young men, is there a challenge to engage with them when you're competing with other media? Does the literary world need to stretch to be more confronting to attract a younger audience?
Yeah, I'm setting out to get people who don't read habitually. In order to get those people in, authors need to produce something that's an engaging and unique experience they can't get from other places. I'm a believer in the novel to create a private experience you don't get in another form. If I can give some wayward kid a good reading experience I can turn them into a reader, and by turning them into a reader they might not become disenfranchised within our society and be less likely to end up in jail or dead.
Will the banning of this book kick off a trend of censorship?
I think it will. These people call it a victory for democracy because it's the right of the individual to challenge things in the public domain. They say they should be doing it more. That's their stance, and it will be interesting to see how it goes. Privately I'm fairly confident the book will be let off the leash.
I have to ask, Twitter is talking about this being great press and that you'll probably make a lot of money off it. Will infamy be good in the long run?
That's a very naive view. If you're a New Zealand author, even if you sell well, you don't make much money. My books are very Kiwi books, they speak to New Zealand youth and issues. That's why I'm so offended that it's been blocked. It's my job is to go out there and win over the readership of boys who don't read. It's written in the style, and about the issues, that boys are interested in. They're interested in fighting, drugs, and there is sex in there of course—because there's sex in life. And when the sex happens I describe it, I don't set out to write anything erotic. I'm quite dispassionate about those things really. The central theme of the book is about bullying and how bullying damages kids long-term.
This whole reaction is obviously stressful, but isn't it in some ways beneficial as it's kicked off an international conversation about censorship and how we speak to kids?
Yeah. With the internet, people think they have this freedom of expression. And maybe it will make people rethink that. I've gone past the point of being angry, I'm now quite willing to take on anyone who challenges this book.
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