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Essay: The Ted Dawe Experience – Pervert or Really Good Writer? His Judge Decides

Bernard Beckett was on the judging panel that awarded the 2013 NZ Post children’s book award to Into the River – the Ted Dawe’ novel which was banned this week by weird Christian sect, the Film and Literature Board of Review.

UPDATE: Into the River is no longer banned or even classified at all. 

This afternoon, as is my wont, I taught a drama class of 13-year-olds in the Hutt Valley. They were in pairs performing a scene back to the class. The work they produced was fresh, distinct and exciting. They were engaged and proud of their work. A good number of them were Māori.

Earlier today, while walking to a café, I came across another Māori student sitting in a park when he should have been at school. I chatted to him and he told me he only liked two of his classes. The others were too hard, boring, no good…

As a school teacher, a core part of my job is to stop those 13-year-olds becoming that 15-year-old. All too often, I fail. So do most of my peers, most of the time. We are trying hard, and we are getting better, but the profile of students disengaged from school, and thus radically reducing the number of ways society can be kind to them, remains drearily predictable. Disproportionately male, disproportionately Māori and Pasifika, and disproportionately from poorer homes, they are ultimately the group by which the success of education system must be judged.

Ted Dawe’s book Into the River is an important work on a great many levels. Deeply moral, extremely well-written and respectful of its audience, it deserves all the kudos that has come its way. It’s the story of these very people, those least likely to read, and least likely to read about themselves.

The protagonist is a young Māori boy on the East Coast, sharp as pin and filled to the brim with potential. He wins a scholarship to a boarding school in Auckland, and from the moment he arrives, understands that this is not his place. Despite his learning and his aptitude, the school won’t be able to welcome him. It’s a story of alienation and bullying, and a story of the way those not offered a place to stand will attempt to carve out their own. They will take foolish risks, enter into dangerous relationships, do whatever it takes to belong.

I love that there’s someone in New Zealand able to tell this story in a way that is authentic, never talking down or becoming didactic. The great power of the novel is its ability to draw us into its world.

And that, in essence, is how Into the River came to be named top book at the 2013 NZ Post Children’s book awards. I was convenor of the judging panel that year, and I still remember the sense of excitement, and indeed relief, when I came across Ted’s book, among the daunting boxes of titles to be assessed. As a judge, you always hope that you’ll find a book truly worth rewarding, so that the award can mark not just the best of the pile, but also a work of lasting importance. Awards, to the extent that have any value at all, are an opportunity to shine a light on such works, and introduce them to a new audience. I was a champion of Into the River because I wanted as many people as possible to read this book. I still do.

In a perfect world this article would end here, one author saluting the mighty achievement of another, feeling both delighted and ever so slightly jealous as he does so. But, in the weird parallel universe we seem to have inhabited today, Ted has become not the writer who cared too much, but rather the writer who will send us all to hell. In a breathtaking first, this book has somehow become subject to an interim restriction order, by the President of the film and Literature Review Board. What could possibly be going on?

into the river

Of all the books in Family First (the chief agitators in all of this) might have chosen, this highly ethical book appears an odd target. Presumably, its profile after the book awards was enough to draw it to the attention of whatever type of person it is who spends their spare time thumbing through books looking for swear words. And yes, there are swear words in the book. For the most part, this is a realistic work, and the language is realistic. And yes, there is sex in the book, and it too is realistic. Specifically, it is fumbling and unsatisfying, occurring as it does between young people who, while desperate to connect meaningfully with someone, have no idea how.

Of course some people find such things as sexual references and swearing offensive, but quite rightly this is not the litmus test for censorship in New Zealand. For, no matter what we are discussing, be it the violence of contact sport, the moral compass of religious texts, or the way people tie their hair, there’ll be some group somewhere who are offended by it. And on the occasions we’re the ones being offended, we have every right to move away, close the book or even let people to know they’re making us feel uncomfortable.

But we don’t have the right to stop other people acting according to their own value sets. That’s the price we pay for living in a pluralistic society, and a jolly fine thing it is too.

The actual test is “injurious to the public good”,  a formalisation of the old “your freedom ends where my nose begins” dictum. To restrict access material, we must show not that a piece of work is offensive to some value sets, but rather that there’s a likelihood of it doing harm.

That’s a pretty high bar, and when you bear in mind the great good this book is likely to do, the bar is raised even higher. Yet, no lesser figure than the President of The Review Board thinks he can demonstrate just this, and his line of reasoning can be seen in the dissenting opinion he offered when the book was first considered by his group. The following give a taste of his approach:

“It is injurious to the public good to normalise, as the book does, sexual intercourse by young teenagers. Even if it is prevalent in our society it is injurious to depict it as a normal activity for 13 – or 14-year olds to engage in because this tends to encourage wholly undesirable experimentation.”

“Into the River portrays girls as all too ready for sexual activity. Sex is portrayed as very pleasurable at the time even if Devon ultimately regrets his actions. It is treated as an animalistic fun activity.”

“Girls are just sex objects for Devon. The book degrades and demeans his sexual partners, and suggests that instant gratification is what you should be expecting in today’s New Zealand.”

“The book has in my opinion little merit in relation to social matters, throwing no light on any aspect of bullying for instance.

At the risk of being glib, the problem is exceedingly clear. The key player in this legal farce hasn’t understood the book very well. He simply isn’t a particularly sophisticated reader of teen fiction. There is a whole thesis available to someone wishing to seriously respond to the above, and I’ve neither the time or spirit for such a project. I will quickly highlight the obvious, however (and in doing so run the risk of patronising the reader, something Ted never does).

– Into the River does not normalise sexual activity. Sex makes up a tiny portion of the text, and those who engage in it are presented as anything as normal. They are outsiders, cast adrift, reaching out for anyone who will attend to them.

– I know of no evidence that says frank discussions of sex encourage wholly undesirable experimentation. Our education system acts according to the opposite premise, that it is the climate of fear and ignorance that encourages dangerous experimentation. Educators have not reached this conclusion lightly. They have a great deal of evidence to support them. Where is this chap’s evidence? When this controversy first broke a few years again I asked again and again for Family First to present their credible, peer-reviewed evidence on this matter. I’m still waiting.

– Sex is portrayed as only marginally pleasurable in this book, actually. And that’s because of the context. But that’s not the problem, of course. The problem is the clear implication that if we were to let young people know sex can be pleasurable, that would be injurious to the public good. That’s a pretty sad and twisted view of the world, I submit.

– Anyone else freaking out a little about the reference to girls here? The problem is that there are girls ready for sexual activity. Not boys, apparently, but girls. There’s the problem. God forbid that we should unleash the female libido. Blessed virgin protect us from this depravity.

– Does Into the River suggest we should be expecting instant gratification? No. The whole point of the book is that the poor young man can’t get no satisfaction. He’s missing the deeper connection that every human needs. He has lost his place to stand. The message being claimed by this authority is the exact opposite to the one at the heart of the book. If we are going to be responsible for such far reaching decisions, we must read carefully.

– There’s no doubt that girls are at times sexual objects for our protagonist. But one can not convincingly argue that the depiction of the undesirable is the same as its encouragement. Were that the case, we’d ban the anti-drink driving ads on the grounds that they depict car crashes, and must therefore be encouraging such behaviour. Again, these decisions matter a great deal. We have to be much more careful in our analysis.

– As for the book throwing no light on any aspect of bullying, I’ve been teaching 25 years (a little short of Ted’s own experience) and this is one of the most disturbingly authentic portrayal of teen brutality I have seen. The dissenter appears to wish to have the analysis spelled out for him, before he can see the relevance, but this is not a picture book. Sometimes, the most provocative act is the presentation of the mirror.

So, what to do? Hope the rest of the panel are generous in the sharing of their reading expertise, I suppose. And at the same time, look carefully at the way appointments to these oversight authorities are made. The censor’s office operate from a position of expertise and experience. Who are the best people to operate as their check or balance?

Today’s developments rather suggest the powers that be have a little more thinking to do on this front.

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