Book banning and Ted Dawe’s Into the River

A ‘friend in the media’ asked me to give his local paper a response to the furore that’s erupted over Ted Dawe’s novel Into the River, which I worked on in its initial assessment and editing phase. The newspaper that asked for comment has decided not to step into the controversy after all: and given I spent quite a bit of time pondering it this week and during the initial reading of the draft novel, I thought I would post something here.

I strongly believe that literature is one of the places that young people can safely think through situations, and rehearse their moral choices, without the grave personal compromise that living through the real events might involve. Forewarned is forearmed.The novel is aimed at ages 15+: the sex scenes are unromanticised, and speak the truth of unsatisfactory experiences. Yes, they’re awkward, raw, discomfiting. That’s part of the point. They happen in the context of a young, disenfranchised teenager trying to grapple with a loss of identity and with institutionalised racism, casual racism, and classist attitudes; with a life where the moral compass seems skewed to the powerful and those with a dubious authority. The sex scenes have to be read in context. If readers read the entire book, they’ll see that the main character, Devon, is left hurt, bewildered, empty, and wanting more than the casual encounters he’s had. The point isn’t the sex: it’s what the sex represents. The real tragedy is that Devon has nobody to talk to about what happens to him. He’s deeply isolated; the hunger for something wild and explosive that grows out of his failed relationship with the first teenage girl he has sex with, the craving for anarchy, is a channelling of pain and inarticulacy.

If we silence the book, and remove it from young adult readers, we repeat the kind of insidious censorship and bullying that the fictional private boys’ school of the novel, Barwell’s, embodies. From silence grows ignorance, isolation and confusion.

What I find distressing about the conservative response to all this is that the outrage is focused on the sex (two very short scenes in the book overall), rather than on the fact that Devon represents so many disenfranchised, disconnected young people. The book is a dark, socially critical, bravely unsweetened coming-of-age novel. It strikes me as a very important work in terms of its study of the deracination of a young, rural Maori boy. Its lament for what Te Arepa/Devon loses reminds me in some ways of the themes in works by English authors like DH Lawrence, who mourn the way a higher education for working class children can divide one family generation from another, alienating the young scholar from his own background, yet leaving him still in exile with the new social milieu, where he never quite fits because of his working class roots. Here the themes are intensified by the issue of race – Te Arepa/Devon is caught in post-colonial power structures.

I both cheered for Devon and felt a twisting sorrow for him at the end of the book: as if there really is no right way for him to choose. His actions at the end of the novel will make readers think, debate, and so rehearse their own moral decisions. This is a novel for street-wise, intelligent young adults who know about the grinding reality of inequality in Aotearoa: and for the adults who have a responsibility to try to improve their conditions.

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35 Responses to Book banning and Ted Dawe’s Into the River

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  3. Sharon King says:

    What a beautifully written and reasoned response. Thank you Emma for articulating so clearly what many of us who work to get teenagers to read think about this sudden controversy. I am amazed at the number of supposedly intelligent New Zealanders who seem to feel obliged and qualified to comment on this book, whilst at the same time admitting that they have only read the excerpt made available via the QR code in The Herald on Sunday!

  4. Paula Boock says:

    Beautifully put Emma, and another thoughtful and erudite response from judge Bernard Beckett here:
    For a taste.. “The language, the sexual references and the drugs are as integral to this story as domestic violence is integral to Othello.” Bravo.

    • ejneale says:

      Bernard is a clear and persuasive advocate for young people – his 20 years of teaching, and his writing career, and now his role as a parent, all help to give his arguments and judgement considerable heft.

  5. Ditto here! We have had a complaint from a patron, quoting only the three sex scenes. My first reaction was: “What about the context?”, as I had not read the book. Your response very eloquently summarises how I feel about censorship, having grown up in the Apartheid era in South Africa. So, don’t get me started…Thanks, Emma.

    • ejneale says:

      Thanks to all for your feedback. The book certainly has stirred up a lot of debate – which has got to be healthy – as these issues aren’t simple or straightforward.

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  7. Renee B-W says:

    Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU. I am trying to defend this book on the NZ Post Childrens’ Book Awards FB page and someone linked to this post. I hope all the book-burners and spewers of vitriol read (and comprehend) your post. I’m flabberghasted by the hysterical, ill-informed response to this well-written and much needed book!

    • ejneale says:

      Thanks for dropping by, Renee. From reading the Facebook thread it seems as if the anti-Into the River voices are favouring repeating themselves, rather than listening to the arguments that the sex scenes aren’t porn, because they’re not written to excite. They’re written as social realism, to expose a sense of isolation and helplessness. It’s also very strange to go to some people’s Facebook profiles and read the links they have up on their own pages separate from the debate. In one case in particular, I detect an unhealthy preoccupation with sex…which suggests the more he protests, the more he indicates his own puzzling obsession. Oh dear.

  8. Jess says:

    This is perfect. Just perfect. I saw an outraged Facebook friend post on the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards page and had a look at both sides of the issue. Admittedly I haven’t read it (I will soon) and I realise that most of the people who’s “outraged” by it haven’t either, and it really is a pity that some people still have really closed minds despite our changing times.

    “If we silence the book, and remove it from young adult readers, we repeat the kind of insidious censorship and bullying that the fictional private boys’ school of the novel, Barwell’s, embodies. From silence grows ignorance, isolation and confusion.”

    THIS. So eloquently and accurately put.

  9. jane familton says:

    I am a mum of two teenagers, aged 15 and 13 and having read the whole book, i have made the decision that my children will not be reading it.
    As a responsible parent, my children have my full support and help,when it comes to questions regarding any area of education, including relationships . They can access the same support through their school, youth group workers etc and i do not feel the need for them to try and process the very raw content of this book in order to become better informed.
    I may be called closed minded, but i do not accept that because society has changed therefore my kids must now be streetwise in all areas in order to avoid being ignorant, isolated or confused! They are none of those things!

    As they mature, they can make their own decisions, but at this point they are under my care and protection.

    Please do not degrade parents who make this stand. They too are trying to be the best parents they can be and the fact they do not agree with the view of this column, or with the book itself, does not make them bad parents or hysterical.

    Surely, everyone is entitled to an opinion, regardless of what that opinion is.

    • ejneale says:

      Hi Jane
      I certainly don’t think your response is hysterical: it sounds reasoned and based on both your own reading of the novel and your understanding of what your children are capable of dealing with. As parents we have to make such decisions all the time: for a period of time we had to hide all books to do with bears from our toddler, because he was so terrified of them – even though he’d never once seen a real bear. I didn’t, however, then think that all books on bears for his age group should be banned.

      My sense is that the situation with Into the River is similar. It will suit many sophisticated young adult readers who want a novel immersed in social reality, and who on some level recognise injustice and inequality in current day NZ. When I edited it I definitely thought it was for age 15+ and could even be marketed as a cross-over novel: that is, one suitable for mature young adults and for adults – which is how Ted’s previous work had been seen. I think the whole issue is a lot more complex than some of the discussion focussing on the character’s sexual experience has been. I recall my own mother being unsure about whether the novels and poetry of Sylvia Plath were suitable for a seventeen year old to study at school: and yet the work was on the UE syllabus. In retrospect I’m, for one, grateful that the work gave us a chance to talk about and discuss some of the issues Plath’s work raised. And those things that I found disturbing were partly about me learning to accept that some darker aspects of humanity existed – that doesn’t mean I approve/d of them, but I learnt to have a less ‘fantastical’ or idealistic perspective. If I’d carried on as naive as I was, before reading about, say, sexuality, relationships, risk, ambition, exploitation, and so on, I’d have got myself into some pretty dire situations. Books were one aspect of what taught me to steer clear of risk and go cautiously; to think about how people wield power; how they treat one another both in intimate relationships and in public.
      Thanks for your response.

  10. amanda acheson says:

    Hello Emma
    I agree very much so that “Into the river” is a well written book. I read it in full last week.Here in lies the problem for me. The vivid description of the sexual encounters (and please remember I have read the book in full and in context) is so well written with such language I struggle with the pictures it paints for those without sexual experience. They have no experience from which to balance this. I am a therapist by profession and see the damage and hold that pornography addiction has on out youth and wider community. To read this content as a young person has huge risk …either shame is felt or it leads the reader to find more the feeds the same need as pornography.

    As an adult bookl I have no problem…..we as adult can choose. As a Y.P. book which the sellers or lenders can choose to display a warning sticker on,….. that leaves me very concerned. we have a responsibility to protect our young as well as educate them, this does not have to be mutually exclusive.

    • ejneale says:

      Amanda thanks very much for your considered response. I respect your experience in the field – but I disagree with you about the content of the book. It’s not pornographic in my view, as it’s not written to excite, glamourise, or offer sensationalism. The sexual content doesn’t happen divorced of character or psychological response; it doesn’t happen divorced of consequence. In fact the book is quietly mourning the situation the main character is in: it lets us into his interior world and see the repercussions of his actions and his situation. This is far removed from, say, even a ‘prime time’ music video, which focuses on titillating imagery, physical appearance, the ‘mechanics’ of seduction divorced from the private emotional experience of the protagonist. This is where I think literature is immensely valuable, because it takes us into a character’s imaginative world; it helps us to learn empathy. It gives us time to absorb and judge; not just react to a visual trigger. This kind of writing is so very far removed from, say, Playboy that I struggle to see how it could either trigger or feed a pornography addiction. Grim and realistic and sorrowful are not the same as inciting to abuse; are not the same as degradation; are not the same as unhealthy preoccupation.

    • Jess Jones says:

      I thoroughly agree with Amanda. I felt on reading your post, Emma, that you were assessing the book as an adult, with all the perspective that a mature adult can bring. However the book is aimed for young teenagers – and because as a former teacher of English literature I am only too aware of the power of a well-written book – I am totally opposed to suggesting that this book be read by young people. I remember when I was 16 reading Graham Greene’s, ‘The Power & The Glory’ and finding it very difficult to cope with because of the themes it was dealing with (and the content was not graphic.) When I read the book again 20 or more years later, I found it to be a profoundly satisfying read. Ted Dawe’s book, ‘In the River’, is being promoted by mature sophisticated adults, as being suitable for young teenagers! I underline Amanda’s words – ‘to read this content as a young person has huge risk.’ Why would we take such a risk?

  11. Gallivanta says: I have not read Into the River but I found this blog post from our Christchurch Library reassuring and balanced; ditto with your post.

    • Jess Jones says:

      Read the book for yourself and make your own judgment.

      • ejneale says:

        I think your second response is the correct one, Jess. If adult readers believe the young adults they know aren’t ready for the novel they can advise they don’t read it yet. But I think there is so much going on in this novel – material about classism, racism, pressures to be masculine in a particular way, pressures to achieve based on school reputation not on genuine interest in the child..that many young adult readers would find it a rich and intellectually liberating read. It shows how young adults are pressured by some pretty corrupt institutions and by each other…I think it was a deserving win. I do think that renaming the awards to stress that there is a YA category would be sensible.

  12. Great to read a well reasoned discussion about this book. I thought Into the River was an outstanding book in this year’s finalists. Renaming the awards to Children and Young Adult would go some way to resolving this issue, as I believe it does the book no favours to have won a ‘children’s’ book award. This misrepresents the book. I also think that it is time that we had a Middle Years section, to acknowledge the very different reading needs of ‘Tweens’ from Junior, and Young Adult. Congratulations to all finalists in this year’s awards. It was a good vintage!

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  17. What people should be responding to, and which I think is even sadder that they’re not, is that it’s such a true reflection of the ingrained discrimination found in our society. The bullying (in all forms), the abuse, the games people are forced to play to get ahead. I’ve hated that about the way society operates – right from when I was a small child and some families wouldn’t allow their children to play with me because my mother/our family wasn’t ‘the right kind’. That same snobbery shown in Ted’s book , is the same snobbery I still see among certain aspects of society I mix with. I would be so much happier if people got up in arms about the bullying and the lack of respect for Maori and kids as much as they got upset about the sex.

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  21. Kim Sky says:

    BANNING the book is ridiculous. Now the book will be read by people all over the world, whom would never have heard of it otherwise.

    Parents can or could choose to keep the book from their children, as they do with any number of other books that they consider inappropriate. I say COULD, again the enticement of reading a banned book might make enforcing the restriction more difficult.

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