Thursday, June 30, 2011

5 books or films you may not have known were banned or challenged in New Zealand

List by Tosca

"To choose a good book, look in an inquisitor's prohibited list."
- John Aikin

When it comes to freedom of choice in relation to books I have always been eternally grateful that I live in New Zealand. I grew up encouraged to read - through my parents and school - both classic and contemporary books that, in the US, were considered highly controversial. I didn't know they were controversial at the time. It certainly wasn't a concern to my parents or teachers. I know, though, that they didn't encourage me to read those books on a whim. I believe that they gave them to me for three reasons: they had enjoyed them, they thought I might enjoy them and they wanted to challenge my way of thinking. Often I wonder whether or not I've lived up to that ideal. Sometimes, I think yes. Other times, not so much. I've been rather smug in the idea that New Zealand bans very little. Or at least, what I thought was *very little* until I delved a little further. I had assumed that there weren't many titles that had ever been banned (oh, naivety, thy name is Tosca) so I was all kinds of astounded to learn differently. The Office of Film and Literature Classification has a Classified books/film list from 1963 to 9 July 2010 that made for most interesting reading. I downloaded the spreadsheet and browsed through all of those marked 'Banned' and then chose my top 5 from the ones that surprised me the most. So here you go.

Please note: Today's post was inspired by another current issue being debated at the moment. You can read my explanation at the very end of this post. It may not be to everyone's cup of tea. You have been warned. And absolutely feel free to disagree and/or comment.

Honourable mention:
  • The little red school book by Soren Hansen and Jesper Jenson - not banned but, even more interesting, is the controversy surrounding the book.

  • The wild one [DVD videorecording] / Directed by Laslo Benedek
    Starring: Marlon Brando, Lee Marvin, Mary Murphy, Robert Keith, Jay C. Flippen
    An angry young Marlon Brando scorches the screen as the Wild One in this powerful '50's cult classic. Brando is Johnny, the leader of a vicious biker gang which invades a small, sleepy California town. The leather-jacketed young biker seems hellbent for destruction until he falls for Kathie (Mary Murphy), a "good girl" whose father (Robert Keith) happens to be a cop.

    Tosca's comment: This film was banned 5 times between 1954 and 1959 due to concerns about young adult motorcycle gangs and behaviour. Finally, in 1977, it was classified as R16. (History of censorship, The wild one).

    Rebel without a cause [DVD videorecording] / Directed by Nicholas Ray
    Starring: James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Jim Backus, Ann Doran, Corey Allen, William Hopper
    Jim Stark, the teenage son of a well-to-do family, is overcome by loneliness, frustration and anger, which leads to violence when he seeks approval of a gang of high-school hoodlums.

    Tosca's comment: Banned in 1955, passed on appeal as R16 with cuts in 1956, classified as R16 again in 1958, R* in 1972 and, finally, as M. (History of censorship, Rebel without a cause)

    Monty Python's life of Brian [DVD videorecording]
    The Pythons satirise religion, capital punishment, revolutionary politics, terrorism, graffiti, science fiction, and a host of other topics through the story of Brian, a first-century Judean, who was born in a Bethlehem manger next to Jesus.

    Tosca's comment: An R16 classification sparked debate and resulted in a call for its ban before it even arrived in New Zealand. (History of censorship, Monty Python's life of Brian

    All quiet on the western front / Erich Maria Remarque ; translated from the German by A.W. Wheen
    The testament of Paul Baumer, who enlists with his classmates in the German army of World War I, illuminates the savagery and futility of war.

    Tosca's comment: Rejected as anti-war propaganda by the Censor and the Appeal Board. History of censorship, All quiet on the western front).

    Mihi : collected poems / Hone Tuwhare ; illustrations by Ralph Hotere

    Tosca's comment: This is probably the item I'm most surprised to find on this list. A member of the public had concerns about sexual portrayals. (History of censorship, Mihi: collected poems).

    Final comment: This post came about as a result of a few in-house discussions we had in relation to people calling for NZ bookstores to boycott Macsyna King/Ian Wishart's upcoming book Breaking silence: the Kahui case. We had a couple of pretty intense conversations about whether or not bookstores should have bowed to public pressure. We didn’t agree with each other. That doesn’t mean we didn’t respect the other person’s opinion or that we didn't respect each other. In fact, my own initial protest is somewhat moderate now since that conversation and a few online ones as well.

    I understand that bookstores do not operate in the same way as public libraries. I get that they have the right to refuse to stock certain titles. After all, they're in the business of making money. But I am saddened that two stores have opted not to carry Wishart's book. I respect their right to do so, even though I don’t agree with it. I feel that bookstores should offer me everything they reasonably can and leave any judgement values about what I choose to read – or not read – up to me in much the same way that a library would. I don't need anybody to censor or monitor what I read. That right belongs to the Office of Film and Literature Classification and myself. If it starts there...where does it end? Where do we draw the line? Who decides where that line is? I'm concerned because I feel that influencing bookstores on this level is a form of censorship and is a hop, skip and a jump away from book banning. An event I didn't think I'd ever see in my lifetime. I'm concerned because it shouldn't be anybody's decision what I have the freedom to choose to read - or buy - but mine. I am concerned that a serious issue fraught with much tension will be led by some whose opinions are less than reasonable and border on vitriolic, thereby detracting from the overall serious issue of child abuse. I am concerned that this will start with bookstores and end with public libraries. I am particularly concerned that others think they know better than I do what I should be reading.

    Will I be queueing up to buy or request the book? No. I have no interest in what Macsyna King has to say. But neither would I deny anybody else the chance to request or buy the book. Chris and Cru Kahui's deaths were appalling. I remember feeling a terrible sense of helplessness that still persists today. I grew up believing that if you're not a part of the solution then you're a part of the problem and something about this case is always going to make me feel like I'm a part of the problem no matter what I say or do. The point was made to me that maybe this isn't about a form of censorship so much (even if it's turned out that way) as it is about a general feeling of frustration at the justice system and its marked lack of accountability on the part of those involved. People have united and are saying, 'No. What happened was wrong. We’re telling you that this isn't good enough.' (Thank you, Selina, for clueing me in to this). I just don’t know that this is the way to go about it. By all means, boycott reading the book if you feel that strongly about it. Don't request it from our libraries, don't purchase it from bookstores. Send your message that way. In fact, I encourage you to take that step. I won't deny, however, that I would be disheartened if you made that decision on someone else's behalf by urging bookstores not to carry it. I will, however, respect the freedom you have to do so. Just as I trust that you will respect my freedom to have posted.

    I am wholly aware of the fact that this post is bound to receive comments. I'm also sure that you guys know that I am always happy to read them. I ask/inform you of a few things:
  • please keep your comments G-rated
  • respect any and all comments and opinions
  • you have the option to remain anonymous

    Natarsha Dixon said...

    I enjoyed reading your blog today, very thought provoking. The whole book issue is a nightmare, and i'm classing it a "catch 22".

    catatonia said...

    Hiya! Thanks for dropping by and, most especially, thank you for taking the time to comment. I agree with you wholeheartedly, this isn't a simple issue and there probably isn't a wholly right or wrong answer so I'll most definitely be watching to see how it all plays out.

    Anonymous said...

    I think public libraries should purchase the book as part of their mandate is to meet the needs of all members of society. Will I want to read the book? Absolutely not. Do I respect the right of other members of New Zealand society to have access to this book through their public library? Absolutely yes.

    BookieMonster said...

    Wonderful post Tosca, and I agree with so many of your sentiments.

    Also completely agree with adeej above - I hope that this "boycott" campaign does not extend towards libraries.

    catatonia said...

    Thank you both, adeej and BookieMonster, for commenting. It's become a highly emotive issue and is being discussed everywhere I go. I read your post on this same topic, Bookie, and enjoyed it greatly.

    kowhai reader said...

    Great Blog today T. You said it so well I am not even going to bother trying to tackle the issue. I agree with you - it's not black and white. It is soo many shades of grey you could drown in it.

    Claire at Latitude said...

    Apparently the Auckland City librarian John Barr refused to buy All Quiet on the Western Front for the library in 1929, saying it had been banned “because of its crudeness, and... the objectionable handling of certain passages”. Booksellers, however, “rejoiced in the rush to their shops” for it according to Wynne Colgan in his history of the library.

    catatonia said...

    Hi Claire :) Thanks for reading! More importantly, thanks for sharing. I have to admit to a bit of a chuckle while reading your comment (and to being more than thankful that libraries have evolved since then).