Into the river is no longer a banned book!
If - as I imagine - you're visiting this blog because you like reading about books, chances are you've already encountered this quote from the great Argentinian poet, writer, and essayist Jorge Luis Borges.
Maybe you also know that for many years Borges earned his living as "first assistant" at a municipal library in Buenos Aires, cataloging books down in the basement (also, apparently, catching up on his reading), until he was dismissed for political reasons when Juan Perón came to power – only to be appointed the director of the National Public Library of Argentina after Perón was deposed.
My appreciation of this feel-good quote for readers par excellence was turned upside down recently when I read Paul Monette’s Borrowed time: an Aids memoir. Monette's friend Roger Horwitz (I use the word 'friend' because in the book Monette spends some time telling us how it is the term he prefers to use for what another might call lovers or partners), under assault from HIV in the pre-antiretroviral days, comes to the traumatic realisation that he is losing his sight. Monette recalls Borges, who famously also lost his sight in mid-life, and reveals -- guess what! That the quote as we’ve been fed it is all wrong!
Borges was not musing dreamily about his enjoyment of books. He was commenting on how his encroaching blindness meant that he would never be able to read again (this was the 1950s, no audiobooks, and he never learned Braille). And this twist of fate had happened to him, of all people -- “I, who had always thought Paradise to be a kind of library”.
Ironically, a decade earlier, in his famous story "The Library of Babel", Borges had described how the very infinity of the hexagons of the library which held all books meant that the possibility of finding any one book was equal to zero, and how this made men despair:
The certitude that some shelf in some hexagon held precious books and that these precious books were inaccessible, seemed almost intolerable.
The other night I went to hear Ted Dawe talk at Central City Library about his book Into the River, which had been banned in New Zealand by the Office of Film and Literature Classification while their board of review examined a submission from the conservative Christian lobby group Family First.
What powerful things came out of the mouth of this white-haired ex-teacher of English (35 years, Aorere College, Dilworth School) and author of acclaimed books for young adults, including Thunder Road (New Zealand Post Children's Senior Book of the Year and New Zealand Post Best First Book in 2004) and Into the river (New Zealand Post Margaret Mahy Book of the Year and Best Young Adult Fiction Book in 2013), with his firm but lightly quizzical expression.
On being a writer:
"I write from a sense of mission. I want to create readers by giving them a powerful and memorable experience. I believe one novel can create a reader. I know it can, because it happened to me."
"Inspiring new readers has been my life's work."
"My iwi is the tribe of writers."
About Into the River:
"I wanted to tell a powerful story and leave nothing out."
"The events depicted in the novel are blunt, coarse, immoral, illegal and shocking. But never gratuitous. Every one has a reason."
On its banning:
"Writers hold a mirror up to the world and sometimes the world doesn't like what it sees. This is true in New Zealand. If 'Into The River' has made aspects of our society look ugly, then hiding the mirror will not make it beautiful again."
On the importance of reading:
"Novels are the last bastion of introspection."
On his reaction when he was notified the book was being examined:
"I didn't realise we still censored books!"
As we headed out of the library, we passed a display which had been put up for the occasion, pictured above. I had been well aware of the long travail of Into the River, in and out of the censor's office, on and off our shelves, but the combination of Dawe's words, scribbled in my little notebook, and the physical representation of those small rectangular objects (smaller than a breadbox!) which according to some people are so dangerous that they must be kept off library shelves, made the oppression suddenly overwhelming. How did Borges put it? "Almost intolerable".
Today, the news is just in that the Film and Literature Classification Board of Review, following an appeal by Auckland Libraries to lift the 14+ restriction on Into the river, a counter-appeal by Family First and a subsequent restriction order banning the book from being given, lent or even exhibited, have now made their decision. Into the river is to be "unrestricted". We are releasing all our copies back on to the shelves and/or into the hands of the more than fifty readers who optimistically put themselves on the wait list.
It would be nice to think that some of those who were lobbying for it to be restricted are on that list, but I doubt it. As Ted Dawe pointed out:
The book's critics often start by saying "I've never read the book and I don't intend to."
What does that tell you?
|Ted Dawe at Central City Library, unable lawfully to "exhibit" this book|
Author: Karen Craig, Reading Engagement Specialist