Friday, July 25, 2014

Marvellous gathering in Singapore

At a marvellous gathering in Singapore I had the chance to speak about The Boy in the Yellow Dress to a diverse group of writers from across the region.

The event was staged by the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators Association, which meets each year in a different Asian capital.  Hence, the participants came from many of the countries I used to visit when teaching meditation on behalf of my beloved guru, three decades ago.

This was quite fitting, as The Boy in the Yellow Dress is so largely concerned with the encounter of the naive boy from Perth (namely, moi!) with people from different cultures, virtually 'carrying coals to Newcastle' as the old saying goes, by presuming to 'teach' meditation to people in Asia !

Many of the events were housed in the former Parliament House of Singapore, now re-purposed as 'Arts House' and run by a dynamic team who, along with the Book Development Council of Singapore, did so much to make our gathering so welcome (and so well-fed!)

The chamber in which we sat used to house the first generation of Singapore government members, one of whom, Lee Kwan Yew, steered the new city/state through its early years as a powerful, almost autocratic, Prime Minister.  He is still an MP (at around 90 years of age), and his son is the current Prime Minister.

A city/state of wonderful cultural diversity, somehow Singapore has melded its different component parts into a dynamic and prosperous
international hub, but its reputation as a nation hospitable to international visitors was put to the test just as our conference was about to begin when the National Library Board, with the approval of the Minister for Communication and Culture, withdrew a number of books written for children from its shelves

Censorship is virtual death for an author, and the books in question, which apparently represented the tip of the iceberg, revealed this quiet practice of removing books as unsuitable when lobbied by small interest groups (in this case some members of a tiny Christian group).  The children's books in question included a story about two male penguins in the New York Zoo who raised a chick!  This and another two books depicting diverse family arrangements were deemed unrepresentative of the normative model favoured by the powers-that-be in Singapore, who threatened to 'pulp' the books in question.

As the author of a book about a boy who liked to wear a dress (!) I was a trifle nervous at the prospect of arrest, so I declined to bring copies of my book through Customs, as I was unsure of the political situation.  As the days passed and the controversy continued, other instances of the covert censorship practices came to light, incluidng a missing copy of an 'Archie' comment with a gay character which had been blocked from importation.

Hence, I was delighted to discover that a consortium of local writers rose in protest over the quiet exercise of censorship and stood up to this covert operation, to great effect.  The Starits Times newspaper carried daily coverage of the controversy:

Even before our gathering came to a close, the books were restored to the stacks (although moved to the 'adults only' section), and the director of the Library declared at a news conference that their deliberations would be more transparent in future.

Here's the marvellous spokeswoman for writers, the novelist Suchen Lim, giving a rousing keynote address on the issue.

"In removing and pulping those books on various family structures, the National Library Board is telling these children that they and their families don't count. In removing these books, NLB is reducing such children and their families into invisibility," she said.