Flip is banned!

A dispiriting email sits in my inbox, paradoxically coinciding with Banned Books Week (Sep 30 to Oct 6), which aims to highlight and oppose censorship in literature.

“Hello Mr Bedford. I am a library technician with a school board in Nova Scotia, Canada. I have just finished your book Flip. It was an excellent book and I think our students would enjoy it very much . . .”

So far so good.

“. . . unfortunately I will probably have to pull it from my shelves because of the use of the word ‘nigger’ in one sentence. Our board is very sensitive to the use of this word in any context and so I wish that it was not in your book.
If you happen to do a second printing of this book without that sentence I would love to know. I am not into censorship but these rules have come directly from our board and I don’t have much of a say. I don’t think leaving that sentence out will in any way negatively affect the book but it’s not my book and I’m not an author.”

So far so bad. But at least the message ends on a high:

“Thanks for your great writing. I am planning to read some of your other books as well.
Thanks, L.M.”

The sentence to which L.M. objects occurs in a scene where the protagonist, Alex, recalls a group of skinheads chasing him and his black best friend David:
“Nigger, they’d called David. Alex was nigger-lover.”

It is perfectly apparent from the context of the scene that the reader is invited to view the skinheads as the “bad guys” and their use of the word nigger as offensive and reprehensible. It is also clear from the wider context of the novel as a whole that Alex (our hero, the guy we’re meant to root for) sets himself against racism. His best friend throughout childhood is black and Alex sticks by him even when he’s at risk of violence from racist thugs. The moral divide is clearly marked out here.

But, as L.M. says in her email, the school board in Nova Scotia has a problem with the word ‘nigger’ in any context. (Curiously, though, she uses the word in her email to me – so, presumably, that’s one context in which it is acceptable?)

I imagine what she means is that it is unacceptable for the word to be read by teenagers who attend schools under the board’s jurisdiction.

What does this say about the board’s regard for the intelligence of these young people?
That it doesn’t trust them even to see this word on the page of a book without being shocked and offended? That it doesn’t consider them intelligent enough to think for themselves, or to discern from context whether this is a ‘good’ word or a ‘bad’ word?
Does this school board in Nova Scotia also ban history or sociology books which use word ‘nigger’ in discussion and analysis of topics like slavery, racism and multi-culturalism in North America?

Or is it that the board operates in fear of complaint or litigation by a parent who objects to their child reading the word ‘nigger’ in a book?

Since Flip’s publication in March 2011, no-one else has so much as mentioned the use of this word:

the novel has been published in the UK, the U.S. and Canada, and in translation in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Russia, Taiwan and Thailand without any of the publishers querying ‘nigger’, or referring to it at all, let alone asking me to cut it;
no reviews (professional or otherwise) have flagged it up;
none of the many thousands Flip’s readers have objected to it;
in all of the prizes and awards for which Flip has been nominated, none of the adults and teenagers who select and vote for the titles has had a problem with this word;
no public libraries, school libraries or bookshops have refused to stock Flip (indeed, three schools in West Yorkshire have put the book on their English reading list for Year 8 or 9);
in scores of author visits and Q&A sessions in schools up and down the country, not one librarian, teacher or student has referred to this issue.

So, I have replied to L.M. stating that I have no intention of asking my Canadian (or any of my) publishers to excise that sentence from future editions of Flip. I also suggested her school board rethinks its rules – and the rationale behind them – rather than writing to authors asking them to self-censor their novels.

I also told her I’m glad my daughters don’t go to a school in the part of Nova Scotia where her board guards the gate of teenage literature.

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