Race, Censorship, and Free Speech: A Q&A with Lawrence Hill and Carol Duncan

By | May 14, 2013 at 3:25 pm | One comment | Blog | Tags: ,

A Q&A with Lawrence Hill and Carol Duncan

On May 16, 2013 PEN Canada will host Sir, I Intend to Burn Your Book: Race, Censorship, and Free Speech, Lawrence Hill in conversation with Carol Duncan at the Royal Ontario Museum. We caught up with them ahead of the event and asked  a few questions about cultural boundaries and writings that transgress them.

Lawrence Hill
PC: Commenting on the controversy over Deborah Ellis’s Three Wishes, you write: “[a]pparently, Palestinian and Israeli children are old enough to live through hell, but children in Canada are not old enough to read about it.” What other inappropriate books would you recommend for Canadian children, or adults, and why?

LH: One good starting place would be books challenged in the last year or two. I consulted the 2013 Freedom to Read brochure published by the Book and Periodical Council and found myself intrigued by three such books. I‘ll recommend one for adults and two for children.

For adults: Thieves of Bay Street: How Banks, Brokerages and the Wealthy Steal Billions from Canadians, by Bruce Livesey. Subject of a lawsuit by Conrad Black. May every book club in Canada spend one year reading nothing but books by authors who have been threatened, sued or chased out of town.

For children: As She Grows by Leslie Anne Cowan. About troubled teenagers, and challenged because it is sexually explicit. Could you please find me a teenager whose moral or emotional foundation will be shattered by sex on the page?

Body Drama, by Nancy Amanda Redd. A shoot-from-the-hip description of girls and their bodies. Challenged for reasons of nudity and being age inappropriate. I can’t think of a better reason to read a book than being told that you’re not the right age for it.

PC:  You end your book with the idea that “[t]he very purpose of literature is to enlighten, disturb, awaken and provoke. Literature should get us talking – even when we disagree…It should inspire recognition of our mutual humanity. Together.” Sadly, PEN’s large WiPC case-lists suggest that this noble ideal is honoured more in the breach than the observance. Are you hopeful that this will change, or is it the inevitable fate of writers who ‘disturb, awaken and provoke’?

The trouble with doing your job as a writer is that if you do it well, someone (or lots of people) may take offense

LH: The trouble with doing your job as a writer is that if you do it well, someone (or lots of people) may take offense. Provocation comes at a price, and I doubt that this will change much in the years to come. On the other hand, writers who work honestly and with integrity and do manage to provoke, disturb and upset others should comfort each other. They should band together. They should form support groups. They should meet for tea, or beer, or more. If they don’t help each other, who will?

Carol Duncan
PC: In This Spot of Ground you refer to the “long tradition within black churches in North America of using church gatherings as places to address political, economic, and civic matters” and you recount the ways that Canadian Baptist churches have helped West Indian immigrants quietly prevail over racism and social exclusion. In other contexts, however, North American Christian churches seem to prefer intemperate confrontation rather than dialogue and civic engagement (most notoriously, perhaps, in the case of the Westboro Baptist Church). To what extent are these outcomes due to the cultural differences between the respective churches? Are these differences diminishing with time, or deepening?

CD: I hesitate to assess these differences as the result of perceived or actual cultural differences between churches. There has been a history of condemnation among many Christian churches in North America on issues of gender and sexuality (including same-sex marriage), but recently there has also been a significant progressive movement on these issues too. One important area of change is women’s leadership roles and the place of the LGBTQI community. It’s also important to note that some churches have made progress fighting racism and other discrimination while lacking a similar attitude towards sexual diversity and gender inclusivity. In other words, it’s possible to hold varying perspectives on the political spectrum simultaneously.

PC: You mention Paul Gilroy’s description of “the Black Atlantic” as a “counterculture of modernity” and the idea of “the [slave] ship as a metaphor of cultural transmission” connecting Western Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas. How does the complex hybridity that results from this experience compare with the Canadian idea of multiculturalism? Does it contribute to a more inclusive or more tolerant culture?

CD: Caribbean experiences of hybrid identities emerge from a long history of intercultural contact. While it’s tempting to speculate that there is more inclusivity or tolerance in the Caribbean, historically, compared to Canada, such an observation overlooks the painful histories of colonialism, indentureship and slavery. Comparisons between the “one drop rule” which sharply divided racial categories of “blacks” and “whites” in North America with systems of skin colour gradation in the Caribbean as being somehow more liberal miss the underlying valuation of whiteness as the pinnacle of both systems. In this sense, both the Caribbean and Canada have shared legacies of unfree labour, ideologies of race and practices of racism.

These complex hybridities resonate with and challenge multiculturalism in Canada as a program of nation building. The resonance or points of similarity lie in notions of identity rooted in plural experiences. In Canada, that is perhaps most popularly signalled in the notion of hyphenated identities. Multiculturalism, however, has been criticized for not adequately challenging the status quo regarding the distribution of economic and political power. From this critical viewpoint, multiculturalism remains most active at the level of cultural representation.

On Censorship
PC:Which of the twentieth century’s most-censored books would you like to have written? Why?

LHOf Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck. Short, disturbing, powerful, equally exciting for children and adults. It astounds me that Steinbeck could pack so much power into so few pages. My eldest child, Genevieve, picked it up at the age of ten, she read a few pages, looked over at me and said, “Daddy, this guy can write.”

I also wish I had been living in the 1930s and bold enough at the time to have written Native Son by Richard Wright. However, if you will permit me — I would not have written that dreadful 33-page courtroom scene near the end of the novel, which damn near killed the book. Other parts of it are so courageous and unflinching, though, that Native Son still stands out as raw, unputdownable indictment of racial injustice in America.

Agreeable books are easier to forget after their time, those that provoke rancour or, at least, disturb readers, spark our imaginations and encourage us to sharpen our analytical skills

CD: I’d liked to have written Animal Farm by George Orwell. It’s a book that inspires dialogue and critique about politics, culture and human communities. Seven decades after its publication, it’s still widely read. As a writer, the highest form of affirmation is to have your work read even when everyone doesn’t agree with you. Agreeable books are easier to forget after their time, those that provoke rancour or, at least, disturb readers, spark our imaginations and encourage us to sharpen our analytical skills.

PC: Lawrence writes that: I don’t agree with those who burned my book. But I empathize with them. And that, and the troubling relationship we have with books that offend us deeply, is what I want to talk about.” Can you name any book(s) that offend you deeply but nevertheless taught you something valuable?

LH: Mein Kampf, by Hitler. I have not read the whole thing. But I’ve read enough to understand how hatred can make a man blind to humanity and turn him into a monster. If you want to glimpse hatred up close, what better way to do it than to enter the mind of the world’s greatest practitioner?

CD: I was, and remain, deeply offended by Little Black Sambo written by Helen Bannerman. Published in 1899, it was a popular children’s classic during the first half of the twentieth century. Even as a child of the Civil Rights era, I was familiar with the book and its imagery. The racialized stereotypes of black children – in the text and illustrations – are stark examples of racist imagery from only a few generations back. I find it most disturbing and informative that such imagery was widely acceptable for children and persisted even into the era of the Civil Rights movement. The book showed me the pervasiveness of racialized stereotyping as a part of children’s everyday reading culture.

PC: In his book on the Rushdie fatwa, Kenan Malik suggests that modern hate-speech legislation resembles a secular, multicultural reinvention of medieval blasphemy laws. By contrast, the US First Amendment often protects opinions and practices to an extent that few Canadians would find acceptable. Where do you think Canada should fall on this spectrum? Would you, for example, approve or disapprove of the French proposal to ban on hateful tweets?

LH: Some countries such as Canada have anti-hate laws. Others, such as the States, do not. Some people argue that anti-hate laws cannot be justified in their infringements on free speech, and others argue that they are necessary. I fall into the camp of those who believe it is better to have anti-hate laws, than not, and that the right to live without having one’s life threatened by, say, incitements of racial hatred trumps the right to free speech. Remember the Holocaust? Remember Rwanda?

Being convinced of the rightness of one’s ideas at all times often seems to underscore the support for censorship

 CD: Ideally, I think Canadians should have access to a variety of texts in various media and ample opportunity for critical engagement and debate. Because social media enables rapid communication with vast numbers of people, it raises the stakes of the impact of circulation of ideas.

The argument for pro-censorship legislation by government raises thorny questions about the role of the state in protecting citizens from potentially harmful  ideas. Such a position, however, rests on the notion that those who assess the acceptability of an idea are somehow occupying a moral high ground from which pronouncements are infallibly made. Being convinced of the rightness of one’s ideas at all times often seems to underscore the support for censorship. Decision making demands the ability to hear other viewpoints which might challenge our own deeply held convictions.

The historical record on viewpoints on race in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, for instance, demonstrates that views that were once held to be widely acceptable within society were subsequently debated and subject to critique. New media should not circumvent the process of debate and dialogue. If anything, these forms of communication could be used for even more democratic forms of participation in debate and dialogue. Perhaps we need to encourage more civic engagement and rigorous debate. As a teacher, I see the cultivation of this ability as one of the major roles of education.

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