Hi there everyone! You may have seen around the blogosphere recently the blog tour organised by Jim from YaYeahYeah to showcase lots of amazing UKYA books being released on June 5th! Today, I'm excited to host Bali Rai who has written a lovely piece on censorship and diversity. I really love it and I hope that you will too!
Title- Web of Darkness
Author- Bali Rai
Genre- Young Adult, Contemporary, Mystery
UK Publisher- Corgi Childrens
Publication Date- June 5th 2014
I spend most of my year visiting schools across the UK and further afield, and often get asked about self-censorship when it comes to writing fiction for teenagers – in fact it happens almost weekly. That fact got me thinking about my latest novel for Random House – Web of Darkness – and about whether I am right to believe that nothing in teen or YA fiction is taboo. I didn’t censor my latest offering at all – even in parts that might have some of the gatekeepers wincing in embarrassment. Each expletive, every politically incorrect piece of banter, and any reference to sex or violence – I left them all in. That level of respect is exactly what young adult readers should get, in my opinion. There are plenty of people who agree with me, and also many that don’t. In my experience, it is the most challenging subject matter that works best, especially in engaging those who aren’t regular readers.
I remember a Radio Five discussion in 2002, when mybook ‘The Crew’ was published. An adult reviewer claimed that it would corrupt young people. She also called it 'offensive' because it featured drugs, guns and prostitutes. The adult 'hero' of the book was Nanny- a weed-smoking Rastafarian. The reviewer told me that she would never let her 'children' (aged 16 and 17) read such a book. For a moment I thought that I'd gone too far. Perhaps I should have considered such sensibilities and self-censored. Then I began to laugh. There is absolutely no place for censorship in young adult fiction, I replied. I still believe that now.
I grew up reading classic children's literature. I remember being a child, lost in Narnia and, at first, egging on the Famous Five. However, as I got older, I longed to read about real issues too. I wanted books that reflected the life I had, and featured characters I could relate to. Yet whenever I read stories that included ethnic characters they were like cardboard cutouts, painted black or brown, but not in any way authentic or believable. Everyone spoke like public school kids and there were always happy endings. And no teenager ever swore, anywhere. Where was the reality in this seemingly endless parade of happy lives and fluffy bunnies? Eventually, I grew so tired of reading about the same old middle class kids, from the same old backgrounds, that I stopped reading young people's books altogether.
Now, I write for young people, and have done for over a decade. My primary motivation when I started was to rectify the imbalance I'd seen as a teenager, and that still applies. Mostly I choose to write about youngsters from inner city backgrounds, where issues such as drugs, crime and lack of wealth are part of the landscape. I also write about being British and Asian, trying to reflect that sub-culture, warts and all. Often this means that I use words or describe situations that some people find offensive. But that's their problem, not mine. Writing about non-white youngsters DOES stop me from selling as many books as I might - but that's another debate entirely.
I strongly believe that books for young people should encompass a wide range of subjects and that NOTHING is taboo. To say otherwise is not only patronising but also detrimental to the quality of writing available for young people to read. Serious writing about 'issues' MUST act as a counterweight to wizards and vampires. The very phrase 'issue novel' must be rescued from the doldrums and held aloft with pride. For, if we lose the 'issue novel', we lose any writing about anyone outside thecomfortable, white middle-class mainstream. That's not to denigrate fantasy novels or condemn white, middle class people - it's not about that. It's about trying to provide young adult readers with books they want to read. To limit the open and expanding minds of our youngsters with comfortable, inoffensive, unchallenging stories is to do them a great disservice.
Our urban and suburban areas are woefully under-represented in literature, even today. In fact, during times of economic doubt, they are represented even less than usual. Why publish a gritty urban story that explores British identity and culture when you'll make more money with yet another series in whatever the latest fashionable genre is, or from the latest US import? The vast majority of books are written and published by the middle classes. It is they who, on the whole, consume them. No wonder, then, that so many urban youngsters find reading so uninspiring. If we are serious about getting our young people, ALL of them, to read, we MUST have literature that reflects ALL of society. So many people have asked why youngsters, particularly boys from deprived backgrounds (of whatever racial heritage), don't read. For me, the answer is simple. It's because the books available aren't aimed at them. They don't reflect their lives or their aspirations. They don't even accurately reflect the way young people talk to each other. And I'm not guessing here. Nearly thirteen years of working in schools across the UK, talking to young people, make me somewhat of an authority. The fact that I come from the very backgrounds that I'm discussing here also helps. After all - as a BME male from a deprived background, I am one of the RARE success stories when it comes to literature and that's just not good enough. Not by half.
Young people also dislike being told what they should read, or not read, to get back to the main point. Yet there are those who would try to dictate such things. Parents who fall for the lie that a book can corrupt someone.Publishers, authors and booksellers who attempt to censor what teenagers have access to (in the internet age where everything is available within seconds), yet also tell young people that reading is important and a good thing to do. I once read a fellow author claim that it was up to writers like her "to defend the morality" of young people from "filth" such as Melvin Burgess' book 'Doing It'. She was wrong, just like the bookshops, parents and publishers who censor are wrong. Some novels may well offend their sensibilities or morals, but so what? Are their morals the only ones that matter? And since when was morality a uniform thing anyway? There is not one teenage morality just as there isn't a singular adult morality. And no SANE person has ever read a book (or listened to Marilyn Manson) and been corrupted.
So when I sat down to write Web of Darkness, the doubts disappeared very quickly. The novel is about dark subject matter – online bullying, stalking and murder – and as such, it could not be censored. We would never censor such a thing for adult readers, and we must apply that same level of respect to young adult readers too. I know, from working with them constantly, that young adults want great fiction that doesn’t treat them like they are children. They make their own choices and self-sensor anyway.
As authors, we have the right to choose controversial issues. I believe that our readers too, adult or young adult, have the right to choose what they read. And for us to encourage 'readers for life' we must encourage literature that is more diverse, more challenging and more representative of the lives of our readers. We must challenge the complacency of a predominantly middle class publishing world. And if that means that my characters smoke weed, have sex and say the occasional 'fuck', then so be it. I don't tackle such things to becontroversial. I do it because I want to be as honest as possible about my characters. If I offend people along the way, that's fine too. It's not like getting stabbed is it? They'll get over it.