Newswires around the world were abuzz last Wednesday after government officials in New Zealand seized a copy of “Bloody Mama” from a local business; the book has been banned there since 1971.
Written by Robert Thom and published in 1970 by New English Library, the novel is based on the true story of Kate \”Ma\” Barker who raised her sons to be criminals in the 1930’s.
There are currently 1319 books officially banned by the government of New Zealand and another 728 titles that are restricted.
Under state law, a person can be fined up to $50,000 or sentenced up to five years in prison for possession of a banned book under the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993. An organization or business can be fined up to $200,000 for distributing a banned book, while an individual convicted of distributing a banned book can be sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Book Haven is New Zealand\’s largest online secondhand book store, with some 57,000 books listed; the \”indecent” book had been listed for sale on the website since February, 2011 for $8.50, according to store owner Don Hollander.
\”It got seized today. A very nice chap from the DIA [Department of Internal Affairs] with a fancy badge came by,” he said.
\”I had a quick look through for the dirty bits or the nasty bits and I didn\’t see any. The idea that any book is banned quite bothers me because I think it\’s wrong,” Hollander declared.
The book was deemed indecent and banned by the now defunct Indecent Publications Tribunal some 40 years ago; however, the ruling still remains. The tribunal was replaced by the Office of Film and Literature Classification in 1993.
The main reasons for the book being banned include drugs, weapons, and depictions of violence against people.
The first edition paperback of Bloody Mama had a New Zealand cover price of .75 cents, but it was never allowed to be sold in New Zealand; the film version, starring Shelley Winters and Robert de Niro, was banned in 1977. It was judged objectionable, but later reclassified in 1981 and rated R16.
Someone contacted and questioned the office about whether or not Bloody Mama was banned, according to office adviser, Michelle Baker. This individual then informed agents at the DIA about the location of the book.
Defunct 40-year-old views on violence resulted in the censoring of a gangster novel, yet its movie adaptation, while also banned, was ultimately cleared for public viewing. Now, after all this time, a single copy of the original book is seized from a bookstore by badge-waving government officials. This seems a bit excessive for a piece of literature that is based on true events.
Again we have an example of a book written about real events, and real people, being banned. Why? Is it because it reminds us of a bloody past? Did they fear that by reading it other parents would be inspired to raise their children to be criminals? Sadly the default reaction is to shut it up and sweep it under the rug in the hopes that no one remembers it.
I guess it’s fitting that this incident be brought to my attention this week, with it being the Thanksgiving holiday here in the United States. I have a lot to be thankful for- friends and family, a job, and a new place to call home; but what I am most grateful for is intellectual freedom.
While I am constantly dismayed by the book challenges that I cover each week, I can at least take some small measure of comfort in the fact that I don’t live in a land where a government agency has the state-mandated power to imprison me for reading, or for simply being in possession of, the written word. That is simply too much power to entrust to a governmental bureaucracy.
John Stuart Mill said in his 1859 essay, “On Liberty,” that “we can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.”
We tend to acknowledge freedom far too often with hindsight only. We pat ourselves on the back for wars and battles fought in distant lands and in distant times when justice prevailed, and spout patriotic rhetoric about the experience; yet we are ever suspicious of the battles which are being waged right in front of our eyes and ears every day. The fear which wells up from the uncertainty of their outcomes causes hesitation at best and apathy at worst; then, when the battle is over and the dust settles we hope that we end up on the right side.
Freedom finds its meaning in the hearts and souls of those who are willing to take action to preserve it. When courage gives way to indifference, freedom loses its power and its purpose; and should right win the day it is nothing more than a Pyrrhic victory in which there are no real winners.
For a complete list of titles covered and more information about the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project, please visit www.deepforestproductions.com
Sources: Wikipedia, Amazon, American Library Association, Washington State University, MSN News, Yahoo News, The Dominion Post
© 2011 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions