I asked my mother yesterday if she kept watch over what I was reading when I was growing up. She said no. She said she was happy enough that I was reading something – whether it be crime or romance novels or comics. I think she would have flipped if she had come across I book I had bought in much younger days which had a homosexual theme. Not that I knew. I just grew increasingly uncomfortable until I reached the pages which graphically described homosexual activity. I shut the book, totally embarrassed. I never spoke of it to anyone and it was at least a year before I re-read the book. By the way, this is not a trashy book of pornography or a book in the children’s section. It’s by Tom Hollinghurst, mind you.
My second introduction to the LGBT community was way back in the 1980s when I was in San Francisco, perambulating along Castro Street at night. After catching sight of a few same-sex couples openly kissing along the street, I took a taxi home to my hotel. My companion, an Israeli, was shocked that I was shocked by the scenes as well as my explanation that I have never seen such sights in my own country. “What sort of country is Singapore?’’ he asked. Would that he came down to our little red dot a couple of weeks ago to see a park filled with pink! How far we have come…
I wonder how I would react if my five-year old nephew starts asking me questions about Tango Makes Three. “Godma, how come there are two Daddy penguins and no Mommy penguin?’’
I read him plenty of fairytales and bedtime stories as well as made-up ones with plenty of giants, dinosaurs, monsters and aliens. He laps them up, asking me why there is a man named Friday in Robinson Crusoe and why the Lady in the Lake in King Arthur doesn’t drown. Parents know better than me about the questions children ask. There’s not enough time to google the answers and so you come up with your own made-up answers. Because Friday appeared on a Friday, I said, which is what the book says. And the lady of the lake (here’s the cop-out) has very special, magic powers. Monsters are, of course, “very bad’’, witches and wizards are “evil’’ except Merlin in King Arthur who is “good’’. Dinosaurs are usually very big but there are also smaller ones which do not eat people. I think I confused the poor boy thoroughly.
I pity parents. The world is not so black and white but how do you explain the shades of grey to a mere child? Or should you paint the world in black and white while they are young in a “foundation-laying exercise’’, and leave them to figure out the colours in-between as they get older? That’s what happened to me anyway. I don’t think I turned out too badly.
So what is this fuss about penguins and swans all about really? Am I worried that my five-year old nephew reading the books will start thinking that homosexuality is a normal way of life? And what if I get asked the question? I might resort to a made-up answer that they are “special’’ people, different, not like your mommy and daddy. Not like me. Then cop out with “when you grow up, you will understand’’. Better, I suppose, than “when you grow up, don’t be like them’’? Then again, I am not a parent. It would be well within a parent’s right to bring up their children in whatever way they want. So long as they don’t teach them to hate.
The thing, though, is just that the world has changed, and Singapore too, so has the variety of books available for children and adults. Books with homosexual themes are more prevalent than ever. As adults, we pick what we want to read. It is a choice. Read or don’t read. The National Library Board’s concern is that unsupervised children may unwarily pick up books that it deems “unsuitable’’ on its premise. I suppose it is worried about some insidious brain-washing taking place. It is therefore policing morals, and using the State’s position that this is reflective of moral values of the mainstream to justify its policy. I suppose it can go further and say it is funded by the State, therefore…you know how the argument goes.
But the flip side is what the role of a library should be. Should it be a mere repository of words, both informed and uninformed and whether right or wrong (in whoever’s point of view)? Or should there be other social and even political objectives grafted onto its being?
The whole NLB kerfuffle boils down to playing “nanny’’. The NLB/G doesn’t think parents supervise children well enough and so makes the decision on what it believes are on the parents’ behalf to make books unavailable. Of course, you will have people jumping up and down at this presumption that the G knows the right stuff for children to read. (It’s not unlike how the G thinks we don’t know how to invest our money to make better returns than what the CPF/GIC can.)
I think parents today can no longer take the position that my mother did with me given the variety of books unless they hahaaha ban their kids from going to the library unsupervised! (Quite different from “buying’’ books, because there will be “parental supervision’’. I don’t think any parent will pay for a book without flipping through it.)
It is not politically correct to say so, but I bet there are plenty who just let their children be when it comes to reading material. Just like those who leave their children free to use the Internet or watch whatever television programme they want. I figure such parents would happy that the State will do the policing, any sort of policing, because they don’t have the time, cannot be bothered to or don’t know how to.
I am not in favour of the G being a nanny. But I can see how some parents would be quite happy for the G to make decisions on their behalf. Educated parents can fuss over what their children read, and explain or advocate for the values that they want their children to grow up with. But there are those who can’t.
Just as we have different grades for movies and theatre, I don’t see why supposedly non-conformist books for children need to be destroyed. Put them in a section which calls for parental guidance – not to be loaned out. Wouldn’t that solve the problem of parental choice? It’s a compromise between those who want them banned and those who want free circulation.
But, hey, we are all feeling our way around this brave new world.