Category Archives: Public Libraries

Penguins and Prejudice

“I needed to become a First Amendment absolutist, and I still find it uncomfortable being a First Amendment absolutist. I was not put on this earth to be an absolutist about anything. I’m somebody whose natural response to an awful lot of stuff is to say: yes, I see your point of view, or at least to try and find common ground. But when it comes to the First Amendment, there is no common ground.” —Neil Gaiman (The Art of Neil Gaiman by Hayley Campbell, p. 191)

The last two weeks in Singapore have been very eventful for the literary community. On July 8, a post appeared on a Facebook group called “We are against Pinkdot in Singapore” bragging that after only one complaint to the National Library Board, two children’s picture books — And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, illus. Henry Cole (2005) and The White Swan Express: A Story About Adoption by Jean Davies Okimoto and Elaine M. Aoki, illus. Meilo So (2002) — had been removed from library shelves, without any kind of review process, because they did not conform to a reductionist definition of “pro-family values,” a euphemism often employed by the religious right to refer to a heterosexual family situation with one man, one woman, and their children. The action had been confirmed by Ms Tay Ai Cheng, Assistant Chief Executive & Chief Librarian, whose email message was reproduced in the post.

tango-fact
Illustration by Henry Cole, layout by Jaxe Pan.

Two days later, after much uproar among writers, readers and parents, the news came that not only was NLB not listening to any of the feedback decrying their decision, but that in fact they were going to pulp the books, despite the many possible alternatives (reshelving them, donating them, holding them for the annual library book sale, affixing a parental discretion label, or just ignoring a single solitary complaint about them). Let me repeat that: because one member of a right-wing extremist group took offense to the very idea of two male penguins raising a baby penguin, and same-sex couples adopting children, Singapore’s national repository for knowledge and information was going to destroy all copies of the two titles.

This story was picked up by Boing Boing, The Washington Post, The Guardian, BBC News, Al Jazeera, NBC News, The Huffington Post, The Independent (UK), Human Rights Watch, PEN International, and other international news sources. I’m not sure what NLB was hoping to accomplish, but instead of quietly going away, it turned into a global news story.

In the days to come, it was made public that earlier in the year, NLB had also pulped Who’s In My Family?: All About Our Families by Robie H. Harris, illus. Nadine Bernard Westcott (2012), as well as three other non-fiction books by Harris about changing bodies and sexual health. These had been done quietly, and unannounced to the public.

Banning books is never the solution, but the destruction of books is a symbolic attack on knowledge itself, and was perhaps the worst possible decision NLB could have made. I am not a Singaporean citizen, but I still pay taxes in Singapore every year, and a portion of those taxes go to support NLB. It is not in my interest, or in the interest of any others who share my viewpoint (which is a lot of people), that books be removed from NLB shelves just because a hate-filled vocal minority wish them to be.

Several brave writers decided to boycott NLB, cancel already-scheduled events in protest, and refuse to work with NLB in the future. Playwright and novelist Ovidia Yu quit her position on the Singapore Writers Festival steering committee because NLB is a programming and venue partner. Three judges for the non-fiction category of the Singapore Literature Prize resigned. Novelist and AWARE Communications Director Jolene Tan and concerned mother Germaine Eliza Ong organized a (legal and permitted) read-in at the NLB Atrium called Let’s Read Together!, which attracted four to five hundred people, many of them parents who read the banned books and others to their children (it set the record for being the first political protest held in Singapore outside the confines of Hong Lim Park); I was one of these parents, and I was proud to bring my daughter Anya to her first act of civil disobedience, even if she really didn’t know what the hubbub was about.

LRT-NLB
Reading And Tango Makes Three to Anya on my iPad. Photo by Alvin Pang.

Despite all this blowback, NLB CEO Elaine Ng seemed befuddled by all of the foofaraw and “saddened” that people were so angry at them, but NLB was not changing its decision to keep the books off the shelves. Jasna Dhansukhlal, assistant director for NLB’s public library services, told My Paper that “We have withdrawn the titles, there’s no putting them back. […] Basically they’re pulped and no longer in existence.”

As the second week of this scandal wore on, LGBT writer friends of mine and allies became despondent, publicly despairing that despite unofficial mentions of tolerance, it was now official government policy to discriminate against “alternative lifestyles”: books with even a whiff of same-sex relationships are a danger to Singaporean children, and have to be destroyed. Several of those same friends mentioned that they simply saw no place for them in Singapore anymore, and wanted to migrate at the earliest opportunity; another said that he was giving up writing altogether.

Finally, this past Friday, Minister Yaacob Ibrahim (Minstry of Communications and Information, who earlier defended the decision to remove the books) ordered NLB to reinstate the two books, but to place them in the adult section of the library. This seemed like a compromise for everyone, although it still felt like a ghettoization. The fact that they weren’t being destroyed (despite official statements to the contrary) was a very good thing, but the books were still being treated by NLB as toxic to children, which gets to the whole crux of the matter.

(By the way, you can see a more detailed round-up of everything that happened here at TODAY.)

This was a two-part issue, about free expression and inclusivity. Unlike the USA, where I come from, Singapore has no such thing as the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”) Any of the rights that are taken for granted under the First Amendment have to be petitioned for in Singapore, and if the government doesn’t like what you have to say, they can deny you those rights and there is very little recourse. Part of free expression is the unfettered access to information, and by banning the books and then announcing that they were pulping them, NLB was making it clear that a secular governmental organization could easily deny the citizenry that access.

As for inclusivity, Singapore has (with joyous zeal) imported the culture war from the USA, with the religious right gaining a more vocal foothold in political influence. That NLB was willing to just roll over and cower to the will of this group is notable. Also notable is that the only demographic group targeted here is the LGBT (or QUILTBAG, to be more accurate) community. And Tango Makes Three and The White Swan Express contained examples of same-sex relationships, and this is the only reason that they were challenged. (It must also be pointed out that representation does not equal promotion or endorsement, but this nuance is lost on the zealot mind.) Homosexual sex between men is still illegal in Singapore, and while the government is forward-thinking in so many ways, they are frighteningly backward when it comes to including the QUILTBAG community in mainstream society. How can you consider yourself a First World country if you are actively oppressing an entire demographic?

I’ll just close by saying that even though the books are now available in the library again, the National Library Board has still not admitted to any wrongdoing, nor have they made any attempt to reach out to the QUILTBAG community. Until both are done, I will not participate in any NLB-led literary events to which I am invited. This decision has taken much consideration, and the dust has settled a bit, so I cannot be accused of jumping on any bandwagons or acting rashly in the heat of the moment (although I must note that these and similar accusations were aimed at my literary comrades during the last two weeks, and they are entirely baseless).

If I am asked to be a featured author again at the Singapore Writers Festival this year, I will accept, but I will make it a point to bring up this issue on any panel I am given (which may discourage them from inviting me; so be it). I will be there regardless, to promote the Epigram Books literary titles under my editorship.

Echoing Neil Gaiman’s quote at the top of this post, free expression and inclusivity are not up for negotiation, and there can be no common ground with those who would chip away or seek to destroy either one. A civilized society must have both.

(N.B. This post was revised on 22 July to add hyperlinks, clarify statements, and tidy up the prose.)

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Pretty

This is long, and sprinkled with f-bombs and other strong language. You have been warned.

Geylang East Public Library

I had my daughter Anya to myself pretty much all day yesterday, and we had a lot of fun. We spent several hours at the Geylang East Public Library, which she loves; I needed to return a few books, and I’d promised her a week ago that we’d come back (they’d been closed for the Hari Raya weekend, and I’d stupidly forgotten; duh, public holiday). We’ve been taking her there since she was only a few months old; it’s only a five-minute walk from our housing block. She even has her own library card. The children’s library takes up the entire first floor, and is well-maintained, brightly lit, very colorful, and has lots of seating and a really good selection of books.

The baby and toddler books are all along the rear wall near the big windows, and that was where we parked ourselves for a long time. Anya kept taking Chinese books off the shelf to look through, and narrating stories about them based on the illustrations. She’s gotten quite good about actually putting the books back on the shelf when she’s done with them (rather than just tossing them on the floor), and after a while she asked if we could look for some Thomas the Tank Engine books.

So we moved to a different area of that section and took a look at the shelves there. We didn’t find any Thomas books, but we did discover several Peppa Pig and Wonder Pets books; I also found a small Dr. Seuss board book called The Shape of Me and Other Stuff. We sat on the floor. She looked through them a bit and then asked me to read them to her. At one point, she sat in my lap and snuggled against me, just like she does every night at bedtime. While we were doing so, a kind, smiling librarian approached us, noticed the books we’d picked out, and asked if we wanted any Dora the Explorer books; I thanked her and said no, that Anya didn’t watch that show.

“Really?” she said. “Wow, a couple of years ago, all the kids wanted the Dora books. We couldn’t keep them on the shelves long enough!” She laughed, reminded us that they were giving away balloon animals if we checked out 12 books (which was far more than I wanted to cart home), waved goodbye to Anya, and stepped out of sight.

As I was finishing one of the books, Anya looked up and shouted, excitedly, “There! That one!” I asked what she was looking at, and she jumped out of my lap and ran the short distance to a low bookshelf, where a middle-aged Chinese woman was browsing by herself. Anya started to pick up a book that was lying on the top of the shelf, and the woman reached down quickly and grabbed it. I guess the woman had picked out that book for her own kid or grandkid, but the sudden movement startled Anya, and she ran back over to me with a frightened look on her face, bursting into tears when she got to me.

The woman, who I’m assuming realized that yanking a book out of a two-year-old’s hands kind of made her look like a dick, approached and tried to offer the book to Anya, but Anya only cried harder. It wouldn’t have done any good to try and explain that she’s highly sensitive to stimuli (as am I, part of our introverted natures), and that getting up in her face while she was upset wasn’t really helping, so I just said, “It’s okay, she doesn’t want it anymore, just take it, it’s okay, it’s okay,” while trying to soothe the thoroughly upset toddler clinging to me like a koala. The woman got the idea, apologized, and then went away.

When Anya’s upset, it takes her some time to calm down, like most children. After a minute or so, she sat back on the floor again next to me, and picked up one of the books we’d been reading, still crying, less intensely but still audibly. I stroked her back, handed her a tissue so she could wipe her eyes, and talked to her about the book, hoping to get her mind on something else. Then, as if apparating out of thin air, a different librarian in a tudung appeared, bent down, and in a loud forceful voice said, “‘Ey, where your mommy, ah? Where your mommy?”

Anya, jolted at the sudden utterance, went quiet for a moment, and then the wails started up again. The librarian repeated herself, “Where your mommy?” and I finally said, “Her mommy’s not here. I’m her father.”

Ignoring me, the librarian squatted down on her haunches and said, “You should not cry, you know. It’s not good.”

“Hey, wait a minute,” I said, “she just got scared at something. Don’t say that.”

Still ignoring me, she continued, “Should not cry, make you ugly, you know. You cry and you not pretty anymore.”

Anya found her voice and shouted, “I don’t want pretty!” and exploded into a fresh batch of tears.

Out loud, I said to the librarian, who had stood up in surprise, “Okay, that’s enough, you should go, please, thank you.” And she moved off as Anya latched onto me again.

In my brain, I was shrieking, “OH MY GOD, WHAT THE FUCK, LADY?!!”

I was only stopped from yelling this aloud by three things:

  1. I didn’t want to upset Anya even further by engaging in a shouting match right in her vicinity;
  2. There were lots of other kids in the library, it being a Sunday afternoon, and it wouldn’t have been appropriate to either make a scene or use such strong language; and
  3. Misguided as the librarian’s execution was, she did have good intentions, and didn’t say what she did out of mean-spiritedness (at least, I don’t think so).

I’ve worked as a librarian, as part of my teaching duties at Hwa Chong Institution (the school where I used to teach), and I understand the impulse to keep the noise level down and defuse any overly vocal situations (although the children’s library was already quite noisy because of the amount of kids there yesterday), but this was absolutely not the fucking way to handle this situation.

First of all, it appears that the librarian in the tudung made the assumption that Anya was not my kid, and that the reason she was crying was because the big bearded ang moh had scared her for some reason. Not once did the librarian directly address me, or even ask if I was the crying child’s father. But then, after I told her I was, it seems as if she accepted the fact.

Secondly, trying to get a crying toddler to stop crying by scolding her is probably the stupidest tactic I’ve ever seen. Anya’s tall for her age (taking after her old man in that department too), yet she’s not even three years old. Trying to reason with her in such a forceful manner was the thoroughly wrong approach.

Thirdly, hoping to appeal to Anya’s sense of vanity was equally stupid. She’s two. She doesn’t have a sense of vanity yet, and I’m hoping to prolong that for as long as I can. When I talk to her, I ask her about the activities she does or the books she reads or the things she learns; I don’t talk about appearance ever. If I have to put up her hair, it’s so she’ll feel cooler in Singapore’s equatorial heat, not because it makes her look cute (although it does).

When she shouted, “I don’t want pretty!” (and I can’t tell you how proud of her I was for doing that), it wasn’t any kind of comment on vanity either. When she’s distressed, the Don’t Wants come pouring out: “Don’t want milk!” “Don’t want shirt!” “Don’t want Thomas train!” “Don’t want Daddy!” Even “Don’t want Anya!” In this case, she was trying to communicate that she didn’t want to have anything to do with what the librarian was saying, and that she wanted to the lady to just go the fuck away.

Fourthly, crying is a perfectly natural human reaction to being upset (and it’s a physiological way to relieve the stress of being upset). As we get older, we get better at suppressing this action out of embarrassment of making others feel awkward or uncomfortable, but it’s a natural instinct, and does serve a bodily function. When I was little, my parents bought me the record album Free to Be… You and Me, and my favorite song was “It’s All Right to Cry.”

Kids cry. It happens. The librarian could obviously see that I was calming Anya down, but either it wasn’t happening fast enough for her, or she wanted to somehow swoop in and save the day by getting Anya to stop crying herself. Either way, she fucked up big time, and ended up making everything worse.

Fifthly, has anyone ever told a boy to stop crying because it makes him look ugly? (It immediately made me think of misogynist spy Sterling Archer saying something similar to his mother’s secretary Cheryl on the animated show Archer.) Boys are told not to cry because boys (and men) don’t do that sort of thing; crying is relegated as a feminine action, and so boys who cry must be “pussies” or “pansies”. But then girls and women are told not to cry because crying makes them “ugly”. What the fuck is up with any of this logic?

It’s true that when we cry, our faces screw up, and we become less attractive, but so the fuck what? What is this need to force girls to quash their emotions so that they’ll be “pretty” all the time?

I’m sending a strongly worded letter to the National Library Board about this incident. I don’t expect or even want an apology, but I’m going to recommend sensitivity training for their librarians, especially the ones working in the children’s libraries. This could have been handled so much better than it was.

Thankfully, Anya didn’t take too much longer after Mean Librarian Lady went away to calm down again. We read some more books, and had a potty break (both of us), and wandered around a bit upstairs in the Big People Library before checking out the books we’d found and then walking back home. We played some more when we got back to the flat, watched some DVR’d episodes of Denise Keller‘s Passage to Malaysia, and ate some Koka mushroom-flavored ramen for dinner (the only instant noodles we’ve found that don’t contain MSG, and actually taste better for it). Anya was slightly subdued, but she seemed to have put the incident behind her. I gave her a bath, and then got her ready for bed, hoping that she’d konk out quickly; she fell asleep as I was reading her Dr. Seuss’s The Sleep Book (awesomely appropriate) right around 9 p.m.

I lay in bed for a long time last night, thinking about the incident in the library, wondering if I’d done all I could have as a father, still upset myself that it had happened at all. I worried that Anya still might be troubled by it today, but when she woke up this morning, having slept almost twelve hours (more than she’s slept in some time), she was back to her normally happy chirpy self, giving me a big hug when she came out of her room. None the worse for wear, but oh, my heart.

Anya Reads at Home

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Filed under Introversion, Parenthood, Public Libraries, Reading, Singapore

Library Blogging

This school year, I’ve been writing and maintaining the blog for our school library: Hwa Chong Institution Kong Chian Library. It was originally intended to focus more on Library events and Singaporean literature, but has expanded to include public library news in the US, book reviews, e-readers, and lots of other stuff related to books and reading. I think I tweeted about this (which means Facebook friends who obsessively check my status also knew about it, you know who you are), but I just realized that I never mentioned it here at the blog.

So here’s me mentioning it. :-j

As an email acquaintance noticed recently, I haven’t blogged here regularly in a long time, mostly because of simple lack of time thanks to both teaching and childrearing. But the Library blog is justified through my work with the school library, and so I feel like the time updating it is well-spent.

So if you’re interested, go give it a look-see. I may try to sqirt non-school-related posts over here if I can figure out how; would anyone know?

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