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Boeke | Books > Boekartikels | Articles on books > English

Big Book Chain Chat #30: Should writers censor what their characters say?


Janet van Eeden - 2011-02-03

Judge Edwin Cameron’s comment about John van de Ruit’s novel Spud being homophobic has initiated a debate in which many people agreed with the judge about apparently politically incorrect terminology used in the novel and film. It begs a response. 

The judge’s comment was sparked, it seems, by the character known as “The Guv” in Van de Ruit’s novel about an underdeveloped schoolboy who struggles to find his place in a very testosterone-charged boarding school. The irascible English teacher, the Guv, rants about female writers in Spud’s first English class. He throws books by Virginia Woolf and other women writers into a wastepaper basket and calls them all “carpet munchers”, a derogatory term for lesbians.

Now I must admit to feeling horror when I watched the scene on the big screen as the character disparaged some of my favourite authors. But I took it in the spirit in which it was written. The Guv is painted as an alcoholic misogynist who sees all women as a means to an end. Sex is the only driving force in the world, he says to Spud in one of their alcoholic discussions. As such, his comments about revolutionary female authors would definitely be disparaging and give authenticity to his character. Yes, I suppose this scene could have been cut, but it gives us an insight into the Guv’s character like no other scene does. His ethos is that of the old British boarding school: keep a stiff upper lip at all times, endure the existence of women, as they are barely tolerable, and the more alcohol drunk at any occasion the better. If the Guv had waxed lyrical about the joys of reading Katherine Mansfield’s short stories it would have contradicted everything about him. His radical views, unpleasant as they are to a modern audience, are what define him. These views also make a profound impression on the young Spud, who finds someone reminiscent of his outrageously opinionated family, even when their opinions are regarded as politically incorrect in today’s society. Think of the way his father barricades himself into his house just before the 1994 elections. His actions are deeply racist, but no one has called the film racist because of this. Perhaps it is because Van de Ruit deals with the situation humorously. His treatment of the Guv is in a similar vein. 

These comments about Spud’s apparent homophobic tendencies made me think about some of the characters I’ve written in plays and screenplays which will undoubtedly cause people offence. I have one character, Lucas, in my favourite play, A Matter of Time, who is an out and out racist. For example, he calls a black character in the play the k-word in one instance. While we were in rehearsals, the actor playing Lucas was very reluctant to use this now verboten word. I based this play on actual people and said that there is no doubt in my mind that Lucas would speak authentically in this way. The young actress playing Ketiwe, the black girl, insisted that the actor should use exactly that word and not water it down at all. She felt strongly that his use of the k-word gave her the right amount of motivation to portray her character’s anger faithfully. In the end the actor agreed. Perhaps some people thought the use of this word in my play was outrageous. My defence is that it is meant to be. I created Lucas as a thoroughly appalling character who is murdered in the end. If I’d diluted him so that he was politically correct in today’s terms, there wouldn’t have been the same amount of audience satisfaction when he dies brutally in the end. His views are not my own. They are a fictional construct for dramatic purposes.

In another of my screenplays, the chief antagonist is a repressed gay army officer, Van Staden, who tries to abuse one of the soldiers in his charge. His abuse causes the soldier to go over the edge and lose his mind after innumerable setbacks. Van Staden vindictively sets out to destroy the young man because he rejected his sexual advances. Van Staden is one of my most powerful characters but I just know I’ll be accused of homophobia when the film is made. However, his character has to be as evil as it is because he is the personification of the regime of the time which exploited innocence for its own ends, whatever those might have been. Van Staden is a nasty piece of work and his sexuality isn’t the reason he’s bad. He’s bad because he is bad. His sexuality is simply a story construct.

If I’m accused of homophobia because of the above screenplay I will cite yet another of my plays, In-Gene-Uity. It’s a light-hearted comedy about two gay women who are married and adopt a young Zulu boy. When the boy hits puberty, his two mothers can’t quite cope with the changes in him. It’s an affectionate portrayal of a family coping with the havoc adolescence wreaks in a young boy’s life. The play also gives voice to the young boy’s ancestors who are concerned about his cultural roots. Gay and black people were among those who saw this play in Grahamstown and their responses were all extremely favourable. No one was offended by the very positive portrayal of a family going through difficulties, even though some of them were absurd for comic purposes.

So I believe authors, playwrights and screenwriters have to write their characters as their stories dictate them. And if society wants equal rights for all, everyone has to be prepared to be dealt with equally in fiction. This means that there will be times when our characters express views which are in fact offensive to their creators. But if writers wrote novels, plays and films with characters which say only anodyne and reassuringly pleasant things to soothe politically correct sensibilities, then they are censoring their creative souls. The characters in every writer’s portfolio do not necessarily reflect their author’s own worldview. I could think of nothing more predictable or stultifying than reading, watching or performing fictional work where no one says or does anything controversial.