Chinese censors refuse publication of story of New Zealand union leader Helen Kelly
The new Helen Kelly biography by Rebecca Macfie was with the printers and everything was ready to go – then the Chinese censors stepped in.
Here’s an email you don’t want to receive a few days before your splendid, important book goes to press:
The book mentioned sensitive content … the printing license [will] not pass … So wWe are unable to print this book at this time, we will cancel this title, thank you for your attention.
This is what landed in the inbox of Mary Varnham, editor at Awa Press, just a few months ago.
She laughs about it now, saying it was probably “naive” to send Rebecca Macfie’s new book, a biography of New Zealand labor giant Helen Kelly, to China for printing in the first place. But she used to look for sensitive content in books destined for China, and thought that one would pass quickly. “WWe were sure the Chinese censors would approve the book.
Printing in China is relatively cheap and efficient, and offers incredible quality, Varnham told The Spinoff. The books support her on this: for example, the four finalists in the illustrated non-fiction category – that’s peacocks – at this week’s Ockham New Zealand Book Awards were printed in China. The same was true of Madison Hamill’s collection of essays, Specimen, and Hinemoana Baker’s book of poems, Funkhaus.
But for years, unpredictable censorship has made the printing of books in China a kind of crapshoot. Cards have been a particular sticking point recently – Varnham had a book stuck for a month while censors checked cards in a cruise guide for Antarctic. In 2019, the Foreign Policy news site covered the censorship creep and list of red flags:
Earlier this year, this list was first put in writing and circulated to editors. Its scope is ridiculous: besides widely known sensitive topics such as Tibet, Taiwan and the Tiananmen Square massacre, any mention of any political figure is verboten … Even the expression “the politicians of the Deng Xiaoping era A common term for China’s reform and opening up that began in the 1980s has already been reported.
Fergus Barrowman, editor at Victoria University Press, faced similar problems. “We got into the media about this a few years ago in connection with Rebecca Priestley’s book on Antarctica, ”he said in an email. “The publishers know that Chinese printers are subject to Party censorship, and we… deal with it by identifying potentially sensitive content and placing these books elsewhere. We get tripped up every now and then, by terms like “ Everest ” (in Rebecca’s book; the censor wanted the local name, which isn’t entirely unreasonable, but doesn’t really work for a title of film), ‘Tibetan Buddhism’, ‘New Zealand Communist Party’. It’s just an ongoing thing, no new development as far as I know.
Varnham doesn’t think the censors read Macfie’s book at all – they only got it a day before they decided to deny the printing license, and it’s a long, meaty book. She suspects that a keyword analysis pointed out some sensitive terms and that the censors simply assumed the worst.
The irony is that if they had read it, they would have found these terms appearing in stories about the parents of Kelly, Cath and Pat, who for 13 years were staunch members of the Communist Party of New Zealand, aligned with China. “Cath was delivering copies of People’s Voice to a factory in Kaiwharawhara the day before Helen was born,” says Varnham. “I want to say, [she] even donated 3,000 pounds to the party as a young woman, from her parents’ inheritance.
The couple visited China separately in 1967; There is a photo in the book of Pat’s meeting with Chairman Mao Zedong that year. They spoke for an hour and 20 minutes. “Mao gave [Pat] a copy of his little red book, so we thought this book would surely be approved… We were wrong.
The decision taken in March put Awa Press in “a terrible situation”. The draw had already been tight – it aimed to secure copies in the country in time for promotion at the Auckland Writers Festival, which takes place this weekend – and they were already planning to airlift the first batch of books. There was no slack in the system. They were banking on the efficiency of the Chinese printer. “And they had come a long way on the trail, the printers over there. We were discussing the intricacies of the print job. We hadn’t really warned that it was going to be suddenly censored.
Varnham, confusing, found a printer in Australia. It all worked out in the end, sort of – they managed to keep the print the same size and got the books here just in time. But to print in Australia, Awa Press had to find $ 9,000 to make up the difference. “The price was, I would say, almost four times as much,” said Varnham. And that’s without any penalty for the quick turnaround time.
Still, crapshoot will continue. “WWe can’t afford to cut our losses with China, their production is so good and they’re so much cheaper, and they also give us 90 day credit when the Australian publishers want the money up front. So that’s quite a difference. We will therefore continue to print our books in China, ”she said. But: “We will certainly be much more careful about sending anything that mentions China in the future. “
Helen Kelly: Her Life, by Rebecca Macfie (Awa Press, $ 50) can be ordered from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington, and will be in store anytime.
Rebecca Macfie will be in conversation with Spinoff Editor Toby Manhire about the book at the Auckland Writers Festival tomorrow afternoon. Macfie will also host a workshop on Sunday. We’ll have more cover from his book in the coming weeks.
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