Monday, July 13, 2009

Is there such a thing as an inappropriate book?

Ariel and I have talked a lot about this. We want to solicit books that the community wants, and once they have come up with a list of priority areas, we will start to look for them specifically as well as receive donations. But in general, are there books that we should turn away if donated?

Of course all books have value—some of them for valuable information, some of them for a perspective on what was once considered valuable information (my master’s dissertation was, in part, a discourse analysis on science and policies around sexually transmitted diseases in Africa in the 19th century). But we’ve decided that outdated textbooks are not worth sending over. Our resources are too scare to use them sending information that can’t be used here and now!

However, with some books it’s less clear. For example, we received several up to date high quality psychology textbooks. One of them specifically dealt with gender issues. I was fascinated with the book personally, and was leafing through the pages. As I did so, I started to wonder if psychology was completely Western-centric. Of course, Franz Fanon was a psychologist who wrote the book which has been one the most influential books all over Africa, "The Wretched of the Earth." But this book was somewhat different. Do chapters detailing the effects of cafeteria politics on girls have any relevance in rural Kenya? I don’t have the answer to this.

Another book dealt with queer theory and sexuality. All over the world, there are people who are attracted to people of the same sex. But the social constructs of how those relationships manifest are so different across societies. In Iran, the government can state that there is no such thing as homosexuality while sex change operations are perfectly acceptable. In Kenya, homosexuality is not at all accepted but in some Muslim communities on the coast there are men who wear hijab and live as women. When I was living in Busia and reading Middlesex, about a hermaphrodite in the mid West, many people would ask me what the book was about. When I told them, the response invariably was, “Oh, like that woman who works at the Post Office.” How people consider issues of sexuality varies so dramatically across countries that I’m not sure a book made by and for Westerners about sexuality really makes any sense in the Kenyan context. Again, I don't have an answer for this.

The final example was this book:

Ironically, Ariel and I received this book right after having a long conversation about whether we should put restrictions on what books we accept. When we first saw this, our reaction was to laugh and show people in the office. But later we thought about it in a more sober light. To me, the example of deciding not to bring this book to Kenya is poignant. It underlies the bitter irony of the how the world’s inequalities do not serve anyone. It underlies not only the gross imbalance in things like provision of medications but also the uphill battle that we all face to make sure the institutions that surround us serve us all well.

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