Debated memoir’s author agrees with book’s replacement 

Mark Mathabane, whose book "Kaffir Boy" was pulled from eighth-grade classrooms at an intermediate school four weeks ago due to a passage about men paying boys for sex, said the book’s original version is inappropriate for middle school students.

"Those words are too graphic for middle schoolers," said the 46-year-old author in a phone interview from his home in Portland, Ore. "You can talk to middle schoolers about sex without being too graphic."

After receiving a letter of complaint from a parent, Superintendent Sonny Da Marto pulled the book in late March from a class at Burlingame Intermediate School and replaced it with a modified version written six years ago by Mathabane. The modified version is meant specifically for middle school students. On April 10, after an extensive debate, the school board upheld Da Marto’s decision to replace the book.

This Monday, Mathabane will appear at the school for a school-hour lecture for students as well as an evening session at 7 p.m. for the public. The appearances, scheduled after the controversy erupted, are a chance for Mathabane to further discuss his childhood and apartheid. And though Mathabane believes the book should have been pulled, he said he was "very impressed" by the impassioned debate among parents, teachers and students about his book.

Published in 1986, "Kaffir Boy" recounts Mathabane’s violent and troublesome childhood in a South African ghetto during apartheid. In one graphic passage — the source of controversy — the male genitalia is mentioned in a scene where starving boys are described as preparing to prostitute themselves in order to eat.

Mathabane said the passage in question was the most painful to write because he relived the emotions as he wrote it. In it, he recalls being pressured to have sex with men by other boys. Instead, he said, he ran away even though the other boys threatened to kill him if he fled.

"I was seven when it happened and it was the toughest decision I had to make," he said. "I put the scene in there because I wanted [students] to realize that they don’t have to succumb and they can resist peer pressure."

District board president Dave Pine — who supported replacing the original version — said the board will explore the general book-selection process in the future. Currently, a core literature committee of teachers, parents and students selects books for English classes at Burlingame Intermediate School.

"Any time you have a discussion about age-appropriate books in a middle school, it will generate a lot of controversy," he said. "But looking forward, this is an extraordinary opportunity for the kids to hear from someone who grew up in a terribly difficult environment."

Tickets sold at the school for Monday night’s lecture are between $2 and $20. The lecture is followed by a book signing, said principal Ted Barone. Proceeds go to Mathabane’s scholarship fund in South Africa called the "Magdalene Scholarship Fund," named after his mother.

bfoley@examiner.com

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