Dear Fellow Canadian White Authors, Can We Talk?

This has been a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week for Canlit. I’ve been leaving ranty screeds on Facebook pages belonging to writers I barely know or have never met and I feel like a jerk but I also can’t seem to shut up. So, even though there is no reason for anybody to ever listen to me about anything, I’m going to put some thoughts right here on my blog, where at least I’m not taking up anybody else’s space. And this post is going to have PARTS because I’m drafting something brand new these days and am very into sectioning everything up.

PART 1: THE RECAP 

For those who haven’t been following the yuck, here it is in a nutshell. Write Magazine came out with an issue devoted to indigenous writing. The editor, Hal Niedzviecki, thought it would be funny or clever (I guess?) to write an op-ed for this same issue declaring that there should be a “Cultural Appropriation Prize” for person best able to write from outside their own experience and claiming that the whole idea of cultural appropriation is ridiculous, because artists gotta art & wut is context? People were pissed, he resigned, and then other people were pissed. Sound familiar? Then at midnight a bunch of white editors on twitter started raising money for this “cultural appropriation prize.” Grossness upon grossness, except of course lots of people apparently thought that was pretty funny and /or totally fine. These are not peripheral cranks but influential people in Canadian media. You can read about it all here (only just realized one of my tweets is in a screenshot in the article, ha!). Scaachi Koul’s brilliant, scathing take is here, and if you want to close your eyes and listen to people with pleasing voices, a succinct recap followed by Jesse Wente’s emotional response is here.

PART 2:  WHAT THE HELL…?

I was reading about all of this, repeatedly picking jaw off floor, and then I checked Facebook. I read all these posts and comments by my fellow white Canadian authors and got really sad. The most common response I saw was along the lines of “I didn’t agree with his article BUT … censorship is bad / he should be able to say what he thinks / what about artistic freedom?”

So… can we talk? A few responses…

“Censorship is bad”

Agreed. Censorship is totally bad. Good thing “censorship” in no way describes what is happening here! (also p.s. criticism and / or having standards are not censorship). More on what did happen below.

“Freedom of expression! He should be able to say what he thinks!”

He did say what he thinks. It sucked. Freedom of expression extends to the many people who were appalled by his shitty, rude, profoundly stupid article. You can also say what you think! You will definitely NOT go to jail, yay freedom! But if the thing you want to say involves completely ignoring the way indigenous artists have been silenced & stolen from and it is all about YOU and how YOU should be able to do whatever you want, then possibly some people will think you are a brat, and they might even say so, because … you got it… freedom of expression!

“Hal Niedzviecki And John Kay Have Been Pushed Out Of Their Jobs For Stating Their Beliefs And This Is Very Bad”

I’m not cheering for anybody to lose their job, but in an issue that was meant to be spotlighting indigenous voices, Hal Niedzviecki wrote an op-ed gas-lighting those authors. This was a misuse of his position, undercutting the entire purpose of the issue. Re. all the editors raising money for this “cultural appropriation prize” on twitter – there is a reason that we call these people Gatekeepers. They are the people who decide what gets published, who choose to put certain voices forward rather than others, etc. These people, who wield a lot of power in Canadian media, are demonstrating zero understanding of what cultural appropriation even means or why it matters that we should be making room at the table for authentic indigenous voices rather than just writing about them through our own white lenses. Nothing is going to change as long as they are running the show. I’m pretty sure these guys will be OK. A lot of other people are not OK. I am not shedding tears or staying up nights worrying about Hal Niedzviecki. I’m just not.

“What About Artistic Freedom! We should be able to write what we want!”

I have so many thoughts about this but for starters, yes, of course. We do enjoy artistic freedom, lucky us! When I hear white people say this as if their artistic freedom is actually being threatened, I am reminded of nothing more than a toddler in a public sandpit hoarding all the toys and screaming blue murder when asked to share. Not everything is yours. This blows my mind every time I hear it. Parents, you all know what I’m talking about. Didn’t anybody ever fucking teach you that NOT EVERYTHING IS YOURS?

You can write whatever you want. You really can. Let’s start with that. One more time: you can write whatever you want!

Also and relatedly: We live in the world! We don’t make art in a vacuum. We are in this sandpit together. I’ve used this analogy on Facebook and Twitter and will repeat it here: I think that being an artist is partly like being good conversationalist. We try to communicate, to entertain, to tell our truths as best we can. But however awesome we think we are, we shouldn’t dominate the whole conversation and bring everything back to us. We should make room for other people to talk, we should listen to them and not interrupt them or undercut them or ignore them or start telling their story for them. If there is somebody at the table who is trying to talk about their experiences and you barge in with your periphery impressions of their experiences, that’s rude. Why would you do that?

People struggle with the term cultural appropriation. White writers can and do write about non-white characters; that is not a bad thing and it isn’t what cultural appropriation means. I keep seeing people say, “Oh so I should only write about 47-year-old middle class white women named X, snark snark”. No, that’s not what it means, so stop being a jerk. See Karen Bass’s well-received (and meticulously researched) thriller, The Hill, in which one of the main characters is Cree. It’s about being careful and respectful and you can only do that if you are also a good listener.

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Not everybody is going to agree on every point, there isn’t a manual or a set of rules, but I’m stunned that it’s controversial to say that indigenous lives and stories should not be used as props or exotic color, romanticized or reduced to poorly understood stereotypes by non-indigenous authors. There is a long history of this happening and that’s why there is a term for it – cultural appropriation! It still happens. Just because something grabs your imagination doesn’t mean you have to claim it. There are stories beyond our experience that really are not ours to tell, and if we are halfway decent people with any sense of what is going on outside our personal bubbles, we might want to pass the megaphone for a sec, try to make space at the table, cheer on and support indigenous artists who are trying to tell their own stories.

“It’s important that we should be able to have this discussion freely so that we can learn from it.”

I have a queasy feeling that when people say this, they really mean that they don’t want people to get mad at them for not caring. This is not a brand new, radical discussion. It’s old. It’s been happening for a long time. And what exactly are we discussing here? Whether it’s OK to keep shitting all over indigenous people? Is that really up for discussion? Hal Niedzviecki says that he wanted to encourage (white) people to write outside their own experiences. OK – many of us do, though there are plenty of places we should be very careful of going. But when he said “cultural appropriation” he immediately made it about something else. If you say you don’t “believe” in cultural appropriation, you’re saying that indigenous people have not been silenced and spoken for and had their stories plundered. He put forth a horrendous falsehood, and he’s backtracking all over the place, but he doesn’t get to redefine that term.

PART 3: PAYING ATTENTION

I’m basically a screw-up and the farthest thing from a right-thinking, right-acting paragon. I hope that I know how to listen though. I hope that when I screw up, friends (and strangers, if I screw up publicly, like in my published writing) will tell me so, and I hope that I’ll know how to listen to them when they do.

I am never sure how to be a good person. Listening well is pretty much the only skill in my limited playbook. But along those lines, I do have one possibly helpful and very easy suggestion for white authors who are freaked out or confused by the idea of cultural appropriation and are privately or not-so-privately having a meltdown about it: Twitter is an amazing place to eavesdrop, listen & learn. You can follow a whole bunch of indigenous authors and activists, you can follow the links they share, you can sit back and listen, reserving judgment, shelving your anxiety, and just take it all in as the nuances become clearer, along with what is at stake. (Side-note, though, don’t barge in or demand that people explain things to you, just listen). We don’t need to keep talking about whether cultural appropriation exists or whether it’s OK to do it: it does, it isn’t, let’s move on. It would be nice to stop free-speeching about whether we can free-speech all over somebody else, drowning them out, and to support indigenous authors for a change. That was what the issue of Write Magazine was supposed to be doing.

Every author knows how hard it is to get that foot in the door, to get your shot, to get your story out there. That’s true for all of us, but so much more so for indigenous authors trying to be heard in a white, white landscape. Imagine how those authors felt – here was their work appearing in Write Magazine. They tweeted about it, told their friends – this was supposed to be their moment. Instead it’s all white people yelling “why can’t I write what I want, why why why, me me me!”

I have no real idea of how to respond to this debacle, but I guess one easy way to start might be reading / supporting / talking about indigenous authors. I realized that my faves are the Big Names – Eden Robinson, Lee Maracle, Louise Erdrich, and most recently Tracey Lindberg – so I asked for recommendations on Twitter. Here’s a start:

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If you want to talk more about this – if you disagree or if you agree or if you are confused or mad or worried or sad – I’m up for having this conversation. It can get heated, but that’s OK. Public or private forum, either one is fine. Reach out and I’ll reply.

Hugs and kisses,

Your White Canadian Author Friend Who Was Yelling All Over Your Facebook Page Last Weekend (sorry about that)

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19 thoughts on “Dear Fellow Canadian White Authors, Can We Talk?

  1. jodiwriter

    Absolutely awesome post. Having this exact conversation in our writing group. Reading every article we can and having big discussions on what is cultural appropriation and how to make sure we NEVER do it. Not every story is ours to tell. Full stop.

    Reply
  2. WriterGal

    Yes!! Thank you!!! I belong to a huge, but ethically non-diverse, writers’ group online that has thousands of members. This Write magazine episode (and any post regarding cultural appropriation) brought out the overwhelming majority of people who presented all those responses in bold. Those who are brave enough to bring up the sentiments you present are getting fewer. It’s depressing that this subject isn’t a no-brainer, and many people aren’t willing to check or even explore their privilege. Your post reassures me that I’m not losing my mind. Thank you for putting this out there!!

    Reply
    1. Catherine Egan Post author

      Aw, thank you! I was really discouraged by what I saw on Facebook too, and in general I have zero interest in wasting my time on internet debates with strangers but I really don’t think white people can keep on letting other white people get away with this shit 😦

      Reply
  3. Patricia

    Thanks, Catherine. This is a much more thought-out version of what I was ranting about on my own Facebook page, after spending some time as a media consultant for the Oji-Cree of remote Northern Ontario. My eyes were just blasted wide open by that job, and I saw how resigned the First Nations are to having their perspective completely hijacked. You are exactly right that this is about stealing thunder, yet again, and turning the discourse into Me, Me, Me. Surprisingly hard to communicate this finer point to social media friends. Even in the context of a time of Truth & Reconciliation! Amazing.

    Reply
  4. Bieke Stengos-Cammaert

    “Indigenous lives and stories should not be used as props or exotic color, romanticized or reduced to poorly understood stereotypes by non-indigenous authors.” I would argue that no author, regardless of origin, has the right to do this. I think this is an important little distinction because it takes the “us vs them” out of the picture and it opens up how authors can write about situations and people.

    Reply
      1. Nicholas Burns

        Reading Bieke and Catherine’s latest remarks prompted the following thought: In the past, we had to ‘take the word’ of the people who wrote about other countries, other cultures, other beliefs. We had nothing else to go on. Today, the internet means there’s no excuse for cultural appropriation, or the fallout from it –if you get it wrong, you’re going to hear about it. Nullius in verba.

      2. Bieke Stengos-Cammaert

        Absolutely, Catherine, the context is crystal clear in what you wrote, which is why I don’t think authors needed to be qualified and which is why I am wading in with you because, so far, most who have written on this, so far as I encountered it, have been either clouded by white guilt or by white privilege (which white guilt also is). You manage to talk of the issue in an objective way, which is refreshing.

  5. Bieke Stengos-Cammaert

    I think, Nicholas, that there is a need to redefine the term cultural appropriation because it seems to cloud that issue rather than qualify it and make it clear. It isn’t just the fact of using something from another culture. We all do it. This is how the world hangs together. To bring it back to the arts: artists get aspired in ways that are unpredictable and cannot and shouldn’t be restricted. At least, as far as I am concerned. An author simply writing about another culture does not constitute cultural appropriation. A novelist choosing a character of a different cultural or racial group does not constitute cultural appropriation. A painter painting a scene at a pow-wow doesn’t either. Vikram Seth writing “An Equal Music” is not cultural appropriation. He simply is an Indian author choosing to write a novel about white Western musicians. The misuse and denigration of cultures in this process is appropriation, as Catherine argued so clearly, and there was nothing denigrating about “An Equal Music”.

    Reply
  6. Nicholas Burns

    I’m not sure if the term cultural appropriation clouds the issue or is so broad, and has so many ramifications, that it’s hard to grasp. I suppose I’d have to hear an alternative term for what we’re discussing to evaluate whether it’s a better description or not. The little parable I posted to my FB artist’s page –and the resulting discourse– is my attempt at ‘throwing a little light’ on the issue. https://www.facebook.com/nicholasburnsart/

    Reply
  7. Bieke Stengos-Cammaert

    You have a point about the term, Nicholas. Maybe the term doesn’t need redefining but how we use it and where. I think in the end, we all need understand that appropriation is not a good thing for those who get robbed. Off to read what you have on Facebook.

    Reply
  8. Alan Gasser

    Hey, thanks so much for the compassion and for using your words to show how to listen. It was a pleasure to hear your voice, and … you’ve encouraged me again, to read, for starters, the writers in that Write Magazine issue. Even if I only get through the ones in the free, online pdf, I vow to read first, and rant later (if I must).

    Signed,
    Yr friendly local women’s choir director, dad and mentor guy

    Reply
    1. Catherine Egan Post author

      *applause* :). While this post was pretty finger-waggy, I was unimpressed with myself when I started compiling a list in my head of indigenous authors I’ve read. It wasn’t a very long list. So yes: more reading!

      Reply
  9. Suz

    I just want to add some awesome Indigenous children’s authors to your list…
    -Julie Flett
    -Margaret Pokiak-Fenton
    -Larry Loyie
    -David Bouchard
    -Michael Kusugak
    -Nicola Campbell

    Reply

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