Thursday, May 11, 2017

Cultural appropriation in literature is not a sacred cow

The dreaded phrase "cultural appropriation" has reared its ugly head again in the world of Canadian letters, and as so often I feel like I'm on the wrong side of things.
Hal Niedzviecki, editor of The Writer's Union of Canada's house magazine Write, has resigned (before he could be fired) after some ill-advised editorial comments in the latest edition, one that happens to be dedicated to showcasing indigenous Canadian writing. Mr. Niedzviecki begins, reasonably enough in my opinion: "I don't believe in cultural appropriation. In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities." I'm right with you there, Hal, although even that is so contrary to the Zeitgeist, that he would probably still have been lambasted and villified for such a contentious assertion.
Mr. Niedzviecki, though, really ovestepped the bounds of good taste with his next comment: "I'd go so far as to say that there should even be an award for doing so - the Appropriation Prize for best book by an author who writes about people who are aren't even remotely like her or him."
At this, course, Twitter blew up. One First Nations writer claims that, "it [TWUC] enforces systemic oppression", and the TWUC Equity Task Force bemoaned the "structural racism" and the "brazen malice or extreme negligence" of the editorial, claiming to be "angry and appalled" by it. Personally, I don't see any evidence of either "systemic oppression" or "structural racism" or "brazen malice" - the worst Mr. Niedzviecki can be accused of is "extreme negligence", although his  own admission of being "a little tone deaf" probably comes closer.
And of course some Twitter users took things even further by proposing an actual Appropriation Prize, and thousands of dollars of pledges soon flooded in from various high-profile editors and journalists. The National's Steve Ladurantaye was "re-assigned" by the CBC after his contribution to this rather tasteless Twitter thread, which incidentally was nothing to do with Niedzviecki himself.
Either way, Niedzviecki apologized profusely and promptly tendered his resignation, the price of messing with the cultural appropriation lobby. I have commented before on what I see as the misplaced zeal of the political correctness police in this respect, and I still believe that authors of all colours, genders and political and sexual persuasions need to be free to express themselves however they like, and should not be limited to writing about their own lives and those like them. How much great literature would not exist without this kind of freedom?
Cultural appropriation should not become some kind of untouchable sacred cow, to the extent that authors are effectively censored from writing what they want to write. Neither should Mr. Niedzciecki be pilloried and sacrificed on the altar of political correctness, particularly given the contents of the rest of his essay, which is extremely sensitive to the challenges still faced by indigenous writers. Instead of the current knee-jerk Facebook/Twitter reaction, the literary community should use this as an opportunity for discussion.

The current storm-in-a-teacup over cultural appropriation has registered another high-profile victim. Jonathan Kay, editor-in-chief of Walrus magazine has resigned after his defence of Mr. Niedzviecki's position.
Mr. Kay tweeted (yes, Twitter again - it gets so many people into so much trouble) that, "The mobbing of Hal Niedzviecki is what we get when we let identity politics fundamentalists run riot", although he did say that the creation of an actual Appropriation Prize as some supporters of Niedzviecki have suggested "went too far". he followed this up with an interview on CBC, in which he stated: "There is a legitimate debate to be had t where the rights of artists to imagine other cultures end, and the rights of those other cultures to avoid appropriation begin."
Within hours after that, various incensed writers and poets started to pull their own contributions to The Walrus, and Mr. Kay soon resigned his position with the magazine. In his registration, he stressed that he "had editorial freedom within The Walrus" but that he found he was starting to censor himself.
Personally, I would agree with all three of Kay's sentiments, which seem reasoned and appropriate (to appropriate a touchy word). So, go ahead, sack me.

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