May 12, 2017

"The editor of the Writers’ Union of Canada’s magazine has resigned after complaints over an article he wrote in which he said he doesn’t believe in cultural appropriation."

I'm trying to figure out how lame this is and what's the lamest thing about it... that writers have a union, that the union has a magazine, that writers care what's in their union magazine, that a guy who edited a writers' union magazine put the teensiest edge into some damned opinion column and the rank-and-file writers — people presumably earnest about the interests of writers as employees — got him ousted from his job... or that picture of the editor, the downcast outcast.

But let's look at the details. In a column that was published in a special issue about "indigenous writing," Hal Niedzviecki wrote:
"In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities. I’d go so far as to say there should even be an award for doing so — the Appropriation Prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.”

He went on to argue that Canadian literature remains “exhaustingly white and middle class” because writers are discouraged from writing about people and places they don’t know....
Apologizing "unequivocally" for Niedzviecki's column, The Writer’s Union of Canada said:
“The intention behind the magazine is to offer space for honest and challenging discussion and to be sincerely encouraging to all voices. The Union recognizes that intention is not enough, and that we failed in execution in this instance. We offer the magazine itself as a space to examine the pain this article has caused, and to take this conversation forward with honesty and respect,” the statement concluded.
Of course, "all voices" does not include the voice that says a writer can imagine and depict all sorts of characters and isn't confined to the old write-what-you-know advice. But the criticism of Niedzviecki doesn't seem to be about the crusty old advice. It's about getting out of the way so that the people who are in the know will have a better chance at gaining a readership. It's: You need to shut up so I can be heard.

That said, it was kind of awkward to stick that essay in a special issue devoted to writing by indigenous authors. I haven't seen the magazine, but it seems that one of the articles in it — by Alicia Elliott (an "indigenous Tuscarora author") — was about cultural appropriation. Niedzvieki edited her piece and then put his own opinion in the same issue, undercutting her.

Writers and cultural appropriation — we talked about this subject last September, when the writer Lionel Shriver gave a speech at Fiction and Identity Politics conference in Australia. She caught hell after saying things like:
Those who embrace a vast range of “identities” – ethnicities, nationalities, races, sexual and gender categories, classes of economic under-privilege and disability – are now encouraged to be possessive of their experience and to regard other peoples’ attempts to participate in their lives and traditions, either actively or imaginatively, as a form of theft.

Yet were their authors honouring the new rules against helping yourself to what doesn’t belong to you, we would not have Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. We wouldn’t have most of Graham Greene’s novels, many of which are set in what for the author were foreign countries, and which therefore have Real Foreigners in them, who speak and act like foreigners, too.

In his masterwork English Passengers, Matthew Kneale would have restrained himself from including chapters written in an Aboriginal’s voice – though these are some of the richest, most compelling passages in that novel. If Dalton Trumbo had been scared off of describing being trapped in a body with no arms, legs, or face because he was not personally disabled – because he had not been through a World War I maiming himself and therefore had no right to “appropriate” the isolation of a paraplegic – we wouldn’t have the haunting 1938 classic, Johnny Got His Gun.

67 comments:

rhhardin said...

Ten surprising ways to use ice as a building material.

rhhardin said...

Ten most popular eskimo baby names.

David Begley said...

Oh, Canada.

rhhardin said...

Rubbing noses - not just for birthdays.

rhhardin said...

Seal the deal, fashion tips for eskimos.

rhhardin said...

Ten new words for snow.

exiledonmainstreet said...

Am I appropriating Canadian culture if I put maple syrup on my pancakes and drink Molson's?

I would add Canadian bacon, but who wants to eat that sad substitute when you can have tasty strips of thick cut American bacon?

sean said...

It's positively Trumpian: no one had ever heard of the Writers Union of Canada magazine before, or would have, but the members have now managed to get themselves into the news cycle. Admittedly, most people think they're morons, but that's better (in some people's estimation) than not being thought about all all.

robother said...

I remember stumbling across Hal Borland's When Legends Die in the 8th Grade. Now, he'd be crucified for writing it, unless he made up some family myth about being tiny part Ute.

All these indigenous indignant writers: weren't all their traditions oral? Writing is white: how dare they appropriate our culture to complain about our appropriation? Do the eskimo even have a word for appropriation?

rhhardin said...

Navigation tricks when every direction is south.

Leslie Graves said...

My life goal is to culturally appropriate Laslo.

Graham Powell said...

As a fan of mysteries I have to say we most certainly wouldn't have Tony Hillerman's novels about his Navajo detectives, beginning with Dance Hall of the Dead, and that would be a terrible shame.

There's also the great novels by Alexander McCall Smith, beginning with The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Service, and the Inspector Ghote series by HRF Keating. And those are just mysteries!

rhhardin said...

Ten best auroras

Anonymous said...

Forget "Remains of the Day," Right? Forget "The Orphan Master's Son," (a recent Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction). What a joke. The left is truly losing its collective mind. -- Jessica

AlbertAnonymous said...

Morons..

Another "our goal is to be open to all views... except yours" move.

Those are becoming commonplace. sad.

rhhardin said...

Permafrost gardening tips

rhhardin said...

Mosquitos, the new white meat

rhhardin said...

Fish again - home cooking tips

damikesc said...

Whites invented basketball. Baseball. Football. Soccer. TV. Radio. Cars. Planes. The internet. Computers. Smartphones.

Ill give up Mexican food once minorities give up all of those.

Otherwise, GFY

Laslo Spatula said...

The only writing left to a person is their autobiography.

Of course, I believe the argument has been made before that all fiction is, in some way, autobiographical, but that will be moot now.

And, when writing said autobiography, it is probably best to leave out all interactions with other ethnicities and minorities, because you cannot truly understand their viewpoint in the matter and will probably cause offense.

If you are a man, do not write about that woman you knew: you, as a man, never truly knew her.

Which means now your autobiography, absent women, is full of Gay Sex.

But you are not Gay, so Stop That.

Or maybe you are Gay, and it took writing your autobiography for you to realize it.

But now everyone's book is Like That.

Maybe better to not write at all. Too much trouble.

I am Laslo.



buwaya said...

There goes Longfellow. Not that Longfellow is in (US) schools anymore. We had to memorize a stretch of "Hiawatha" in my day.

Gahrie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
buwaya said...

And, note, it is this sort of thing (I suppose in many permutations) that was supposed to have led to the banning of books in "Fahrenheit 451" .

Bradbury should count with Orwell and Huxley as a great prophetic novelist.

sparrow said...

I certainly enjoyed Arthur Upfield's Napoleon Bonaparte mysteries where the hero was a halfcaste Aborgine with named after the French emperor. Not likely to pass through today's PC gauntlet but it was thought of as forward looking in it's time.

Gahrie said...

If "White" Western Civilization did not incorporate ideas from other cultures, we'd be attacked for that..for thinking that we were better than every one else.

You literally cannot win against the Left...whatever you do they will attack you

Bob Boyd said...

The Imams will straighten this all out for them before long. Those guys know how to run an intolerant religion.
These Progs, as always, are trying to re-invent the wheel. No way they'll catch up in time.

The Drill SGT said...

Althouse, you evil cultural appropriator...

It's "First Peoples" not "Native Americans"

after all, there were no Native Americans, just peoples that arrived first, and of course the Canuks don't say "Native Canadians"

Paul Zrimsek said...

They may be unclear on the concept of "writer" and "union", but no one can say they haven't got the idea of "Canada" figured out.

Ken B said...

The lamest thing is not recognizing that if you post articles about the horrors of yoga as "cultural appropriation", and implicitly applaud a woman losing her job over it, that you are on the side of the mob.

robother said...

Down at the Laborers and Hod Carriers Union Hall in '69, the subject of cultural appropriation did not come up.

DanTheMan said...

Complaining about cultural appropriation? In English? On the internet?

I'm confused...

Scott M said...

I'm writing a horror short for an anthology in the UK. The main character didn't start out as a young black man struggling to become an EMT while being a single parent on the south side of Chicago, but that's where the Muse took me and that's where I went with it. I grew up on the far south side, around 175th Street compared to Rodney's 47th, but there was plenty for me to learn about the neighborhood the story is set in. It's a short, so there wasn't time nor reason for a ton of research, but what little I needed to do, combined with trying to be inside Rodney's head for a few days, made me more empathetic about the area in general.

As far as stepping aside so someone else can step up? Pardon my colorful expletive, but fuck 'em. This is my story. It's a good one, creepy as hell, and I'm not going to drive down to Bronzeville, grab some 20-something black kid that looks like he or she might be a wannabe writer, and tell the story to them. If they have one, they can write one.

Wilbur said...

"Ben Hur, The Tale of the Christ" was the second-largest selling book of the 19th century, after the Bible.

Was Lew Wallace a cultural appropriator?

Kirk Parker said...

While I, as a junior high student, was somewhat entranced by Johnny Got His Gun, with a little more perspective I am not at all sure the world is a better place for its having being written.

robother said...

"Never judge another man until you've walked a mile in his moccasins...not so fast, White Man!"

wildswan said...

After we've heard, can we speak? If we can't learn, why listen?

I think that calling imitation or learning "cultural appropriation" is a cultural time bomb. One second after that thinking is widely accepted, segregation will be back. Because you can't force the thinking to go only in one direction - i.e., whites cannot imitate, learn from or understand blacks. One second later, it will be said that blacks cannot imitate, learn from or understand whites, they should have their own space. That would be segregation and I don't know why any black would ever work to re-establish the cultural separation that brought in segregation and kept it going.

To say that someone does not understand blacks as well as they they think they do just because they wear dreadlocks and to say that "close your mouth and open your eyes is a good rule", is not the same as saying that someone is "culturally appropriating" dreadlocks. One is about paying attention to others; the other is about separating off "the other" into a special culture box labeled "Very Breakable", "Keep Upright" and such.

Anonymous said...

And what about visual art? Should Paul Gaugin be condemned as a culture theif? What about photography? Can men and women photograph eachother in this leftist cultural paradise to come? -- Jessica

Scott M said...

And what about visual art?

There was just a dust-up in Canada recently about a woman who admitted she drew heavily on indigenous culture for her paintings. The gallery, if memory serves, ended her exhibit and issued an apology.

Gahrie said...

One second after that thinking is widely accepted, segregation will be back

Don't look now...but it is already back...but this time Black people are demanding and enforcing it.

Sebastian said...

@Ken B: "The lamest thing is not recognizing that if you post articles about the horrors of yoga as "cultural appropriation", and implicitly applaud a woman losing her job over it, that you are on the side of the mob."

If you forgive the reductionism, that's what the whole debate comes down to. in fact, it's what most prog arguments come down to. Arguments are tools in a culture war, to be decided by who can mobilize the biggest mob, claiming, protecting, and expanding turf, real and symbolic. Looks like the Canadian progs took another scalp, to speak appropriatively.

exiledonmainstreet said...

Kirk Parker said...
While I, as a junior high student, was somewhat entranced by Johnny Got His Gun, with a little more perspective I am not at all sure the world is a better place for its having being written.

5/12/17, 9:06 AM

"Johnny Got His Gun" was published in 1939, while the Molotov-Rippentrop Nonaggression Pact was in effect, and good little Commie Dalton Trumbo was getting his marching orders from Moscow. After Hitler invaded the USSR, Trumbo and his publishers decided to stop printing the book until after the war.

Trumbo's "pacifism" was based on the current Party line.

iowan2 said...

This is why President Trump resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Validated every day dozens of times

Angel-Dyne said...

Meanwhile, somewhere out there, there are some "marginalized" people toiling away at their art, producing stuff that people want to read and see for reasons having nothing to do with claiming victimhood or virtue-signaling.

Some of them will even be people who are "indigenous" or "non-white" to a degree detectable without a 23andMe test kit.

Ambrose said...

And just think, with a little luck we could have been Canada!

Lloyd W. Robertson said...

Lots of fun to be had, and maybe some of it is something we can learn from.

It's partly a matter of the history between colonizing people and those who were colonized. We are now taught to see the latter pretty much entirely as victims, itself an over-simplification, but ....

During the early stages of conflict, there is an oppressor's view of the oppressed. To say the least, there is little sense that the oppressed have interesting stories to tell, images to share, contributions to world culture, etc. I believe Macaulay, a famous Liberal in his time, said that all the religions of the East don't amount to Aesop's Fables. In this context, "Western" intellectuals who "appropriated" non-Western themes, icons, stories, and did so at least somewhat sympathetically, were arguably brave, and prepared the way for people of non-Western ancestry to tell their stories in one of the European languages, in artistic formats that go into our galleries, etc. Once there are more "authentic" voices available, it is arguably bad manners or worse for white artists, speaking crudely, to go all minstrel show, well-meaning or not. Pretending we can learn from all cultures, while still tacitly suggesting there are a few first-rate ones, then all the rest (precocious but childish), or whatever. Picking through a junk-heap for things that are rare and precious; or is that what art always amounts to?

For women, is it somewhat the same? Allegedly all victims, at least until recently. (Beauvoir carefully explains that even amazons, viragos, free courtesans and powerful Queens had severely constrained lives, and were unable to mentor females to follow them). Have male authors ever successfully portrayed women, without somehow failing artistically or morally? Always patronizing, showing that no healthy man would ever envy a woman, or just simply not getting it? Should males not try to write about or portray women? Vice versa? I would make a case for Aristophanes and Machiavelli doing interesting things with women; but, er, they don't exactly support or inspire feminism as we know it. Taming of the Shrew anyone? Anyone?

Ann Althouse said...

"There goes Longfellow. Not that Longfellow is in (US) schools anymore. We had to memorize a stretch of "Hiawatha" in my day."

Hey, Hiawatha is one of the answers in the Bill Clinton crossword puzzle discussed in the previous post.

I must say, when I did the puzzle, I experienced it as politically incorrect.

Bob Boyd said...

Can we think about other cultures?

Richard said...

Rule number 1: Never let the opposition set the terms of the debate. You cannot win. Why are you trying to win an argument with people who are being illogical? Their true agenda is to have power over you. They want to be able to determine what you are allowed to do, say, and think. This is no different than when Winston Smith in the novel 1984 was asked how much is 2+2. You will be forced to say it is 5.

Kirk Parker said...


Graham,

Alexander McCall Smith actually lived in Botswana for a time (and was born and grew up in Rhodesia.) No appropriation there.

The Drill SGT said...

robother said...
Down at the Laborers and Hod Carriers Union Hall in '69, the subject of cultural appropriation did not come up.


I was a Teamster in '69. I think back in horror at debates over Dos Equis versus PBR beer. and me with not a drop of Latinx blood in me. I favored Dos Equis.

tcrosse said...

A national Writers Union sounds like the sort of thing Vaclav Havel or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would be thrown out of. Not exactly the Screen Writers Guild.

Sam L. said...

Forget it, Jake; it's Canadatown.

TestTube said...

I think that conservatives are losing the cultural war, and we will continue to lose the cultural ware, and DESERVE to lose the cultural war until we stop saying:

"Oh, now we can't do this thing we used to do, but now this person we have never heard of before says we can't do it"

There was some video of a confrontation over a man wearing a poncho on May 5, and finally he said "Mike wears what he wants".

That is what we need to start saying. I wear what I want. I do yoga/ethnic food/dreadlocks because I want to.

Scott M said...

I suppose Harriet Beecher Stowe should have just kept her big white, privileged mouth shut.

Anonymous said...

For that matter, isn't cuisine an art? How can we possibly make or consume another culture's food without demeaning them and stealing from them? Rick Bayless, you're next. -- Jessica

Mark Caplan said...

A male fiction writer mustn't include a female character lest he culturally appropriate female culture. A Baby Boomer writer mustn't include a Millennial character. A New York City writer mustn't write about Hoboken or Yonkers. If he lives on the East Side, he mustn't write about the West Side. If he lives in a loft apartment, he mustn't write about townhouse dwellers.

robother said...

The Drill SGT: "debates over Dos Equis versus PBR beer."

In '69 I'd never heard of Dos Equis up north. I went directly from PBR to Panama Red. Main bone of contention that summer was when a couple of us noticed the shop steward was favoring crew cut guys over long haired in filling job requests. Had to show him we weren't the peaceful hippies he'd heard about.

ddh said...

History is cultural appropriation of the experiences of people different from you living in a different time.

Social justice requires us all to attend the Church of What's Happening Now.

ddh said...

Cultural appropriation is the single stupidest idea ever conceived in human history.

Joe said...

And how dare Herbert appropriate Freman culture? The bastard. And don't get me started on Klause and werewolves.

Michael said...

I personally am quite happy that we appropriated the land of the aboriginal peoples, that certain fashion-free individuals favor turquoise encrusted belts and that curry and vindaloo are readily available. As is bison in tasty burgers. I own and wear a beret which is not exactly French but Basque and wear on occasion a kilt although I have no Scots blood.

Or, OK, fine. Write on aboriginal person but do not include white people or white technology in your little story. Make it an oral story if you will in a non-appropriating way.

Scott M said...

Male, white authors are berated if they don't include strong female and/or minority characters. However, male, white authors are berated if they appropriate female and/or minorities characters. You see where this equation leads?

tcrosse said...

How dare Margaret Atwood, the doyenne of Canadian letters, write The Handmaid's Tale about a bunch of New England Americans ? Let her stick to writing about Canadians, as Robertson Davies did.

Unknown said...

No male writer according to this logic can have female characters in his books. Female writers can't have male characters. Straight writers can't have any gay characters. Books must be strictly segregated by race, with a white author not having any black or hispanic etc characters. And yet if you DON'T include minority characters in your books you are racist.
And of course no more science fiction because none of us are aliens and don't know how they feel.

Unknown said...

some more:
1) The human experience is pretty universal. By observation of people you can learn a lot and try at least to represent them authentically.
2) Outsiders can sometimes have insight into a place or ethnic group that they lack (the fish doesn't know he is wet). Alexis de Tocqueville had considerable insight into the US of his day by being able to compare what citizens here took for granted to other places and customs.
3) If there are no native writers of note for some culture, is it better that that group be invisible to the world? For example, the population of Australian aboriginals is small and not likely to have a top notch writer just by the odds. So no one should ever read about them? This is even more true for localities where the locals are not even literate.

Swede said...

Just more leftist poop being made as they eat each other.

Please, carry on.

Mike said...

Michael Barone had a "modest proposal" about this very subject earlier in the week. LC