A Note on the “Appropriation Prize”
Not everything is about you.
Oh boy. This week has been a doozy when it comes to Canadian writers not recognizing their own racism. I know that the Canadian literature and journalism scenes are a bit too niche for the average person to follow, so in case you missed it, the week started off with Write magazine editor Hal Niedzviecki resigning after being justifiably criticized for writing an editorial called “Winning the Appropriation Prize,” in which he argued that it’s totally cool for white writers to co-opt Indigenous experiences in their writing, essentially crowding out actual Indigenous people. This, by the way, was at the front of an issue about Indigenous writing in Canada. Clearly, tone deaf, and resigning was absolutely the right move here.
But that wasn’t it. The Niedzviecki debacle was followed yesterday by former Rogers Publishing president Ken Whyte doubling down on the “white people get to have the final say on everything” argument by jokingly (I think?) offering to fund an actual Appropriation Prize, something that people behind some of Canada’s most respected publications happily supported. Yes, supported. Their arguments were the same old same old: protection of free speech, artistic freedom, allowing ideas to blossom, blah blah.
But here’s the thing — all of these people, from Niedzviecki to MacLean’s Alison Uncles to Jon Kay from The Walrus immediately thought about “How does calling out cultural appropriation affect me?” rather than “How does calling out cultural appropriation affect the actual cultures that are being appropriated?” And that’s a problem.
Let’s stick to literature rather than journalism, because that’s what Niedzviecki’s original column was about. As a white woman, I can only speak for myself, so I’m going to use the example of men writing from women’s voices. I read a lot of fiction. I read books by men, books by women, and books by people who identify as neither. When it comes to gender, the books I struggle with the most are those written by men from a woman’s perspective, because no matter how well intentioned the author may be, if he’s writing a first-person narrative from a woman’s voice, with very few exceptions, it will ring false.
It almost always just seems off… my actual woman’s brain can automatically tell that this stuff isn’t written by an actual woman. And this isn’t to paint the female thought process or women’s interior lives as some kind of universal monolith — of course all women don’t think alike. But I almost never have this same disconnect when I’m reading books written by women with different perspectives or experiences than my own, so there clearly is an authenticity issue there with most male writers. Even people who use their imaginations for a living can’t really imagine what it’s like to be us.
So, this wouldn’t be a huge issue if I could just ignore books about women written by men (which I usually do) — but a problem arises when the authors that are being most read, be they Wally Lamb or Ian McEwan, are men and when it’s their depictions of women that are meeting the most eyeballs. If you are a man only reading male writers who can’t possibly understand a woman’s perspective in a truly authentic way, would that not permanently skew your perception of women’s experiences and how you behave towards us?
Now, shift this to the realm of Indigenous writers. I’m relatively sure that Joseph Boyden (who Niedzviecki was likely thinking about when he wrote his editorial) outsells Thomas King or Tracey Lindberg or Eden Robinson in Canada. Most people I know have read The Orenda. Many people I know feel like they know more about the Indigenous experience after reading The Orenda. Most of them feel that way because, when they read the book they went in thinking Boyden knew firsthand what it means to walk through life as an Indigenous person. We now know that that is not true. And that matters.
I have no doubt that Boyden has an interest in Indigenous culture, but as someone who can’t truly reflect the innermost thoughts of someone who has experienced life as an Indigenous person, I’m guessing his writing rings false to a whole lot of Indigenous people. When non-Indigenous people pick up his books instead of those by actual Indigenous people who are writing from lived experience, they’re getting a false picture. And that’s in addition to the fact that non-Indigenous writers like Boyden are making money off of borrowed stories that aren’t really theirs to tell and changing those stories to suit their own purposes.
If all of those “Appropriation Prize” supporters are being honest with themselves, this isn’t really about limiting white people’s imaginations or telling them they can’t include a diversity of characters in their work. It’s about realizing that white people (and men and cis people and people who don’t have ability issues) don’t need to have a piece of every story — that understanding race and gender and sexuality is not always something that you can just “imagine” because you consider yourself a creative genius.
So why not take a step back and let the people who don’t have to guess what it’s like to be Indigenous or trans or disabled do the honours? We need to make room for and appreciate the opportunities to read stories written by the people who actually have been there. The closest we can come to truly understanding what it’s like to be someone else is by reading about it in a great work of literature. But if an author has no knowledge of their characters, and is telling those characters’ real life equivalents to shut up and stop asking for their experiences to be respected, that understanding can never really exist.