Cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion: at its base, it’s all about money

Iden­ti­fy­ing cul­tural roots of art has never been sim­ple

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - THOMAS WALKOM Thomas Walkom ap­pears in Torstar news­pa­pers.

The de­bate over cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion is com­pli­cated. At one level it is about the le­git­i­macy of telling the sto­ries of oth­ers. At base, it is about money.

It be­came front-page re­cently when the ed­i­tor of a lit­tle-known lit­er­ary mag­a­zine cre­ated a firestorm by dar­ing to sup­port the idea.

“Any­one any­where should be en­cour­aged to imag­ine other peo­ples, other cul­tures, other iden­ti­ties,” Hal Niedzviecki said in Write, the jour­nal of the Writ­ers’ Union of Canada. He went on to sug­gest, tongue-incheek, that an “ap­pro­pri­a­tion prize” be cre­ated for writ­ers who man­aged to ac­com­plish this task.

For that, he was de­nounced by his em­ployer and a num­ber of au­thors. He quickly re­signed.

Those liv­ing hap­pily out­side the hot­house of Cana­dian lit­er­a­ture might be sur­prised that this is even an is­sue. By def­i­ni­tion, fic­tion writ­ers write fic­tion. In that sense, ev­ery­thing is bor­rowed.

In­deed, the cre­ation of the CanLit in­dus­try in the 1970s was based on the idea, rad­i­cal at the time, that Canada possessed a unique cul­ture that could be ad­dressed only by Cana­dian au­thors.

Some­thing sim­i­lar is hap­pen­ing to­day with in­dige­nous au­thors — a cul­tural re­nais­sance based on the no­tion that abo­rig­i­nal peo­ples in Canada have sin­gu­lar ex­pe­ri­ences that re­quire abo­rig­i­nal voices to ex­press them.

Iden­ti­fy­ing the cul­tural roots of art has never been sim­ple. Is David Sza­lay, who was short­listed for last year’s Man Booker prize, a Cana­dian nov­el­ist? Tech­ni­cally yes, since has born in Mon­treal. But he and his fam­ily moved to Bri­tain a year af­ter his birth and he now lives in Hun­gary.

Con­versely, Carol Shields was born Amer­i­can but lived most of her adult life in Canada. A dual cit­i­zen, she won both a U.S. Pulitzer Prize and a Cana­dian Gov­er­nor Gen­eral’s Award for the same book.

An­nie Proulx’s The Ship­ping News is a fine Cana­dian book set in New­found­land. But Proulx her­self is Amer­i­can.

None of this would mat­ter if au­thors had un­lim­ited ac­cess to the grants and sub­si­dies that help keep them alive and writ­ing. But there is only so much to go around. When some win, oth­ers lose.

Which is why any­one cares about cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion.

An eco­nomic ar­gu­ment can be made for favour­ing one group of writ­ers over another. Just as gov­ern­ments use grants and sub­si­dies to help in­fant in­dus­tries thrive, they can do the same for, say, in­dige­nous au­thors.

Some pri­vate op­er­a­tions al­ready fol­low this path. On­tario’s Kege­donce Press, for in­stance, pub­lishes only in­dige­nous au­thors who are rec­og­nized as such by their com­mu­ni­ties.

But there is a dan­ger in sort­ing out lit­er­a­ture by blood­line. At its worst, it per­pet­u­ates the 19th cen­tury In­dian Act prac­tice of ar­bi­trar­ily dis­crim­i­nat­ing against those who lack the proper pa­per­work. (A poem pub­lished in the lat­est is­sue of Write, ti­tled, “On re­ceiv­ing a govern­ment let­ter re­ject­ing our In­dian sta­tus,” and writ­ten by Mi’kmaq poet Shan­non Webb-Camp­bell, speaks di­rectly to that bu­reau­cratic nightmare.)

At the very least, ban­ning so-called cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion risks pe­nal­iz­ing that very use­ful lit­er­ary fig­ure, the au­thor as alien­ated out­sider.

The alien­ated out­sider may not be of the cul­ture he is writ­ing about. But that very fact al­lows him to see things that in­sid­ers might miss. He knows what he’s talk­ing about but de­lib­er­ately keeps his dis­tance.

Philip Kreiner’s book of short sto­ries, ti­tled Peo­ple like us in a place like this and based on his time in an abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­nity on the James Bay coast, is a good ex­am­ple of this.

It was nom­i­nated for a Gov­er­nor Gen­eral’s Award in 1983 but would never get that hon­our to­day. The au­thor, a non­indige­nous Cana­dian, com­mit­ted the sin of writ­ing about some­thing he was not.

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