So, we are all agreed then?

This de­bate isn’t even a de­bate

National Post (Latest Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - An­drew Coyne Com­ment

It is cu­ri­ous that the is­sue of “cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion” should arouse such con­tro­versy when in fact we are all agreed. Here’s Buz­zfeed’s Scaachi Koul, writer of colour and one of the first to hit “send” in Thurs­day night’s melee: “No one, in the his­tory of writ­ing books, has ever sug­gested that white peo­ple are not al­lowed to write thought­ful por­tray­als of In­dige­nous peo­ple or peo­ple of colour, namely in fic­tion. Frankly, we en­cour­age it.”

Here’s Tus­carora writer Ali­cia El­liott, in Room mag­a­zine: “I will not say t hat t hese ( white) au­thors can­not write from an ex­pe­ri­ence they’ve never had. To an ex­tent, all fic­tion writ­ers write from ex­pe­ri­ences they’ve never had since the char­ac­ters they’re writ­ing aren’t real.” Here’s Coast Sal­ish blog­ger Robert Jago: “Do I care if you have a na­tive char­ac­ter in your stupid book about wan­der­ing pants or what­ever? No. Write away. It doesn’t af­fect me.”

So we are agreed: no one is say­ing that writ­ers of one cul­ture should never write about another cul­ture, or in the voice of a char­ac­ter from another cul­ture, and all the rest. Be­cause of course it’s a crazy idea: all of lit­er­a­ture is about imag­in­ing your­self in another per­son’s po­si­tion, a per­son who by def­i­ni­tion must be un­like you un­less you are writ­ing au­to­bi­og­ra­phy; the whole his­tory of art, like­wise, is of cul­tures learn­ing from and be­ing in­flu­enced by another, mix­ing and bor­row­ing and pro­duc­ing some­thing new. So I join with Scaachi in re­ject­ing out­right this ridicu­lous idea of cul­tural her­meti­cism that no one has ever sug­gested.

And while we are all agree­ing, here’s another thing we are all agreed upon. If I may bor­row a phrase, no one has ever sug­gested that writ­ers should ven­ture into another cul­ture in a slap­dash fash­ion, re­ly­ing on broad stereo­types and hamhanded car­i­ca­tures in place of close ob­ser­va­tion and deep un­der­stand­ing. Where the sen­si­tiv­i­ties are great­est, the more the obli­ga­tion to take care and at­ten­tion to get it right, and the more un­fa­mil­iar the ter­ri­tory the greater the cau­tion that should be taken.

There is a phrase f or writ­ing that fails that test, one that long pre­dates the present con­tro­versy. It’s called bad writ­ing: of­fen­sive, yes, but of­fen­sive be­cause it is sloppy, lazy, in­ac­cu­rate. That sort of lazi­ness is not just dis­re­spect­ful of the sub­ject — and it is right that the rest of us should be more con­scious of how hurt­ful that can be, and the harm it can cause — but dis­re­spect­ful of the reader, whose judg­ment is swift and ter­ri­ble as the clos­ing of a book. Again, I know of no one who would dis­agree with this.

So if we are all agreed, why are we fight­ing? Be­cause in fact we are not all agreed. Scaachi and I may be as one in de­fence of the idea that cul­tural bound­aries are not ab­so­lute and in­vi­o­lable, that writ­ers should be free — in fact, en­cour­aged — to write on any sub­ject they like but ac­count­able for the re­sult, but alas not ev­ery­one is as rea­son­able as we are. There are plenty of peo­ple who re­gard any use of one cul­ture’s ar­ti­facts, cus­toms and ex­pres­sions by another as ob­jec­tion­able in it­self, and any at­tempt to set a story in another cul­tural set­ting as anath­ema, no mat­ter how re­spect­fully treated or ac­cu­rately ob­served. Here’s Janet Rogers, Mo­hawk/ Tus­carora writer, on Canada­land: “Write about how my real­ity af­fects you, don’t write about me. Write about your re­la­tion­ship to In­dige­nous is­sues, com­mu­ni­ties, and ex­pe­ri­ences; don’t write as if you are me. I’m here. I can write my own sto­ries.”

Well. We c an de­bate whether, as this im­plies, there is such a thing as a prop­erty right to a “real­ity,” or whether there are only a fixed num­ber of sto­ries that can be told about a place or a peo­ple. Or rather: can we de­bate it? Can we even de­bate whether we can de­bate it? Be­cause most of the present con­tro­versy is not about cul- tu­ral ap­pro­pri­a­tion it­self, but about the un­ac­cept­abil­ity even of tak­ing a con­trary view on it — a view, that is, such as the one on which Scaachi and I are so firmly agreed. That view may be right or it might be wrong; it may be im­por­tant or it may be triv­ial; it may be rel­e­vant or it may be be­side the point. But it’s a view, held in good faith. And we are at the point now where peo­ple are los­ing their jobs for ex­press­ing their views.

That was what the “ap­pro­pri­a­tion prize” that caused such ex­cite­ment was about. It was a protest, yes, against the idea of plac­ing bound­aries around the writer’s imag­i­na­tion, but more par­tic­u­larly against the forced de­par­ture of Hal Niedzviecki as ed­i­tor of Write mag­a­zine, for writ­ing an es­say in de­fence of cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion — cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion, not as the care­less plun­der of another cul­ture, but in the sense de­scribed here, of writ­ers get­ting out of their own cul­tural bub­ble and ex­plor­ing oth­ers, with sym­pa­thy and care, which he pro­posed should not be dis­cour­aged but en­cour­aged: hence his off- handed sug­ges­tion of a prize, and our — for I was one of the bale­ful me­dia types who signed on — echo of it. I defy any­one in good faith to read his es­say (“It’s up to each of us to find the right mea­sures of re­spect, learn­ing, and true telling”), or our en­dorse­ment of it, as mean­ing any­thing else.

That it would in fact be read another way should per­haps have been fore­seen: Twit­ter is not the place for these dis­cus­sions. That the counter- ar­gu­ment would amount to ac­cu­sa­tions of white­ness, like­wise. But I must ad­mit to some dis­may at find­ing so many of those pil­ing on were writ­ers. When writ­ers are at­tack­ing other writ­ers for writ­ing in de­fence of the right of writ­ers to write, some­thing is very wrong.


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