Monday May 15, 2017

'I invoked cultural appropriation in the context of literature and writing only': Hal Niedzviecki

Hal Niedzviecki who wrote a recent controversial editorial headlined, Winning the Appropriation Prize, says writers should be 'encouraged to write from points of view and perspectives that are not their own.'

Hal Niedzviecki who wrote a recent controversial editorial headlined, Winning the Appropriation Prize, says writers should be 'encouraged to write from points of view and perspectives that are not their own.' (www.alongcametomorrow.com)

Listen 19:11

The spring issue of Write magazine was meant to recognize the strength of Indigenous writers in Canada β€” to celebrate the words of new voices like Joshua Whitehead and established ones like Richard Van Camp, among many others.

Instead, it was 450 words that Editor-in-Chief Hal Niedzviecki wrote under the editorial headline "Winning the Appropriation Prize" that got the most attention.

In the article, Niedzviecki dismissed the notion of cultural appropriation and encouraged writers to "write what they don't know."

Winning the Appropriation Prize

A scan of Hal Niedzviecki's editorial from the May 2017 issue of Write magazine from the Writers' Union of Canada.

The outrage that followed resulted in Niedzviecki resigning from his position at Write magazine.

Related: Writers' Union of Canada sorry for article encouraging cultural appropriation

But the response from the Canadian media also prompted a heated conversation about cultural appropriation, free speech and the bounds of literary inspiration.

The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti speaks with Hal Niedzviecki, an author and the founder of Broken Pencil magazine. And Ryan McMahon, an Anishinaabe comedian and writer who is launching an Indigenous media platform on July 1 called Indian and Cowboy.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Anna Maria Tremonti: Before we talk about the response to your piece, let's talk about what you wrote. What were you trying to say?

Hal Niedzviecki: Well, there's a context that needs to be said here. First of all, Write magazine is a very small magazine. It is the in-house magazine for members of the Writers Union of Canada and it is for published book authors. So what I was trying to say in that context was an address to the published book authors working on works of the imagination in print. And that's an important context. So I wanted to say two things.

First is that writers should absolutely be encouraged to write from points of view and perspectives that are not their own. And the second point that I was trying to make, and I'll quote from the piece because nobody else does: "Indigenous literature is the most vital and compelling force in writing and publishing in Canada today."

'I wanted to push back a little bit on the idea that we should be very, very wary and very hesitant to invoke other cultures and perspectives in our writing.' - Hal Niedzviecki

The connection to those ideas comes from what I learned in working with the Indigenous writers while I was editing that special issue on Indigenous writing. And it's that Indigenous writers having experienced cultural genocide, having been raised in a dominant culture that represses their own, are doing amazing and exciting works reclaiming their own voices and re-imagining their own unique culture. And this involves for them, to some extent, writing from a perspective that unfortunately and cruelly is not fully their own β€” or they feel isn't always fully their own. And so that was the connection I was trying to make between acts of imagining other people's ideas and perspectives and Indigenous writing today.

AMT: And why did you talk about it as winning a cultural appropriation prize?

ND: I invoked cultural appropriation, again, in the context of literature and writing only, because I wanted to touch on that very heated subject. And I was aware of the debates around that and I wanted to push back a little bit on the idea that we should be very, very wary and very hesitant to invoke other cultures and perspectives in our writing.

AMT: Ryan, can you define cultural appropriation?

Ryan McMahon: Sure. I think best defined it's the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another. And certainly Hal would know that this conversation inside of the Indigenous community today is paramount to the moment we're in β€” around, you know, the efforts around reconciliation, Canada 150, the broader conversation of the importance of centering Indigenous voice. And you know we have one shot at this. This is the moment.

'Have you reached out to the writers to apologize to them?' - Ryan McMahon 

And I think the moment that emerging Indigenous writers had in-house publication was a big moment. It was one maybe long coming. And so to have these moments taken away from you, or skewed in this negative way, continues to rob us of the opportunity to reach audiences.

AMT: So what was your reaction when you read Hal's essay?

' I invited Indigenous writers into my house so to speak and I insulted them and I absolutely apologize for that.' - Hal Niedzviecki

RM: I was disappointed. I mean, I'm not in the CanLit circle. I'm writing a book now, and I hope to be inside of that circle someday soon. But these are a lot of my friends, a lot of my colleagues and peers, and I know what they felt like. I've talked with them through the weekend, and I think this is an important point is that when you do have a shot, you kind of feel when you're from a diverse community or under-represented community, you feel like the shots are few and far between and then … you read the editor's comments kind of saying that one of the most paramount issues we face in Indian country broadly is appropriation, and our own representation whether it's a mascot issue, whether it's something that happens with Valentino and fashion, the Christi Belcourt designs, whether it happens in video games β€”this has been a live conversation that took place around Christmas time with Joseph Boyden. It takes place in a lot of other contexts, so I know it was difficult for them.

AMT: Hal Niedzviecki, how did you react to the reaction?

HN: Well, let me say I appreciate Ryan's point and I think they're great points, and I absolutely agree with everything he said. I invited Indigenous writers into my house, so to speak, and I insulted them and I absolutely apologize for that. I didn't mean to insult them. That wasn't my intention at all. But I did. I offended them. And I have had to think a lot about why that happened and how that happened.

'Words are important. So I'm not going to throw the R word around and start calling people racists for mistakes they make.' -  Ryan McMahon 

To me, what happened was you might call it a cultural misunderstanding. Some people want to say that it was a willful act of racism and white privilege. I can't control how people react to what happened.

AMT: Ryan, you're shaking your head.

RM: I mean, we have to be careful. Words are important. So I'm not going to throw the R-word around and start calling people racists for mistakes they make. And this is something I've reflected on over the last couple of days, people are losing careers and their good name, their body of work that may speak otherwise to an action or a mistake that they've made. And so this is dangerous territory, and some people on the other side of this conversation are saying, this squad of Twitter activists are taking down the establishment. No, we're actually just standing up to say, 'Hey, we actually have a voice'. This is the wholesale change that we're talking about, and we're here to have our voices heard.

I want to ask: have you reached out to the writers to apologize to them? I think at the base of this, and what we're talking about in good relationship in Canada now, is the importance of founding these relationships and establishing these relationships that can't happen in silos or vacuums.

HN: Yeah, I agree. You know, it's been a week. It hasn't been an easy week, and I've been trying to figure out how to respond to all this. I haven't yet reached out to the authors to apologize, but I absolutely plan to reach out to every single one of them and apologize, and try to have that conversation that I think all of Canada is having, and I think it's actually a very important and great and productive conversation.

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Samira Mohyeddin and John Chipman.