What Can We Learn From Canada's 'Appropriation Prize' Literary Fiasco?

What Can We Learn From Canada's 'Appropriation Prize' Literary Fiasco?
Illustration: Jim Cooke/GMG :

A short column titled “Winning the Appropriation Prize” published in early May has sparked a small but fiery debate in the Canadian literary community over race, representation, and, for some, free speech. The column appeared in Write, a small magazine produced by the Writer’s Union of Canada (TWUC); in it, Hal Niedzveicki (a former Write editor) stridently defends the practice of cultural appropriation: “In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities.”

“Set your sights on the big goal: Win the Appropriation Prize,” Niedzviecki writes, in an issue that was otherwise dedicated to highlighting the work of Indigenous writers, both established and lesser-known.

His piece is a misguided cri de coeur of sorts, a call to arms for writers to “imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities”; to engage in what he perceives as kind of universal truth-telling without much regard for history. Though it’s frankly unclear if Niedzviecki actually understands the web of significations that the phrase cultural appropriation conjures up, he persisted in using the phrase, suggesting that the lack of diversity within the ranks of Canadian literature—which is, in his words, “exhaustingly white and middle class”—could be corrected if those same white, middle-class writers would “explore the lives of people who aren’t like you.”

Niedzviecki’s opinions on cultural appropriation, as well as his proposal that Canadian literature could address its diversity problem simply if white, middle-class writers interrogated the lives of others, were not well-received. The piece was roundly criticized on social media, and other writers featured in the same issue expressed anger and disappointment in Write’s deeply misguided decision to publish what strikes many as an unnecessary column.

Shortly after, Nikki Reimer, a member of Write magazine’s editorial board, resigned. “At the most generous interpretation [Niedzviecki’s column] is clueless and thoughtless,” Remer wrote. “At worst, it is offensive and insulting to the many writers featured within the page; it undermines any attempts at space-making or celebration of the writers featured within the pages, and it marks Write magazine as a space that is not safe for indigenous and racialized writers.” On May 10, shortly after Reimer shared her thoughts on Niedzviecki’s column and resigned from Write’s editorial board, TWUC apologized for the piece and announced that Niedzveicki had resigned from his position at the magazine.

TWUC also expressed disappointment in the editorial “process,” telling The Star, “we take full responsibility,” for the piece and its publication. The Writer’s Union added that they would review their policies and address the controversy at their conference scheduled for June. Almost concurrently, TWUC’s Equity Task Force also criticized the decision to publish Niedzviecki’s column, saying in a statement that they were “angry and appalled. “

For Niedzviecki to suggest that cultural appropriation is just a device for imaginary work is highly problematic and re-entrenches the deeply racist assumptions about art, and about what constitutes giving and taking,” they added.

Though the Equity Task Force called Niedzviecki’s resignation “the right decision,” they added that the TWUC needed to do more to ensure “better relations in the future,” and included a list of demands. Niedzveicki’s resignation should have been the end of the discussion about the contents of his column; if anything, it should have become little more than a springboard for a broader discussion about representation or, at least, a move towards a better understanding of the cultural employment of cultural appropriation. Instead, it became a springboard for a fallacious and mean-spirited debate about free speech.

On May 11, Jonathan Kay, until recently the editor-in-chief of the high-brow Canadian magazine The Walrus, called the response to Niedzviecki’s column “sad and shameful.” “The mobbing of Hal Niedzveicki is what we get when we let identity-politics fundamentalist run riot,” Kay wrote on Twitter. Kay was one of only a handful of well-placed Candian writers and editors who saw the criticism of Niedzviecki and his subsequent resignation as the tyranny of some misguided sense of political correctness. In an opinion piece at the National Post, he referred to the criticism as “shaming.” He continued:

What I don’t find helpful is the reflexive instinct to shame those with whom we disagree—the kind on display at TWUC this week. Indeed, it is these mobbings that encourage the idea that free speech is under siege from a systematic program of left wing censorship. On both sides, it is fear and suspicion that is driving the social media rage. And as of this writing, there’s no sign it will dissipate soon.

Kay’s piece, published on May 12, seems unreflectively ironic since in the day prior he and a number of his colleagues (whom Buzzfeed describes as “a group of white editors, executives, and longtime columnists for some of Canada’s largest mainstream publications”) began to jokingly collect money for a Niedzviecki-inspired “Appropriation Prize.” Buzzfeed reporter and writer Scaachi Koul notes:

Ken Whyte, formerly the president of Rogers Publishing, started it off with $500. Anne Marie Owens (editor in chief of the National Post), Alison Uncles (editor in chief of Maclean’s magazine), Steve Ladurantaye (managing editor of CBC News), Steve Maich (head of digital content and publishing for Rogers Media), Scott Feschuk (Maclean’s columnist), and Christie Blatchford (National Post columnist), amongst others, all volunteered to fork over hundreds of dollars for a prize that would reward people for culturally appropriating in their work. Walrus editor Jon Kay didn’t offer money but retweeted Whyte’s call and objected to Niedzviecki’s resignation.

Though many later apologized, describing their tweets as too glib for Twitter or the wrong approach to defending free speech, the apologies rang a bit empty. Koul described the conversation as “nakedly cruel, with no shred of possible empathy for people who are really struggling to get their work read, recognized, and appreciated not only by an audience but by these exact editors who act as gatekeepers to said audience.” And indeed, given that many of these writers and editors also defended Joseph Boyden, the Canadian novelist who greatly exaggerated claims about his Indigenous heritage, the conversation seems designed to prevent discussions of cultural appropriation originating with those it adversely affects. If you’re criticizing the “wrong” men, the establishment says here, you can’t possibly be doing so from a rational point of view; you must be part of a hysterical mob engaging in censorship and mindless shaming.

The framing of the debate as the exercise of free speech versus unruly mobs is as motivated as it is disingenuous. As Koul points out, despite literary protestations, including Niedzviecki’s, “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.” Rather, what’s at stake for Indigenous writers and writers of color is the lack of representation within the publishing industry. It’s easy to suggest that cultural appropriation—that is, white, middle-class writers exploring underrepresented lives—could fix the monotony of voices in current publishing; it’s harder to give those actual underrepresented voices platforms without undercutting them at every turn. It’s easier for novelists like Lionel Shriver to decry cultural appropriation as “runaway political correctness” while wearing a sombrero than it is for her to reckon with criticism.

But it seems like the publishing community (in Canada or elsewhere) is a long way from a better understanding of cultural appropriation, better contented to allow purposeful misunderstandings of the phrase to stand as proverbial straw men than to do any of that actual reckoning themselves. On May 15, CBC News reported that Kay resigned as EIC of The Walrus, something he alluded to in his earlier National Post column defending Niedzviecki:

Niedzviecki resigned—apparently on his own initiative. If I had to speculate, I’d say this outcome was his intention all along. The piece had the air of someone exasperated with the political correctness, tokenism and hypersensitivity that now pervade academia and cultural organizations. […] The end of his tenure at Write is not a form of “censorship,” as some have claimed. It’s just the way our business works. It’ll happen to me one day (perhaps all the sooner, thanks to this column).

Kay told the CBC that his decision “came out of a long-running difference of opinion about the direction of The Walrus we’ve been having for months.”

There is, perhaps, an ironic silver lining in the resignations of both Kay and Niedzviecki. They are part of the inevitable, if slow, remaking of the mastheads at these respective publications, changes that will ideally diversify both magazines. That Niedzviecki chose to leave his post rather than reckon with the complete failure of his editorial oversight, or that Kay would even himself hint about an intentional resignation, seems to signal a virtual retreat from the conversation by Canada’s literary establishment. What comes next from both publications—who will replace both men on the masthead—is worth keeping an eye on.

In an interview with CBC Radio, Niedzviecki apologized for insulting Indigenous writers: “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.

“To me, what happened was you might call it a cultural misunderstanding,” he added. “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.”

During his response, Ryan McMahon, an Anishinaabe writer and comedian who regularly works on Indigenous issues, shook his head and asked Niedzviecki if he had apologized to any of the Indigenous writers featured in the most recent issue of Write. Niedzviecki said he had not yet done so but was planning on reaching out.

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