CanLit and colonialism

Indigenous literature’s fearless aunties respond on cultural appropriation

Editor of the Writers' Union of Canada’s magazine resigns after backlash
Photo: “Library” by Stewart Butterfield, altered, via Flickr.

Earlier this week, Write, the magazine of The Writers’ Union of Canada, released its spring issue dedicated to Indigenous voices and authorship. As with most spaces allotted for Indigenous folks, it turns out the magazine was not safe from the suffocating interjections of non-Indigenous opinion.

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Hal Niedzviecki, the editor of Write, decided to use this specialized issue to feature his pro-cultural-appropriation argument in the form of an Editor’s forward to introduce the Indigenous writer’s curated for the issue.

“I don’t believe in cultural appropriation,” Niedzviecki begins, later suggesting “write what you don’t know” to see if readers will grant the coveted “Appropriation Prize.”

“The idea of cultural appropriation discourages writers from taking up the challenge, which is at least one reason why CanLit subject matter remains exhaustingly white and middle-class,” he writes. “Get outside your head. Relentlessly explore the lives of people who aren't like you, who you didn't grow up with, who don't share your background, bank balance and expectations.”

Sharp criticism

Niedzviecki’s piece was criticized by many, including one of the issue’s fearless contributors.

“I am seriously disgusted that someone would use the Indigenous issue of Write as a jump point for a case for cultural appropriation on the backs, words, and reputations of the Indigenous writers featured in it,” wrote Helen Knott on Facebook.

How will Canada, or CanLit, achieve reconciliation when there’s a never-ending take-take-take relationship?

In a few short hours, the post was shared over 80 times, largely by the Indigenous writing community and its supporters.

Knott was joined by a string of others, including board members of The Writers’ Union of Canada, who were also sharply critical of the piece and of Niedzviecki’s decision to include it in an issue dedicated to highlighting Indigenous literary voices.

Unfortunately, cultural appropriation in the Canadian literary community is an all-consuming fire that has yet to be put out. With the debate over Joseph Boyden’s identity a few short months ago, the piece from Niedzviecki seems to be an act of solidarity with his fellow non-Indigenous writer.

These actions, like any inappropriate behaviours, did not go unnoticed by some of the strongest Indigenous women authors and aunties who have fearlessly put their work out into the mainstream.

Take the land, then take the ideas

Tracey Lindberg, a citizen of the As’in’i’wa’chi Nation (also known as Kelly Lake Cree Nation) and author of the best-selling novel Birdie, says words are like gifts that are earned.

As for cultural appropriation in literature and storytelling, Lindberg told Ricochet by email, “Imagine that. You are writing down your stories to stay alive. Visible. Indigenous. And then, you are told that your stories are words and words can be owned, taken, commodified [and] appropriated. We are rendered voiceless and invisible…. Your gift stomped on.”

“Calling what we do ‘Canlit’ is as inaccurate as calling us Canadians.”

Métis author and poet Katherena Vermette also offered comment via email.

“You’d think we’d had enough of this shit show but apparently, privilege knows no bounds,” she wrote.

When asked in an online chat if CanLit feels like an inclusive space, poet and performer Janet Rogers, Mohawk/Tuscarora from Six Nations, responded with a succinct message: “No.”

“Canlit has been feeling the very real and very strong shift of the authentic Indigenous voice on the scene for years,” she said.

As for Niedzviecki’s editorial, Rogers suggested it is “in some ways an admittance that our stories told in our voices supersedes their centeredness in the larger cultural fabric of kkkanada.”

Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, Chippewas of Nawash First Nation, Saugeen Ojibway Nation and also a contributor to the special issue of Write, told Indian Country Today that Niedzviecki’s insensitive piece “completely undermines and attempts to silence those voices and the intent of the issue, which I understood was to provide a space for Indigenous voice and perspectives.”

Akiwenzie-Damm runs the Indigenous publishing powerhouse Kegedonce Press, which encourages all Indigenous writers at any stage in their career to publish their work through them.

Who are we writing for?

In the latest contest of CBC’s Canada Reads, Vermette’s book The Break was eliminated in the first round after jurors complained about its alleged lack of sympathetic male characters. The first to admit that her books are far from perfect, Vermette told Ricochet, “My concerns and loyalties were and are to myself and my community first.”

CanLit is “long overdue for a significant and meaningful conversation about cultural appropriation,” said Vermette, and urgently needs to address “what it actually is and who it silences.” She also noted that without this discussion, CanLit is responsible for upholding huge barriers.

Lindberg, taking guidance from an Elder, said she was taught that “words are like medicine bundles,” adding that “many of us write like our lives depend upon it—because they do.... We write our lives, our peoples’ lives and our homeland’s life as if we have a relationship with the stories [and] with the words.”

Forgiveness and permission

Many Indigenous defenders know this phrase all too well: “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.”

Referring to Niedzviecki’s case and others, Rogers stated, “The permission they seek is to perpetuate racist, insulting statements as a way to push their true feelings and agenda.”

“We don’t need to ‘try and fit’ in anymore” as Indigenous people, she said, suggesting that Canada’s identity without Indigenous folks is merely a “weakly-worded constitution written on decaying paper.”

According to Lindberg, “without an understanding of the history,” taking from Indigenous experience is “colonization” and “reifying settler righteousness.”

“It is violence and it is erasure,” she said.

Niedzviecki has resigned as editor of Write.

How will Canada, or CanLit, achieve reconciliation when there’s a never-ending take-take-take relationship? It’s as though the colonizer’s agenda was to take everything within arm’s reach, such as land, water, and resources. When that was all gone, the ravaging extraction apparently shifted to taking from the minds of our artists, our thinkers, our leaders, our writers.

When will the work of Indigenous people, whether on the land or in the words and pages we share with one another, be seen as competent and therefore left alone? The persistent interjection of colonization derails our path to reconciliation and peaceful nationhood. It is no longer up to Indigenous writers to put out the fires on which CanLit continues to pour fuel.

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