Oddly, I was just about to join the Writers’ Union of Canada, in anticipation of the publication of my first non-fiction book, when Hal Niedzviecki’s editorial, “Winning the Appropriation Prize” was published.
I’m a strong supporter of free speech, especially at this historical point, where we live next to Trump-held territories in a time of false news and deliberate spreading of misinformation. I celebrate the right to offend, to provoke, and to challenge, as so many of the comics, journalists and writers working around the world today are doing, often at considerable risk to themselves.
But speech that is free is just the lowest common denominator of a free society. We all have the right to babble freely of our hatreds and fears, to post them and to spread them. It happens minute by minute. Beyond that freedom, each of us must ask herself questions about the work we bring into the world. Is it true? Is it ethical? Where does the balance of power lie? What is the intention, the goal, behind the work, and will the work itself move us toward that goal, however incrementally? Is it appropriate for its intended audience?
This is not self-censorship; this is editing. It is what writers do, and fail at, and resolve to do better.
I celebrate acts of radical imagination, engaged witnessing, and cross-cultural exploration. As so many writers do, I look beyond my own limited encounters with the world. I am writing a historical novel set in France, England and America of the 1600’s, not an era in which I have any first-hand experience.
Hal Niedzviecki’s piece should not have been published by the Union. It was not a call to celebrate imagination, or the extraordinary empathy that can come from deep study of that or those we don’t know, be it human or animal or tree. This was about appropriating the stories of a particular group when we as a society have barely begun to acknowledge and measure the harms, let alone make amends. It was published not on a personal blog but within the same newsletter that also called for reconciliation and celebration of the work of indigenous writers. The cognitive dissonance was jarring.
That term, “appropriation,” is meant to provoke the very people, indigenous writers of Canada, that so many of us settlers wish to approach, at this moment in history--
Canada’s 150th—with open hands, listening hearts, and a true spirit of reconciliation. Mr. Niedzviecki was free to speak in a public forum that represents all writers; I feel misrepresented.
Although I don’t know the circumstances of his resignation, I don’t wish for anyone to be fired; I wish, always, for dialogue. None of us are disposable; we must find ways to speak to each other across the chasm. That said, the public response (much like Trump’s election) has been, if anything, more disheartening than the original article.
I would like to reflect on the extraordinary interview Hal Wake gave with Joy Kogawa last week at Green College. Joy spoke of her new book, Gently to Nagasaki, a quest for forgiveness she undertook in the name of her beloved father, a sexual abuser of children. Such a difficult quest! But Joy spoke with clarity about that road to forgiveness, that road that requires love to surround truth, to be twice as big as the truth. Without that, truth leads to vengeance, and there is something in us all that lusts for vengeance. Beware. Sometimes it is useful to take a vow of silence, of listening, before beginning the work.
Dear writers, dear writers, what is our union, our obligation to take care of, listen to and cherish one another? What will become of us all in the age of anger, in the age of lies, in the songs of despair sent up across the planet? For this I know: we are being called upon at this point in time to do our best work, to see as clearly and compassionately as we can, to speak freely and with the greatest care.