Appropriation, identity and writing

Over in sleepy Canada — a country not precisely at the centre of the books world — an unusual controversy has rocked the literary establishment. It has led to complaints, resignations, sensitivity training, and the usual lengthy op-eds and think-pieces. But it’s the sort of thing that needs to be looked at carefully, for it’s a valuable guide to the pitfalls of writing in the 21st century.


It started simply enough: With an edition of Write magazine, brought out by the Writers’ Union of Canada every three months, that was dedicated to writing by indigenous authors. About a dozen Canadians with indigenous ancestry contributed stories and essays. But they were prefaced, oddly enough, by an editorial written by the editor of  Write, an author named Hal Niedzviecki. In it, Mr Niedzviecki argued: “I don’t believe in cultural appropriation. In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities. I’d go so far as to say that there should even be an award for doing so — the Appropriation Prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.”


Naturally, this led to an uproar, and Mr Niedzviecki resigned. Several prominent journalists and writers sprang to his defence, including the managing editor of Canadian television’s flagship news show, and the editor-in-chief of Canada’s premier literary magazine, the Walrus. They too got caught in the controversy, and the magazine editor, Jonathan Kay, had to resign. The news editor sent out a detailed apology for supporting Mr Niedzviecki and was enrolled by his broadcasting company in sensitivity training.


Now, on the one hand, you have to appreciate the enormity of what Mr Niedzviecki did. It’s just plain rude to invite a dozen indigenous people to write about their lived experience and then begin that issue with an editorial that essentially says “it doesn’t matter who writes that experience”. To Mr Niedzviecki’s credit, he seems to understand this aspect of what he did, saying, “It breaks my heart to think that I invited these indigenous writers into my magazine, into my home so to speak, and then I insulted them.”


But, as I’ve argued before, the issue of “cultural appropriation” itself is not as straightforward, especially when it comes to writing, as all that. Let’s be clear: Across the world, there is a structural problem in that voices from more marginalised communities, such as indigenous communities in Canada, illegal immigrants in the US, or Dalits in India, are not sufficiently amplified. Those from marginalised communities who are speaking and writing with eloquence and talent about their experience need to be heard more.


But the answer to this structural problem is not, in my opinion, closing off writing about such experiences only to people from those communities.


Mr Niedzviecki, in his editorial, argued for exploring “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”. This is not, in and of itself, something that we should object to. In fact, it is something that, I would think, should be encouraged.


Perhaps the very notion of “cultural appropriation” is harder to get if you’re Indian. We live with multiple “cultures” in our daily lives, which are a constant stream of appropriating and being appropriated. When you wear a sari from a part of India to which you do not belong, are you appropriating another culture? When you write an email in a mock-PG Wodehouse style, are you appropriating another culture? What on earth was Chennai Express? (I’m sure there are southern movies that have similarly appropriated north Indian cultures, though perhaps not with the same infantilising, insulting overtones.) If we start worrying entirely about appropriation, our entire cultural life in this country will shut down. And, conversely, we can see that this appropriation, or borrowing, or composite-ness, is so important to whatever cultural vitality we have at the moment; and that its absence would deaden cultural production. That is what threatens the West at the moment, and it is something that they should beware of, and fear.


This is again, not to diminish the problem of structural exclusion of certain voices and experiences from mainstream writing in particular. It is merely to argue something else: That we need to work to minimise such exclusions. But that important work is neither furthered nor assisted by viewing writers writing about experiences beyond their own as, necessarily, appropriation or theft.

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