What Hal Niedzviecki said

Last week, Hal Niedzviecki, editor of Write magazine (a Writer’s Union publication) resigned his position over an opinion article he wrote in an edition devoted to Indigenous writing. I read columns on this news by Elizabeth Renzetti in the Globe and Mail and Christie Blatchford in the National Post, both of whom suggested he had been wronged, and I decided to look at Niedzviecki’s piece, entitled “Winning the Appropriation Prize.”

“I don’t believe in cultural appropriation,” writes Niedzviecki. “In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities.”

Cultural appropriation, for those new to the conversation, is defined by Oxford as “the taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another.” That covers everything from imperialist countries ransacking conquered countries of sacred artifacts to Yann Martel, a Spanish-born Canadian, imagining the voice of an Indian boy from Pondicherry in his novel, Life of Pi, to your learning a foreign language, although the phrase does carry connotations of powerful groups exploiting, dominating, and abusing the culture of less powerful groups.

Apart from the part about not believing in cultural appropriation, which seems to me an historical fact, I found no fault in Niedzviecki’s sentiment of encouraging cultural exploration, especially combined with his later qualifiers that addressed the problems of exploitation and abuse. It is fine to write characters with lives very different from our own, he writes, and there is nothing stopping us from “incorporating a culture’s myths, legends, oral histories, and sacred practices into our own works,” but – and a very big but – “we answer to the readers.”

“If we steal stories or phone in a bunch of stereotypes,” he continues, we are inappropriately appropriating. “It’s up to each of us to find the right measures of respect, learning, and true telling.”

With a provocative flourish, Niedzviecki ventured “that there should even be an award for” deft treatment of another’s culture: “the Appropriation Prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.”

He went on to call “Indigenous writing the most vital and compelling force in writing and publishing in Canada today.” He acknowledged that Indigenous writers are under-represented in literature (and, I would add, in journalism, something for which I, as a former leader in the profession in Canada, bear some responsibility). He offered some advice to Indigenous writers, the validity of which I don’t feel qualified to judge.

Members of the Writer’s Union community, some of whom, like Alicia Elliott, had written about cultural appropriation in the issue (a version is here), were outraged at Niedzviecki’s views. They protested. The Writer’s Union declared that Niedzvieki “contradicts and dismisses the racist systemic barriers faced by Indigenous writers and other racialized writers,” apologized for the “pain and offence” caused by Niedzviecki’s article, and procured his resignation.

I found it odd that a Canadian editor would lose his position over a call for writers and artists to explore one another’s cultures and identities with care, respect, and empathy. I didn’t read anything dismissive in his article, and I thought his take was a welcome respite from the usual heavy-handed dismissals of the very notion of cultural appropriation such as one written by Washington Post columnist George Will this past weekend who called it a “hysteria” illustrating “progressivism’s descent into authoritarianism,” and who quoted another critic as saying it “bears an eerie echo to the right-wing fantasy of national purity.”

I also liked Niedzvieki’s facetious notion of an Appropriation Prize to celebrate best practices in cultural sharing and I went on Twitter to facetiously donate $500 to the cause, inviting others to do the same. Yes, it was glib and sophomoric. That's Twitter.

Over the ensuing 72 hours, I heard from many people on the same platform, most of whom evidently agree with me that vigor, scorn, mockery, and offensiveness are normal and sometimes useful lubricants of public debate.

So many of them in expressing their displeasure with the practice of cultural appropriation used such blatantly obvious examples of stealing and stereotyping that I’m inclined to believe few of them had taken the time to read Niedzvieki’s piece and notice his cautions (in fairness, the article is no longer online).

I also found that few, if any, of my critics favoured a ban on the respectful adoption of another’s cultural ideas, forms, or practices. To do so would outlaw the creation or portrayal of characters dissimilar to oneself, reducing the whole of literature to personal essay and autobiography, and the whole of journalism to a first-person sport. What most of us are debating, it seems, is how high we set the bar for sensitivity in our treatment of other cultures.

Alicia Elliott argues that an empathetic touch is not enough. “Empathy has its limits,” she says, “and contrary to what some may think, it is possible to both have empathy for a person and still hold inherited, unacknowledged racist views about them.” Unless non-Indigenous authors can “write about [Indigenous people] with a love for who we are as a people …. Then why are you writing about us at all?”

I think Niedzviecki’s goal of respect, learning, and truth is more achievable than love, but Ms. Elliott is entitled to be ambitious and, surely, given Canada’s often miserable treatment of its Indigenous peoples, best efforts are owed. By my reading of Niedzviecki’s article – and I fully acknowledge that my perspective is limited by my own experience, which is very different from that of young Indigenous writers and racialized writers, yet I am allowed my reading of it -- he was arguing for best efforts, and I regret that he is out of a job and no longer able to continue that argument in Write magazine.