Walkom: Cultural appropriation is ultimately about the cash

The debate over cultural appropriation is complicated. At one level it is about the legitimacy of telling the stories of others. At base, it is about money.

It became front-page recently when the editor of a little-known literary magazine created a firestorm by daring to support the idea.

“Anyone anywhere should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities,” Hal Niedzviecki said in Write, the journal of the Writers’ Union of Canada. He went on to suggest, tongue-in-cheek, that an “appropriation prize” be created for writers who managed to accomplish this task.

For that, he was denounced by his employer and a number of authors. He quickly resigned.

Those living happily outside the hothouse of Canadian literature might be surprised that this is even an issue. By definition, fiction writers write fiction. In that sense, everything is borrowed.

Should Shakespeare be castigated for appropriating Danish culture in Hamlet? The answer seems obvious.

But in reality, most writing is grounded in something. Alice Munro’s short stories articulate universal themes of loyalty and betrayal. But they also reflect the insular cosmopolitanism of rural southwestern Ontario, where she has lived most of her life.

Shakespeare may have chosen to set many of his plays in other realms. But in practice, these realms always operated a lot like Elizabethan England.

Indeed, the creation of the CanLit industry in the 1970s was based on the idea, radical at the time, that Canada possessed a unique culture that could be addressed only by Canadian authors.

Something similar is happening today with indigenous authors – a cultural renaissance based on the notion that Aboriginal Peoples in Canada have singular experiences that require aboriginal voices to express them.

Identifying the cultural roots of art has never been simple. Is David Szalay, who was shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker prize, a Canadian novelist? Technically yes, since he was born in Montreal. But he and his family moved to Britain a year after his birth and he now lives in Hungary.

Conversely, Carol Shields was born American but lived most of her adult life in Canada. A dual citizen, she won both a U.S. Pulitzer Prize and a Canadian Governor General’s Award for the same book.

Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News is a fine Canadian book set in Newfoundland. But Proulx herself is American.

None of this would matter if authors had unlimited access to the grants and subsidies that help keep them alive and writing. But there is only so much to go around. When some win, others lose.

Which is why anyone cares about cultural appropriation.

An economic argument can be made for favouring one group of writers over another. Just as governments use grants and subsidies to help infant industries thrive, they can do the same for, say, indigenous authors.

Some private operations already follow this path. Ontario’s Kegedonce Press, for instance, publishes only indigenous authors who are recognized as such by their communities. But there is a danger in sorting out literature by bloodline. At its worst, it perpetuates the 19th-century Indian Act practice of arbitrarily discriminating against those who lack the proper paperwork. (A poem published in the latest issue of Write, titled, “On receiving a government letter rejecting our Indian status,” and written by Mi’kmaq poet Shannon Webb-Campbell, speaks directly to that bureaucratic nightmare.)

At the very least, banning so-called cultural appropriation risks penalizing that very useful literary figure, the author as alienated outsider.

The alienated outsider may not be of the culture he is writing about. But that very fact allows him to see things that insiders might miss. He knows what he’s talking about but deliberately keeps his distance.

Philip Kreiner’s book of short stories, titled People Like Us in a Place Like This and based on his time in an aboriginal community on the James Bay coast, is a good example of this.

It was nominated for a Governor General’s Award in 1983 but would never get that honour today. The author, a non-indigenous Canadian, committed the sin of writing about something he was not.

Thomas Walkom is a national affairs writer.

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