Commentary: a call for writing what you know

Cultural appropriation limits self-expression on campus

Image by: Stephanie Jiang

Good intentions abound as we continue to denigrate the minority experience in the arts. 

Earlier this month, then Walrus editor Hal Niedzviecki suggested an “appropriation prize” for authors to “write what they don’t know” — all in an issue dedicated to Indigenous writers. Fellow Walrus editor Jonathan Kay soon came to his defense and, like Niedzviecki, resigned.

In light of these resignations and as an aspiring writer, I have to ask: what does it mean to be an artist on a campus with cultural appropriation controversies? 

To me, art is about using personal experiences to tell a story about life that speaks to the larger human condition. There’s something so beautiful about being able to express who you truly are without a filter.

It’s frustrating to see the call for appropriation by prominent magazine editors in Canada and the Queen’s Vagabond Theatre Othello casting, both events which devalue the experiences and emotions of people of colour. 

These events fly in the face of respecting a person’s ability to express themselves however they choose. It’s this disregard for other cultures that would compel someone to call for cultural appropriation as a creative exercise.  

I’m amazed Niedzviecki could make an issue intending to give a voice to those who have never been allowed to speak and then write an editorial which re-relegates true experience in favour of suburban imagination. Niedzviecki and Kay believed they were in the right.  The ‘call’ shows how we need to let people express themselves.

Canadian Indigenous peoples have been treated as second-class citizens since colonialism took hold. Their culture has been indelibly changed as a result. This is the backdrop Niedzviecki and Kay are hoping hobby-writers will use in their essays and art. 

With this in mind, we’re undermining a person’s ability to react to the storied history of their own culture. 

Last year on campus, the Vagabond Theatre made the choice of blind-casting Othello. I know that the intention was to show we are all the same, but the reality was that all it shows is the disastrous effects of using Sparknotes instead of just reading the book.

Supposedly overcoming political correctness with the play known worldwide as the only time a white guy tried to empathize with a black guy before the industrial revolution is stupid, plain and simple. It only reveals the lack of respect there is for experience. 

The clamor made over race, sexuality and gender continues to cause violence and widespread oppression yet there’s still a notion that to make light of these things is okay.

As a writer, it was hard to hear about how supposedly imaginative people like myself thought that this was not only a good idea, but one worth defending. In my stories and in my articles like these, it is easy to be inoffensive, but extremely hard to express myself on important matters.             

That said, I’ve no cultural constraints on my creative expression like many others. Events like these, while brushed aside as nothing by people who have no reason to assume otherwise, strike me to the core. 

The call for appropriation is not a new phenomenon; it’s just the newest symptom in the disease of racism. It’s merely a specious reaction to self-expression on the part of minorities. 

As a creative person, I see this simply as people with nothing interesting to say about their reality stealing from other people who, if they tried to say the same thing, would be ignored. 

If people like Niedzviecki and Kay believe this is productive, I ask who they expect to read the stories stemming from their call? Why would this create stories that are anything other than artistically pointless?

To counter  this  call  for  appropriation, I’d like to make a “call for writing what you know”, but only if you’d like to make actual art – because that’s about the only prerequisite. 


Cultural commentary

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