Monday 10 July 2017

Cultural Appropriation vs. Cultural Exploration

Cultural Appropriation vs. Cultural Exploration

Recently (June 2017) I read The Autograph Man, a 2002 novel by Zadie Smith. She is the daughter of a Caribbean mother and an English father, who often writes about “multicultural” issues of various kinds. The protagonist of The Autograph Man is Jewish, son of a non-Jewish Chinese father and a Jewish mother (presumably of European descent).  His friends are an African-American Jew and two “white” Jews. 

The novel is full of rather learned, if not arcane, references to things Jewish, especially the Talmud and the Kabbalah, so much so that I wondered if Smith were Jewish. Apparently she is not, and apparently there was a debate at its time of publication about whether The Autograph Man was a case of cultural appropriation. Perhaps only Jews should be permitted to write funny novels about Jews, incorporating religious references along the way.

About the same time as I reads Zadie Smith’s book, I read Alexander McCall Smith’s The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, one of his series of novels about Precious Ramotswe, the founder of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana. McCall Smith is a white man, an eminent professor of medical law, born in 1948 in what is now Zimbabwe. Precious Ramotswe is a much beloved fictional character, a “traditionally built” middle-aged African lady of tremendous human warmth, perspicacity and kindness. I wondered if anyone had ever accused McCall Smith of cultural appropriation, or whether, perhaps, at least some Botswanans are pleased that so many people are reading about their peaceful, well-governed country, sadly still a rarity in Africa. (Update November 14, 2018: In an interview with Ken Cuthbertson in the Global and Mail, November 10, 2018 p. P18, McCall Smith explained his own view of this by referring to "cultural admiration," as opposed to cultural appropriation). 

While reading these novels I thought about a quite acrimonious debate that’s been occurring in Canada lately, about whether white (or indeed non-white) “settler” Canadians should “appropriate” the culture of indigenous Canadians. In this debate, anyone who is not indigenous is a settler who has participated in the theft of indigenous lands, regardless of how recently he or she may have come to Canada. The question is whether people who are not indigenous, or who have only partial and remote indigenous ancestry, should write novels about indigenous people.  One of the people caught up in this debate is the novelist Joseph Boyden, who has been accused of mis-representing himself as indigenous while writing novels about indigenous Canadians.  Apparently he is of mixed ancestry, and was interested in exploring that part of his ancestry that was indigenous.

Several Canadians of European ancestry have been caught up in this, according to various newspaper reports I’ve read. An artist named Amanda PL (yes, that’s correct) was going to exhibit at Visions Gallery in Toronto, but then people started noticing her paintings’ strong resemblance to those of Norval Morrisseau, an indigenous artist. Perhaps she thought her paintings were an homage to Morrisseau, or perhaps she was merely exploring indigenous art, but she was accused of cultural appropriation. The gallery cancelled her exhibit.

Hal Niedzviecki was the editor of a small literary magazine called Write, a quarterly published by the Writers’ Union of Canada. He edited a special issue of works by indigenous writers, but in the same issue he wrote an editorial defending non-indigenous writers’ right to engage in “cultural appropriation” by writing about indigenous characters. In fact, he even went so far as to propose, presumably tongue-in-cheek, an “appropriation prize.” Several non-indigenous Canadians tweeted their support for the prize (undoubtedly a stupid thing to do: irony does not play out well on Twitter).

Then Jonathan Kay, Editor of The Walrus magazine, Canada’s answer to The Atlantic or The New Yorker, resigned, apparently in response to social media criticism. Kay’s sin was to write an article in The National Post, a conservative Canadian newspaper, defending the right to debate the question of cultural appropriation.

One question I asked myself when reading accounts of these debates was whether the resignations constituted censorship. Many literary magazines in Canada receive subsidies from various levels of government, as does The Walrus, and I wondered whether governments had some responsibility to protect the freedom of speech of editors and contributors. Probably they did not, as long as Niedzviecki and Kay resigned voluntarily.

On the other hand, I worry about the arts and academic atmosphere in Canada. I suspect that some individuals who adjudicate grant applications believe that you should not write about cultures other than your own. Some people also think that you shouldn’t be involved in indigenous affairs if you are not indigenous yourself, even if you are trying to help them, as a couple of my white students and colleagues have discovered over the years.

So where does this leave me on the debate about cultural appropriation? I enjoyed both The Autograph Man and The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon. I think Zadie Smith had every right to explore Jewish liturgy and lore and create funny Jewish characters, whether or not she is Jewish. I also think Alexander McCall Smith should continue writing his books about Botswana. 

And I think Canadians of all ancestries should be permitted to explore indigenous history and culture. Some may do so in ways that are insensitive or offensive and if so, their critics will have every right to say so. Similarly, if artwork is bad or derivative, critics can say so. But other writers and artists may be able to imagine the lives of indigenous people in ways that are sensitive, enlightened, and even contribute to the remediation of the grievous ills that indigenous people in Canada have suffered over the centuries. This is cultural exploration, a common way for writers and artists to explore—often with sympathy and grace—the lives of people unlike themselves.

It was foolish at best, disrespectful at worst, to propose a cultural appropriation prize. A little civility goes a long way. On the other hand, I have very little respect for those who countenance censorship by social media. Freedom of speech and expression are important human rights, and they are so with good reason. No one should be allowed to stop anyone from expressing himself solely on account of his real or presumed racial, ethnic, or any other identity.