When imagination fails
Writing is one of the greatest freedoms that I have. It’s an opportunity to speak uninterrupted and unapologetically in a way that is uniquely mine. I can write anything I like and it’s not a freedom that I take for granted.
So when I read about Hal Niedzviecki’s now infamous opinion piece in which he said: “In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities,” I am inclined to agree. He said that writers should “explore the lives of people who aren’t like you.” It sounds like pretty good advice to me.
But Niedzviecki made this statement in the Indigenous issue of Write magazine in order to encourage cultural appropriation amongst writers; specifically, to encourage white, middle-class writers to write about people who face oppression in ways that they do not. In other words, he is encouraging these more privileged writers to take experiences that aren’t theirs to write about them, and base their work on nothing more than “imagination.”
Niedzviecki's full opinion piece from the May 2017 issue of Write. Via CBC News.
He also goes on to suggest that there should be a “cultural appropriation prize” and that Indigenous people write about experiences that aren’t theirs as well and that makes them just as guilty as white middle-class writers. This demonstrates little understanding of the power imbalances at play and is a direct attack on Indigenous writers and communities.
Content advisory: this post contains discussion of anti-Indigenous racism and cultural appropriation.
While the mainstream media coverage has focused on the response from primarily white journalists, Indigenous writers and artists have responded with action. Tanya Tagaq, an Inuit throat singer, has compiled a list of high-profile journalists who have endorsed and/or offered to fund this "cultural appropriation prize" and has called for them to be held accountable.
The journalists who have expressed support for this "cultural appropriation prize." Image via @tanyatagaq
Blogger RedIndianGirl has been escalating her complaints and collecting her apologies. Numerous Indigenous writers are asking anyone outraged at Niedzviecki's letter to support independent Indigenous media, like Indian and Cowboy and Makoons Media. There's also a plethora of knowledge and comments coming from journalists whose thoughts and experiences are essential.
Joshua Whitehead, an Oji-Cree, Two-Spirit storyteller and scholar from Peguis First Nation, wrote his own response to Niedzviecki. In his piece, Whitehead emphasizes the importance of research and describes the devastating effects of cultural appropriation on him:
“Settler colonialism has stolen twenty years of my life and I attribute this all too the ongoing appropriative and assimilative strategies of this nation-state and its systemic machinations. Two decades I hated myself because of appropriated images and mediations: NDNs are lazy, drunk, addicted, poor, ugly, meaningless, vanished, diseased, dead. And yet, here I stand and write, vicious and vivacious. Appropriation hurts, it bears repeating, it’s the machine that reiterates settler colonial ideologies.”
From Whitehead’s post, it’s clear that appropriation has real consequences and it’s not just about hurt feelings. The worst that a poorly-written piece about a white person can do is hurt their feelings. The worst that a poorly-written piece about an Indigenous person can do is enforce stereotypes that are used in order to justify the structural violence against them.
Cultural appropriation should never be encouraged or regarded as a respectable writing method. I do think, however, you can write about other peoples and cultures without being culturally appropriative.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released 94 Calls To Action in order to “redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation.” One of these is number 86, which calls upon journalism schools to expand their curricula:
"We call upon Canadian journalism programs and media schools to require education for all students on the history of Aboriginal peoples, including the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal– Crown relations."
This particular Call To Action shows a desire for people of all backgrounds to learn how to approach creating media about Indigenous experiences. If implemented correctly, media students will be equipped to write about experiences that aren’t theirs at the behest of the commission.
The difference between the Call To Action and Niedzviecki’s piece is that the Call To Action emphasizes reality, imploring us to do the necessary work to learn and understand. Niedzviecki, on the other hand, promotes a white person’s imagination of Indigenous experience. Without proper research and compassion, this will be inaccurate, underdeveloped, and most likely harmful. Imagination doesn’t require knowledge, but good storytelling does.
Genuine storytelling involves work, especially if you choose to write about other people’s experiences. It involves talking to real people and listening. It requires believing them.
I think that everyone who wants to ought to learn how to write about other people respectfully and accurately. But imagination isn't the skill needed for that. If you’re writing about other people and their experiences with nothing but your imagination, you’re ignoring the reality of their experiences and choosing to look away from the people who live them out all around you. Write what you like, but you can't reduce other people's lives to "imagination" and call it good writing.
Used on its own, imagination undermines the credibility of real-life oppression. By restricting it to the realm of fantasy, the implication is that it does not exist in real life. If you’re writing about a group of people and you have the honest intent to produce a truthful, accurate, and respectful story, that process has to engage with reality. Of course, you’re free to do as much or as little research as you like; artistic expression is boundless. But when your work hurts the people you’re writing about and they criticize you for an inaccurate, offensive, or disrespectful depiction of them, they are as free to do so as you are to write. If you have an interest in good storytelling, you’ll listen.
Donating to Indigenous media outlets is a tangible way to counter appropriative narratives. Video via indianandcowboy.
So, you get all this and you still want to write about people, cultures, and experiences that are different from yours? I hear you, and I think it’s important that people with access to large platforms and resources use them to amplify the voice of people who don’t have them.
If you are genuinely interested in telling a story that is true and respectful, I’ve come up with some questions to guide your thought process. These questions are designed to work in multiple situations where you're considering writing about experiences other than your own, fiction or non-fiction.
1. Why do you want to tell this story?
If you just want to use others' experiences to sate your own fascination of them and aren't willing to do the work, that's one of the least imaginative things you could do. If you think it would be 'cool' or 'interesting' overwrite people's existing stories and replace them with your own “imagination,” that’s pure laziness and doesn’t reflect a desire to tell an important or meaningful story. There are good reasons to want to tell a story that isn't yours, but if your motivations are primarily self-interested, you ought to reconsider.
2. Are you the best person to tell it?
Ask yourself why you should be the person to tell this story. What can you bring to it that other people, especially the people whose experiences you’re using, cannot? In this case, I'm not the best person to tell the story of how cultural appropriation harms Indigenous peoples. I am, however, qualified to analyze approaches to telling the stories of others. Though I am not Indigenous, I do have experience with the issue of being misrepresented and talked over in a broader sense and I believe that my writing advice may help guide other writers who want to learn more but aren't sure how.
3. How will telling this story affect people you’re writing about?
Your story will have consequences. If you're writing about a personal or sensitive subject, you need to take individual privacy and safety concerns into account. If you're conducting interviews of any kind, explain clearly to your interviewee how you're using the interview.
If you're reporting on a sensitive subject, bear in mind that the people you talk to may be upset by the discussions you have, because they're reliving a traumatic event. After you go home, they still have their own problems to contend with. Ask yourself wether the story will benefit them in any way, and be clear about the possible risks associated with your story.
4. Are you making a profit from telling the story? Do you have the means to compensate your interviewees for their time?
If you're making a profit but you're not compensating individuals for their time with you, understand that you're making money from their experiences. This is a tricky field to navigate in a journalistic sense because compensation of interviewees may be misconstrued as bribery and it's not an industry standard practice. If you have the means to compensate the people to talk to, whether it be for research or to quote them, consider using those resources. In talking to you, they're in the role of an educator and that is labour that should be acknowledged and appropriately rewarded. If you have an editor, discuss compensation with them.
These are important questions to reflect upon and if your interests are primarily self-serving and involve the exploitation of the people you're writing about, I'd advise you not to do it. If you're looking to improve your writing in general, there are plenty of writing exercises you can do without hurting anyone.
In order to tell a story well, your intentions and actions matter. If you want to tell an authentic story respectfully, you shouldn't rely on your imagination; you should get to work.