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As a writer I was member of The Writers Union of Canada for some years and used to regularly receive their magazine Write. In my early years as a journalist it was a handy tool to help with the “Canadian experience”.
So it was with shock that I read the controversy surrounding Hal Niedzviecki, Write’s former editor, who said “I don’t believe in cultural appropriation… In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities.” He has since resigned.
The shock is not with what Niedzviecki wrote, but the knee jerk reaction of TWUC officials who are begging forgiveness for the opinions advanced by Niedzviecki who also suggested (much to my delight) an “Appropriation Prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.”
I believe I could be nominated for this “appropriation prize”.
In my years as a journalist, I’ve written about communities and cultures totally different from mine. I covered the centennial of the Sikhs in Canada and received amazing feedback from that community. I wrote about Zoroastrians because there was no one covering stories about this minority community and I knew a lot about them. I’ve also been guilty of writing about Indigenous and Aboriginal cultures because I’m fascinated by their spirituality. Of course I did my research and ensured that I’m doing justice to another culture.
Similarly as a South Asian, I’ve written about faiths other than mine. Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Muslims largely comprise the South Asian community and I’ve taken pleasure in covering events and stories about these faith communities. One reason that Canada prides itself on its diversity is that fact we as immigrants interact on a daily basis with a variety of cultures and traditions.
So it’s no secret that my dream novels characters are from diverse faiths and cultures. Does this make me guilty of “cultural appropriation”? In some eyes perhaps but I have the freedom to imagine these cultural interactions because this in reality is what’s happening on the ground. Romances across faith and culture are happening all the time. But who would be competent to write about them under cultural appropriation rules? The universe of qualified writers who fit the same demographic would be exceedingly small.
The idea that I, as a South Asian should only write about my own culture, is abhorrent and unacceptable in a country that prides itself on free speech.
Or does it? Last I checked Canada was a democracy and not a police state. My progress as a writer happened only because of the freedoms I embrace in North America and I will fight tooth and nail to preserve these values.
So to read scandals about the rise of word and thought police, not just in case of TWUC but in other instances as well (i.e. Professor Jordan Peterson of University of Toronto) is very concerning. I note that in academia is where word police works best. I was informed that in some Universities, there are lists given out about words that can’t be used and strict rules governing student’s rights to question some issues related to specific cultures. There are also events cancelled when the speaker is controversial. What does this say about Universities being the bastion of free speech allowing students to think critically?
I noticed this most when I travelled across dozens of College and University campuses screening the film “Honor Diaries” which deals with Honor Based Violence. This is when the terms “cultural appropriation” and “cultural relativism” were first thrown my way, not by students but by academics. Ironically the critics could not slam me for being a Muslim woman speaking about violence in Muslim majority societies, so they attacked the director, producer, and funders of the film. Good way to deflect from the real issues!
It’s great to see that other writers have weighed in on the debate. Those concerned about free speech have expressed their own disgust at the actions of TWUC.
Jonathan Kay writes in The National Post about “political correctness, hypersensitivity and tokenism”, all of which I too believe are undermining our efforts to be creative, artistic and critical thinkers.