Cultural Appropriation: The Elephant in the Room is Us

LIBERATING TEXT–The typewriter on which Joy Kogawa wrote Obasan. (Daniel Gawthrop photo)


[NOTE: As I write, I am supposed to be in Vancouver at the Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC)’s annual general meeting. Having flown to previous ones in Ottawa, Winnipeg, and Toronto, I had every expectation of finally attending an AGM in my home province. Instead, thanks to a careless mistake involving my passport, a trip to Berlin that was supposed to end on May 31 was extended until June 5—the day after the AGM’s adjournment. In lieu of attendance, I offer the following account of a regional TWUC gathering I did attend a couple of weeks before flying to Berlin….]

Late on the afternoon on Saturday, May 13, I drove from my home in New Westminster to a quiet residential neighbourhood in Vancouver’s Marpole district. My destination was a pre-World War I house nestled in the pines on West 64th Avenue, a simple wood-frame bungalow with a tiny front lawn and a back deck. Historic Joy Kogawa House is the preserved childhood home of Joy Kogawa, acclaimed author of Obasan, the CanLit classic novel about Japanese-Canadian internment during World War II. The home’s writer-in-residence, TWUC member Carmen Rodriguez, had offered to host a potluck dinner for the union’s final regional meeting before the AGM. I showed up with a large bowl of Burmese tomato salad.

What I didn’t tell Carmen, or anyone else that night, was what a big deal it was for me just to set foot in Joy Kogawa House. Despite my longstanding interest in World War II—and despite several of my own writings about the politics of racism, as well as awareness of the home’s historic significance—I had never found the right moment to go there. And with good reason. Kogawa and her family had been among the 21,460 Japanese Canadians who, in the wake of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, were forcibly removed from their homes, stripped of their possessions, and herded like cattle before being sent to internment camps in the B.C. Interior, where they remained until the end of the war. Today, most of us agree that the injustice of Japanese-Canadian internment is a black mark on our national history. Those of us with any degree of personal connection to it, however removed by generations, cannot help but feel shame over it. So this is why, until Carmen offered to host that meeting, I never got around to visiting Joy Kogawa House: my grandfather, John Trevelyan Gawthrop, had been one of the provincial bureaucrats hired by the federal government to organize the internment camps. Yes, I had blood lineage to one of my country’s most infamous historic wrongs.

I had long ago made peace with this unfortunate chapter in my family history, first mentioning it in a 1999 Vancouver Sun essay on “Yellow Peril” politics and then, six years later, using it for the introduction to The Rice Queen Diaries. I had even confronted the sad legacy of internment by visiting some of the actual camp locations in the Kootenays and the Fraser Valley. But something had always stopped me from visiting the one place that most represented the former prosperity and happiness that a recent ancestor, during a period of national paranoia and xenophobia, had stolen with the stroke of a pen. It was a harder part of our history to reckon with—this reminder of violation, of systemic discrimination, of once assumed equality stripped away. The camps were the brutal reality upon which much light has been shone. But Joy’s family home represented the innocence lost: the cultural, economic and emotional appropriation before internment. That’s why I found it so hard to go there. Now here I was, on May 13, 2017, finally knocking on its front door.

After hearing friendly voices beckon me inside, I entered. I couldn’t think about the present just yet, my mind fixed only on the past: I thought about the lives that had once inhabited this modest dwelling, of the happy child that Joy Kogawa must have been at age six, and of the expectations for a promising future that her parents must have felt before December 7, 1941. Closing the door, I was distracted by the first sight that confronted me in the foyer: a display of the desk on which Joy Kogawa wrote Obasan—and, on top of it, the olive green Hermes Ambassador typewriter with which she pounded out the words—partly hidden by an overstuffed coat rack leaning next to it. The coats of mostly white writers, I couldn’t avoid thinking, getting in the way.

After introductions around the living room—always a lengthy process at these regional TWUC affairs, given some writers’ need to list every book they’ve ever written, or expound on some subject that interests no one but them—outgoing B.C./Yukon rep Carol Shaben began the formal part of the meeting. There was much anticipation leading up to this year’s AGM, this one being the first since a series of literary-related controversies, two of them ostensibly about “cultural appropriation,” erupted. The disagreements—some literary, some simply involving writers—began with the firing of UBC Creative Writing chair Steven Galloway and a letter of support for him signed by several writers including TWUC members. That was soon followed by a nationwide debate over award-winning author Joseph Boyden’s questionable claim to aboriginal ancestry, and attacks on Boyden’s literary integrity some thought were politically motivated by his having authored the letter in support of Galloway. More recently—and more directly implicating the Writers’ Union—was the social media frenzy that followed Hal Niedzviecki’s editorial in the Spring issue of Write, the union magazine. The optics of a white editor saying, in an issue  dedicated to Indigenous authors, that he didn’t believe in cultural appropriation as an injustice, that all good writers engage in it, and that there should even be a prize for doing it well, proved bad enough for Niedzviecki to resign as editor, prompting recriminations from all sides of the cultural appropriation debate and a black eye for the Union.

The Niedzviecki editorial was, of course, the hot button issue on this night having been in the news all week before the meeting. So everyone who showed up at Joy Kogawa House wanted to talk about the editorial’s reception by Indigenous contributors to the Spring issue. We were especially interested in the Twitter storm of protest, the piling on of mainstream editors’ objections to that protest (and their literal support of Niedzviecki’s tongue-in-cheek idea of establishing a cultural appropriation prize for writers), and what the fallout from all this would mean for the Writers’ Union. So Carol moved it up on the agenda so we could talk about it first before moving on to more mundane housekeeping matters. A larger discussion about the meaning of cultural appropriation as it applies to writing, and what the recent controversies had to do with the production of literary work, would not be possible at the meeting. (Similarly, a comparative study of the works of Indigenous and non-Indigenous authors’ treatment of aboriginal themes and stories—how Thomas King’s humour, say, stacks up against W.P. Kinsella’s—is a worthwhile subject for another essay.)

Of the fourteen people present, there was one Latina (our host, Carmen) and one South Asian male. The rest of us were of white or European extraction and—with two or three exceptions—well past the age of sixty-five. You might say our little meeting was a microcosm of the TWUC membership at large. For there was something else about it I found eerily reminiscent of other TWUC meetings I had attended: we were devoting a large portion of the agenda to a discussion about the impact of racism on the Indigenous writing community without a single member of that community being present. Around the circle, a few of us suggested that Hal had gone too far in his editorial. The Write editor had not sufficiently taken seriously the context of the Spring issue, an issue dedicated to the Indigenous experience of professional writing in Canada. For many Indigenous writers with as much talent as anyone else, the negative experience of competing for public space with non-Indigenous writers is magnified when white writers assume entitlement to engage in cultural appropriation of Indigenous stories—and are then rewarded for doing so, regardless of accuracy.

But there were also, around the circle, comments suggesting that some attitudes in the Writers’ Union hadn’t changed all that much since the Writing Thru Race conference in 1994. (That conference, sponsored by the Union and organized by a coalition of Indigenous writers and writers of colour, had shed much light on racial politics and cultural production.) Before this meeting, I had assumed that we whities had all learned since 1994 to understand the nature of our privilege and keep it in check—or, if not, at least use our “outside voices” when discussing such issues openly. As writers, were we not sophisticated Canadians? And were we not familiar with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with its 94 calls to action including access to education for Indigenous Canadians, recognition of aboriginal language and culture rights, a national review of museums and archives to better reflect First Nations realities, and many more policy proposals involving Indigenous cultural and creative expression behind which the Writers’ Union should zestfully throw its support? Of course we were. So I assumed that even the more conservative among us would, at the very worst, have acknowledged Hal’s mistake and perhaps asked if there were some other remedy than requiring him to walk the plank.

But no. One writer complained that the Equity Committee’s demands had gone too far, though she did not elaborate on why or how. Others reduced the whole incident to one man’s stupid mistake from which we should all just move on. Another writer, a man in his late seventies, said that the Union’s purpose is “to protect our members’ interests, not an ideology,” and that the Indigenous writers were “a pressure group” whose interests were ideological. Having already spoken, I bit my tongue at this and waited for everyone else to have his or her turn before having a go at this poor fellow’s argument. But when the circle was complete, Carmen spoke up again first. Denouncing everything the older man had said, she told the group she could not sit idly by and allow TWUC’s Indigenous writers to be un-membered by virtue of their being reduced to a “pressure group”. Furthermore, she added, it was an ideological position itself to dismiss their concerns as ideological.

As she raised her voice in emphasis, an elderly white woman interrupted her. “Easy, easy,” she said, shushing our host, her hand motioning with a calm down gesture.

“I will not take it easy!” replied an affronted Carmen, a Chilean immigrant. “It is part of my culture to express emotion. In fact, if there were a wooden table in front of me right now, I would be pounding my fist on it!”

Carmen, noting that another writer’s attempt to soften the discussion only proved her own point about the silencing of dissenting voices, went on to say that it was a mistake to dismiss Hal’s offense as nothing more than a brain fart. The thinking behind his editorial, she argued, was symptomatic of a larger problem in the Union in which persisting racist attitudes all too often went unchallenged.

“We will never attract new members from Indigenous or ethnic minority communities,” she concluded, “as long as we fail to address this fact.”

I could have kissed her. But not everyone in the room was so enamoured of the gusto with which our host was culturally expressing herself.

“It’s not my fault that this happened!” chimed in an older white woman. The oldest white man among us, a rather persistent monologue artist who Carol found herself cutting off at least once every meeting, got the hook once again after launching a self-congratulatory riff about his experience discussing these issues with actual living, breathing Indigenous writers.

At some point I looked up at the walls surrounding us—at the framed photo exhibit of moments from Joy Kogawa’s life, with their curatorial notes describing the impact of internment on the lives of Japanese Canadians—and wondered if anyone else had thought about where this meeting was taking place and, thus, about the irony of this awkward discussion.

Gee, I thought: We shouldn’t all have to have lived through a U.S.-funded military coup like Carmen did, or possess such a skeleton in the family closet as I do, to be culturally sensitive. But I guess it helps.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Daniela

    An excellent account of elephants and skeletons rattling, bumping and grinding in an uncomfortably tight space. . . Well done, you, Dan.

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