Story is Power

Questions we need to ask about settler Canlit and how we talk about cultures different from our own
Art by Wesley Bates from George Elliott Clarke’s The Merchant of Venice (Retried).

This past spring, Twitter blew up over the “appropriation prize” debacle, fuelled by an editorial called “Winning the Appropriation Prize” in Write Magazine, a quarterly published by the Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC). As some of the top editors and journalists of Canada’s media outlets lauded the idea of creating a literary prize celebrating writers who seek to explore people, culture and narratives that are not their own, CanLit exposed its colonial underbelly.

As a mixed Indigenous (Mi’kmaq)-settler poet and one of the many Indigenous contributors featured in Write Magazine, I was perplexed when I read Niedzviecki’s editorial, in which he wrote, “I don’t believe in cultural appropriation. In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities.”

He suggested the “appropriation prize” be awarded for the “best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like him or her.” A great many emerging and established Indigenous writers (Joshua Whitehead, Tanya Roach, Richard Van Camp, Elaine J Wagner, myself and more) had explored, for Write Magazine, themes of rejection, reconciliation, empathy and wounded histories. Instead of honouring Indigenous writers and poets, TWUC shamed us.

Consent is crucial because our stories are us

In Whitney French’s May 2017 Quill & Quire article, “Examining the root of cultural appropriation,” she defines cultural appropriation as “telling someone else’s stories without consent,” “extracting a narrative, story, history outside of its full context, often for capitalistic or political gain,” and “dismantling any sense of authenticity a cultural narrative possesses.”

That’s a good starting point.

Alicia Elliott, who was also featured in the controversial issue of Write Magazine and was the first person to call out TWUC on the matter, added that cultural appropriation is not about censorship. It’s not about the inability to create characters different from your own cultural experience.

Cultural appropriation is about about consent, or the lack thereof.

How can we hope to understand profound experiences from another cultural group if we haven’t even bothered to ask whether it’s appropriate to share their stories in the first place? Neidzviecki clearly didn’t understand this when he described Indigenous writers as being “buffeted by history and circumstance” and writing from “what they don’t know.” How could he know what we know? Or what we don’t know? We have been here for time immemorial and we have very different knowledge systems from those that settler-oriented Canadian Literature understands.

And here’s what the settler-Canadians jumping on the “cultural appropriation prize” social-media bandwagon also didn’t understand: stories are integral to cultures. Stories are a means of passing down knowledge. Stories are sacred witness and ceremony and thus come with a sacred responsibility.

We, Indigenous writers, are writing what we know in our bones, bodies and hearts. We are writing with our ancestors and we carry generations of voices.

Stories are immensely powerful. Ours are complex, and at the heart of the problem with appropriating stories and voices lie questions around location: where a story belongs; and ownership: who it belongs to and who is the rightful teller.

A story isn’t merely a story; it’s a telling and retelling, a living and breathing entity. All stories are acts of ceremony and harbour responsibility. Stories belong to particular cultures, peoples, lands and spirits.

Questions I ask myself

While Canada is awakening to the existence and quality of its Indigenous literatures, there remains a continuous appetite for the work of journalists turned authors, an intersection where a career built on telling other people’s stories meets writing one’s own story. First person.

As a writer who started as a journalist, I remember it felt like breaking a wall when I started writing in the first person, offering up my own story. It was dismantling and exciting. I think this is what led me to become a poet, the chance to share truth in a personal way–it’s a form of criticism with a poetic veneer.

Recently, I signed a contract with BookThug for my second poetry collection, Who Took My Sister? This work has left me sifting through layers of cultural appropriation. Who Took My Sister? explores trauma, the land and Canada’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirits.

Some of the poems, “On Cowie Hill,” which is dedicated to Loretta Saunders, “Amber Tuccaro’s Last Phone Call” and “Bottle Breaking Memories of Life,” for Inuk artist Annie Pootook, take root from news articles about specific Indigenous women. My intention as a poet is to offer healing, light and voice to a voiceless choir of women who are my ancestral sisters, aunties, cousins, grandmothers and great-grandmothers.

Yet, I fear the work will be perceived as cultural appropriation. In writing these poems, I have interrogated myself. Who am I to write this? What are my intentions for this collection of poetry? Who is my intended audience? Am I Indigenous enough to write as a mixed Indigenous (Mi’kmaq)-settler? How much of a poet am I?

I am not sure I have all the answers to these questions. I know Who Took My Sister? came out of a need to attempt to voice colonial trauma, to make space for Indigenous women who have been silenced for decades and perhaps, in turn, to find my own voice post-trauma.

I hope the poems find readers who take heart and find healing in poetry. It took me a lifetime to deem myself poet, yet I am still hesitant and caution myself when declaring it. As the government has recently revoked my Qalipu Mi’kmaq status (along with 83,000 others), a colonial structure reminds me that I am not Indigenous enough to call myself a Mi’kmaq poet. But the government doesn’t really believe poets have careers either.

Questions we might ask others

I wonder if all writers and poets go through this self-examination process, even questioning their roles as storytellers. Take for instance, Carol Off, who is the host of CBC Radio’s As It Happens. Off recently published All We Leave Behind: A Reporter’s Journey into the Lives of Others, which explores the life of Asad Aryubwal, an Afghan man who exposed via a CBC TV documentary the deeds of warlords working with American and NATO troops. His participation snowballed into a relocation to Canada.

In reading this work, I wonder: did Off question her intentions? Did she grapple with her dual roles of journalist and writer? Perhaps most significantly, did she question her ability be an honourable vessel for Aryubwal’s story? Or is he the only true teller?

To me, All We Leave Behind raises some important questions around cultural appropriation. As a journalist, Off was on assignment for CBC when she encountered Aryubwal. Her initial intention was to help facilitate Aryubwal’s storytelling through a television documentary.

The power of his story, of story in general, must have been clear to her. Her account of Aryubwal’s life intersected with her own world. As his story became larger than its original telling, Off chose to let the story take over, apart from the ethical supervision of a national news outlet.

Sometimes a story needs to be told and has its own agency and affect on a listener.

In the book’s acknowledgements, Off attempts to take responsibility for the ethics of telling and retelling someone else’s story by being as upfront as she can. First, she thanks the Aryubwals by name and offers gratitude for their patience with her “pushy questions and endless requests for clarifications.” She admits that any fault in her ability to honour the story is entirely her responsibility because no writer, poet or storyteller has the ability to create a complete account of another person’s story, or a complete retelling of their experiences.

I do wonder how Aryubwal feels about the book and how his story has now become Off’s story. Is he aware how powerful his story is and what it means for North American readers to witness his journey through Off’s lens?

Off’s preface to the book comes from Richard Wagamese’s “The Canada Poem,” which acts as poetic testimony to ownership of story and how stories make up our lives. Wagamese writes, “in the end it is all we carry forward and all we leave behind. Our story. Everything we own.” How our lives are lived, through narrative and stories, is our only claim.

As a critic, I find it interesting that Off uses an Indigenous writer to preface her story about another person’s life and culture and his family’s relocation to Canada. Isn’t this a form of cultural appropriation?

The teller of the story isn’t always the owner of a story. And this is where things can become murky. For example, Jan Wong’s Apron Strings: Navigating Food and Family in France, Italy and China, invites readers to questions the authority of the teller. Wong uses first-person narration of her travels to three very distinct cultures to explore how home cooking unites us all. She travels with her 22-year-old son, Sam, who despite not being thrilled to go travelling with his mother, wants to be a chef and seizes the opportunity.

Wong, who divides her time between Toronto and Fredericton, is currently an assistant professor at Saint Thomas University. Her biography spans from being a foreign correspondent in Beijing for several years–during which she was an eyewitness to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, which inspired her Red China Blues, still banned in China–to work as a staff writer at The Globe and Mail, Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal and The Gazette.

Food is a natural vehicle for storytelling; it’s around meals that we gather and in the gathering we pass stories down through the generations. Through these meals we sustain ourselves, heal and share.

As a third-generation Canadian who grew up in Montreal speaking English, a little French and zero Chinese (she learned the language later in life), Wong inhabits multiple languages, skins and identities. But her mixed background does not necessarily give her authority to tell stories about China to Canadians. Wong owns this by writing from a personal vantage point. I do wonder if she questioned herself about cultural appropriation in telling these stories about people she meets on her travels.

And I wonder, for non-Chinese Canadians, how do we know whether to accept her authority? Are we even able to see if she has overstepped boundaries? Do we have the knowledge or moral authority to question her cultural authenticity?

I do know that Wong’s storytelling is at its most convincing is when she explores the complexities of motherhood, a narrative rooted in her own relationship to her son Sam. She writes of how they explore the preparation, sharing and experience of food together. That shared exploration nourishes spirits beyond cultural borders and this is an important insight into the broader human condition.

Artwork from Georgina Francis and text by Sandra L Dodge

My questions then extend from adult works to children’s literature, where important values are often seeded. It is therefore a place for serious ethical consideration. One significant new work is Minegoo Mniku: the Mi’kmaq Creation Story of Prince Edward Island, Epekewitkewey A’tukwaqn, retold and illustrated by Sandra L Dodge and translated into Mi’kmaw by Georgina Francis. This is a story and it is an act of ceremony, and one that ran obvious risk for cultural appropriation were permission not granted to tell the story.

The book prominently includes a quotation from July Pellisier-Lush (author of My Mi’kmaq Mother) that acts almost as a guide to reading Mniku. She writes, “The keepers of the culture have always been our storytellers…The Mi’kmaq people didn’t have a written language, we kept our history alive with stories; and the keepers of the stories were the storytellers.”

Written in both Mi’kmaw and English, Mniku is a stunning retelling of Kluscap, how Prince Edward Island is placed “gently upon the bright blue waters” and how this pleases the Great Spirit. A simple creation story, yet the fact the book is published in Mi’kmaw first and English second gives nod to the origin of the story. Author and illustrator Dodge is of mixed settler and Indigenous ancestry and the translator is a Mi’kmaw speaker.

I still have questions. I am curious to know where this story comes from and I wonder who the original teller of this story is, if there is even such a thing as a singular source. Perhaps it’s impossible to pinpoint precisely where this story originates, because it belongs to the Mi’kmaq people of PEI and has been told and retold over time.

Yet, given this tense climate of cultural appropriation, I wonder where Lodge originally heard the story and why she chose to retell and illustrate it at this particular time time. Who is responsible for the story now? The author or the publisher? Or do the readers now take on responsibility for the story?

Flipping the script

Perhaps, with a delicate touch, it’s even possible to flip the script. George Elliott Clarke tries doing just that with his latest, The Merchant of Venice (Retried), a retelling of a popular Shakespeare comedy and a delicious spectacle. In asking myself all these questions about writers’ intentions and thought processes, I have to wonder: did Clarke question himself as a Black author rewriting a white narrative? Did he fear a backlash or questioning of his authority as a writer?

Does he need to?

In this case, Clarke can’t ask Shakespeare (the latter being long dead) if he can rewrite The Merchant of Venice. His introduction explains his intentions in re-wording and shortening scenes.

“I do not follow Shakespeare slavishly,” he writes. “I’m a vandal, not a disciple. Anyway, Criminology shadows Psychiatry, always, in The Lives of Poets.”

Here, a modern take by a Black writer offers new insight rather than representing another culture with stolen authority. Clarke’s cheeky preface, “On Retrying the Merchant of Venice: A Forward Foreword,” shows that he found The Merchant of Venice “dissatisfying.” Yet he harnesses the power of (European) history’s most popular playwright to look more closely at racism and how it betrays us, casting “villain” as victim of tyranny.

Shakespeare’s original pseudo-feminism and racial bigotry is overthrown by Clarke with his Baptist-Marxist retelling. No other contemporary author could successfully rewrite The Merchant of Venice like Clarke, whose poetics are pure jazz. His ability to write, rewrite and reconfigure the old Bard resounds.

Clarke succeeds where others fail because he’s not trying to represent another culture. His rewriting confronts anti-semitism and in doing so he, as a Black writer from an opressed, racialized community, stands up against colonialism.

Listen, easy answers are not the endgame, which is lucky because there aren’t any. The questions are the things.

I invite you, readers, writers and publishers, to reflect, question and expand conversations around cultural appropriation. Keep the conversation going. Each of us has the ability to be critical and approach reading literature with the sophistication of an informed and intelligent skeptic.

With an ever-expanding literary discourse, it’s on readers to seek out new voices, treating the power of story with the respect it deserves.

Written By

Shannon Webb-Campbell is a mixed Indigenous (Mi’kmaq) settler poet, writer, and critic. Her books include: Still No Word (Breakwater 2015), the recipient of Eagle Canada’s Out in Print Award, and I Am A Body of Land (Book*hug 2018). Shannon holds a MFA in Creative Writing from University of British Columbia, and is currently completing a MA in English Literature at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador. She is the editor of Visual Arts News Magazine, and currently lives in Montreal.

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