Whereas we resolutely affirm the freedom of imagination and the freedom of expression of all writers everywhere;
But whereas cultural misappropriation exists as a form of oppression;
And whereas cultural misappropriation is understood to be taking—from a culture that is not one's own—intellectual property, cultural expressions and artifacts, history and ways of knowledge, and profiting at the expense of people of that culture;
And whereas cultural misappropriation is among the factors which have contributed to the exploitation and misrepresentation of cultures and the silencing of their peoples;
But whereas there has always existed among peoples an interchange and sharing of ideas and cultural forms, usually referred to as "influence" and "teaching";
And whereas human rights work depends, globally, on people giving accounts, fictional or journalistic, from countries not their own, and none of the above shall be construed as an interference with that process;
And whereas censorship is a growing world-wide problem for writers, and none of the above shall be construed as an endorsement of censorship, or as an attempt to imprison writers in cultural ghettoes, nor to encourage racial or ethnic segregation;
Be it therefore resolved that The Writers' Union of Canada recognizes and affirms the responsibility and accountability that attend the freedom of imagination and freedom of expression.
— June 6, 1992 at the Writers' Union AGM, Toronto, Ontario
I'm sitting at my desk reading from Ajmer Rode's 1990 collection Poems At My Doorstep (Caitlin Press). I find myself struck by the second stanza from his poem Light That Fell. The poem is about lovers who lose their sense of their intertwining destinies by forgetting that, in their loneliness, they might still communicate with one another. Rode writes:
Words she wrote in her shadow
words I spoke to my shadow
did not share did not last
in the shadow dance we got lost
The poem is not only an accurate characterization of the situation of many lovers; it also accurately describes the problems of person-to-person and group-to-group communication. These problems have plagued the issue of cultural appropriation which has generated much controversy in the Canadian arts scene.
Many outspoken visible minority writers and artists, including Marlene Nourbese Philip, have argued convincingly that white writers and artists are more readily able to publish and display their works. This comment is important but obvious. The shocker? Not only is it easier for white writers to publish and display their representations of white characters, but it is also easier for them to publish and display their work about visible minority characters, First Nations peoples, Asians, Africans—you name them.
This year the soft-spoken Rode, a poet and playwright, who has published poetry collections in both English and Punjabi, is on the National Council of the Writers' Union and is a member of the Steering Committee of the Racial Minority Writers Network. The purpose of his work is to bridge the communication gap that exists between visible minority writers and those of the white majority in the Writers' Union, who share a common destiny that has become obscured by the often rancourous debate over the significance and the meaning of cultural appropriation.
The Writers' Union of Canada, the largest and most powerful body of Canadian writers, represents writers' concerns to the government and the public, publishes newsletters and has an annual general meeting, where policy is made, discussed, and debated. In May of 1990, when the topic of cultural appropriation (now called in the union's latest resolution 'cultural misappropriation') became a headline issue and enough visible minority writers in the union became vocal about it, the Racial Minority Writers Committee was set up by the Writers' Union.
Until it was disbanded and replaced by a ten-member steering committee, it was comprised of three union members and three members outsided the union. The coordinator of the committee was Yvonne Bobb Smith. The committee's members were Lenore Keeshig-Tobias (Chair), Alootook Ipelli, Rick Shiomi, Althea Trottman, Fred Wah, and Ajmer Rode. Its purpose was, in Rode's words, "to define a place for racial minority writers in the Canadian writing and publishing environment." Why? "Most writers," Rode continues, "feel there is not equality in the publishing industry and they do not have equal access to resources."
I wondered why the committee was called the Racial Minority Writers Committee. Rode: "It was a problem to decide how to pick. In this case, we were quite clear that we wanted to limit the committee to First Nations writers, writers of Chinese and Japanese origin, African-Canadians, and Indo-Canadi-ans. I [myself], like many others, don't like the word 'minority': it connotes smallness in number and importance. But we don't have an alternative term as yet."
The committee circulated a questionnaire to more than 200 visible minority writers. From the responses, the committee made a list of issues and needs. The issues were appropriation of voice, access to publishing, censorship, ghettoization, publishing (non-acceptance of native writings; publishing of native legends by non-native authors), rejection (racism in children's literature, sensitivity of issue, ethnicity in content based on language), reviewing standards, and sexism. Important needs to be addressed were communication, education, funding, marketing and distribution, publishing sources, reception, support groups, and technology.
Between the 21st and 24th of this May, 1992 in Orillia, Ontario, the committee held what it called the Planning Session, which was based on a First Nations' concensual problem-solving model. About sixty-five writers, editors, and some small publishers attended. White writers were not included in order to allow concerned visible minority writers to speak frankly and openly about their pent-up frustration with the white mainstream publishing industry. "This was most successful," Rode says. "People felt comfortable expressingthem-selves."
Highlights of the Planning Session included recommendations that small presses be supported (since these presses publish the vast majority of visible minority writers); that the Racial Minority Writers Committee be disbanded to be replaced by a steering committee comprised of ten members; that the process be continued; that a newsletter be started (Ashok Mathur and Fred Wah volunteered to produce this for one year); that equality in funding be fostered by having more visible minority writers on jury panels; and, finally, that a motion be put forward to the Writers' Union on cultural appropriation. The latter was done June 6, 1992 at the Writers' Union AGM in Toronto and was passed—a historic, emotional event, according to Rode.
The wording of the resolution put forward at the Writers' Union AGM was altered under considerable duress. "Lenore and I were fine tuning the wording of the resolution at the breakfast table." States Rode, "When Union members Margaret Atwood, Michael Gilbert and Candice Savage came along. We started collectively working on the resolution, discussing it word by word, making sure the modified version would not go against the spirit of the original resolution passed by the minority writers at Geneva Park. It was past noon before we had a resolution which we thought would be acceptable to both minority and white writers."
The most notable addition was on human rights work. This particular issue is close to Rode's heart: Rode, whose writer friends in the Punjab have been murdered because of what they wrote or said, was persuaded by Atwood's argument. "I myself," Rode says, "could become a target if I condemn human rights abuse in Punjab. It became clear to me that if something happened to me or a friend of mine and a white colleague went to India to write about it, I would not consider this an act of appropriation." When the final resolution was presented, many white writers who had prepared speeches in argument against the resolution, withdrew their objections.
In short, says Rode, "We cannot limit a writer's imagination. However, writers must use their imaginations responsibly."
How will the motion and work of the Steering Committee change things for visible minority writers? "The motion and the recommendations of the Steering Committee [of the Racial Minority Writers Network," he says, "will change attitudes and effect the current mainstream stereotypes. Visible minority writers are becoming more aware and confident and I believe this will reduce ghettoization and entrench the emerging confidence. Canadian writing will become more colourful—not coloured."