This exchange is reprinted from The Appropriate Voice, Newsletter For The Racial Minority Writers' Committee, (Vol 1., No. 2). It contributes to ongoing dialogue about cultural appropriation.(See: Rungh, Vol. 1 No. 4).
It includes, first, Kit Pearson's note in Writer's Confidential (September 1992),a section of The Writers' Union of Canada newsletter (printed with permission), in response to the motion on Cultural Appropriation at the TWUC AGM which had been brought forward by the Racial Minority Writers Committee, followed by Aruna Srivastava's reply.
As I sat through the debate about cultural misappropriation at the AGM, and as I talked to people afterwards, it became apparent to me that there were two reasons the motion was passed: as a gesture of goodwill towards the Racial Minority Writers Committee, and because the word 'appropriation' had been changed at the last moment to 'misappropriation'. Because I voted against the motion, and because a number of members have asked me why, I will now say what I wish I'd had the courage to say at the AGM.
I cannot accept The Writers' Union making any motion at all concerning what its members write. Some people I talked to said I was taking it too seriously, and that the motion does not put any sort of restriction on what we write. Certainly its wishy-washy wording makes it difficult to interpret-what does it mean? 'Thou shalt not misappropriate"? "Please try not to misappropriate"? The mildest interpretation possible is "The Writers' Union affirms that misappropriation is bad;' but I cannot agree even with this.
Juxtapositioning the words 'responsibility' and, especially, 'accountability' with the words 'freedom of expression: and applying these words to the definitions of 'misappropriation' in the preamble, means that we are attaching conditions to whether and what and how we write about cultures not our own; conditions individual writers might agree with, but which each writer will interpret differently.
Some people I talked to even seemed to think this motion implied all sorts of permissions. Thus, one non-Chinese writer told me she now feels better about using a Chinese voice in one of her novels; another writer, not native, feels free to continue a novel with a native girl as the main character; and a third who didn't attend the AGM, upon reading the preambles of the motion, sighed with relief and said, "Oh, that's all right; I wouldn't do that."
Comments like these scare me - that these writers feel they need The Writers' Union approval for what they write. They also seem both a misunderstanding of and an insult to the hardworking and eloquent members of the Racial Minority Writers Committee. I'm sure that even if they were disappointed by how much the motion was watered down from their original one, they meant a great deal by it. Because there was a motion, however watered down and muddled it is, I will pay them the respect of taking it seriously; and if I take it seriously, I cannot accept it.
I sympathize strongly with the position of the Racial Minority Writers Committee. I would search my conscience very carefully before using material from another culture. But if I then felt that the demands of my novel required this, I would go ahead. I wouldn't call this misappropriation; but someone from the culture might. Who can define 'misappropriation'? Webster's says it is 'to appropriate wrongly!' - who is to decide what 'wrongly' is?
At least we live in a society where people are allowed to try-publishers, reviewers, critics, and most of all, readers. But we also live in a society where, thank goodness, writ- ers are free to appropriate, misappropriate, insult, steal, as much as they choose to; they are also, of course, free to accept the consequences.
Being against this motion puts me in an uncomfortable, lonely position. I don't enjoy being on the side of the question that to me means supporting freedom of expression, but to others might be viewed as unsympathetic, smug, and even racist. I don't enjoy being on any side at all - but now I am.
The Writers' Union should continue to do all it can to increase awareness of racial minority writers in Canada. We need to keep talking to each other about the complicated and delicate question of what is stealing from a culture and what isn't. What we don't need is an official statement about it.
I feel so strongly about this, and am so shocked at the benign view of both my fellow writers and the press about the motion, that I'm tempted to resign. I won't-if only to be able to continue to be in on the discussion. And, after all, I can simply start pretending like many others that the motion that was passed doesn't mean anything anyhow.
- Kit Pearson Vancouver British Columbia.
It doesn't surprise me that people you talked to about the motion on (mis)appropriation interpreted both its intent and scope so variably, sometimes self-servingly, condescendingly. And you are right on many points-the revised version is so diluted that it may be little more than a wave of the hand in the direction of minority writers and the work of the Racial Minority Writers' Committee. On much of what you say about responses to the motion, I can only say I am saddened, and in full agreement about the dilution of the original wording. But. There are so many buts.
It astonishes me that writers should be wary of seeing themselves both as responsible and accountable-surely the guarding of the principle of 'freedom of expression' (whatever that means, and to whom) involves recognizing the responsibility that comes with the very burden of such a principle. Surely this motion does no more than remind writers of the importance, responsibility and accountability that define 'freedom'.
It concerns me that writers should belong to one of the few professions where the concept of ethical behaviour and the (yes) often frustrating restrictions that entails is so roundly and vociferously suspected and decried.
Indeed, it strikes me that the motion in either of its wordings, is clearly not a call to censorship or regulation (by the Writers' Union or anyone else) but a statement of principle, that, yes, any responsible or ethical writer will recognize intuitively-a principle that suggests that she 'search [her] conscience very carefully before using material from another culture: But it is clear too, in this profession as in so many other areas of our daily existence, that there are people who need reminding of such basic principles and who will indeed defend their right to harm, violate, steal behind that unassailable democratic bastion, freedom of expression, freedom of imagination.
I have argued elsewhere that those of us who work with words, who believe our realm to be those of imagination and expression, recognize that imagining can be productive, powerful, creative and healing and that it can be productive, powerful, creative and hurtful; oppressive, discourteous, solipsistic. Cultural appropriation, whether intentional or unintentional, smug or sympathetic, is an imaginative act, and it seems to me that should be willing to take the responsibility for and foresee the consequences of that act. Yes, we can then choose to go ahead and (mis) appropriate anyway-the motion in no way prohibits such a choice, not does it curtail what writers write and how they write it.
It occurs to me too that there are certain slippages in how we conceive of what is permissible within the freedoms we guard so zealously. We inhabit a culture of copyright, patents, ownership of ideas, private and community property-and with these we stake our claim on what is appropriate and what is not. If someone photocopies my stories without permission, I have the right to define the act as stealing, or the borrowing of my words as plagiarism, however benignly or defensively that sinister photocopier or quoter may interpret her appropriation to be. Yet we get equally defensive when others suggest to us that the whole world is not ours to imagine or borrow from without account- ability or responsibility or a little humility.
And we expose the impoverishment of our own imaginative and expressive potential if we argue that we have no option but to appropriate, that words fail us otherwise. We reveal ourselves further if we argue that the inevitable misuses and mistakes that self- critique and critique from others sometimes engenders invalidate the putting into place of processes and systems and principles that remind us and our peers that responsible, ethical work-the recognition that we live among others and that our worlds and words affect others-is as much an imaginative act, an expression of a particular freedom, as the zealous and jealous reaction to what amounts to nothing more (and much more) than a request for respect from a professional union, and the individuals in it.
The motion as now worded and passed is indeed 'watered down and muddled' and as such is not a particularly imaginative 'gesture of goodwill'. But for those of us who tussled with each other, argued principles and freedoms and imaginations for days trying to come up with a motion-in-words that might prove acceptable to the majority of the union, perhaps the 'gesture' is a start. Look around you at your next gathering: think of how you imagine yourselves as writers, as a group of writers. Perhaps ask yourselves what story your creative and multifaceted resistance to the principle we laboured intensely over in our imaginations last May is really telling, and how peopled your community actually is with darker faces, accents and histories.
- Aruna Srivastava, Calgary Alberta