The real prize, and never mind appropriation

While I knew what was coming, I was still stunned.


Broadcaster Jesse Wente

When Matt Galloway asked Jesse Wente to address the question of cultural appropriation raised a few days ago by Hal Niedzviecki’s Write Magazine editorial, I knew what was coming. I follow Wente on Twitter, enjoy his regular spots on Metro Morning, and was in no doubt as to which side he would take.

But that’s just it.  Listen to Wente, and discover what this is all about. The reason you need to listen to this or to watch this is to pick up the key element, namely his emotion.

The first time through this, I was in my car.  It was magic to hear this without the visuals, because I was blind-sided by Wente’s passion, overwhelming and unmistakeable.  I got to work, went looking for this and saw that a friend had already shared it to Facebook: and so I did likewise.

Later in the day I saw the piece shared as a video (because Metro Morning is both a radio program but also captured on camera). That’s what I am sharing here.

When I saw this I had a bit of an epiphany. Pardon me for seeming presumptuous but I’ve seen lots of people discussing the question of appropriation over the past few weeks.  I will personalize this, even as I try to speak to the gap between Niedzviecki and Wente, and insert myself in there, unasked. I think the key is found in this paragraph from Wente, who said:

None of us that I’ve seen want to limit free speech. I wish there were so many more stories written about Indigenous people. But those stories come with responsibility. Indigenous people know this all too well, we are beholden to our communities. When we say these things, we know exactly who will hold us responsible. Who is that for non-Indigenous writers, when they don’t have these connections to the community? Do they truly understand the reason that these stories are sacred?

I’ve been thinking long and hard about this for weeks, as I have immersed myself on a few occasions in powerful passionate discourses, such as They Can’t Kill Us All¸ about Black Lives Matter, or the Canadian Opera Company’s diligent attempt to redeem Louis Riel, an opera that appropriated an Indigenous composition.

There are limits to what a person from outside a culture can truly understand.  I know my limits, no matter how many times I try to understand, try to listen, try to watch, I wouldn’t presume to speak for anyone especially because I don’t see things the same way.

I think the key is that when we use the word “culture” we’re not always talking about the same thing.  And when an Eastern European comes to Canada we usually use the melting pot approach to culture, learning English and assimilating ourselves as soon as possible into the dominant milieu.  I don’t mean this to be a shot at Niedzviecki. Quite the opposite.

Culture for a Hungarian like me? I love Franz Liszt & George Ligeti and Zoltan Kodaly, and I am dimly aware of folk music.  I love to eat schnitzels –notice that I immediately gave my own cultural artifact an assimilated name?  SCHNITZEL is a German word because of course the Austrians loved their meat too, and as they were the dominant race & language, they got the naming rights.  Hells bells, Franz Liszt is actually Liszt Ferenc, but the world knows him by his German alias “Franz”.  So I can’t really speak for Niedzviecki but Hungarians have this remarkable skill at assimilation.  As such, when we try what Niedzviecki proposed – to imagine other peoples and cultures – it’s what Hungarians do obscenely well, so well in fact that we lose ourselves in the process.

(PLEASE NOTE I don’t know what culture Niedzviecki comes from, although it sounds like another country in Eastern Europe, like Hungary).

So this isn’t me defending Niedzviecki. This is me attempting to translate.  When I think of my childhood in Toronto, it was with a strong awareness of the barrenness of Canadian culture in the 1960s.  We had the Met broadcasts on the radio, the records on the record player. And white bread and not much more.  In suburbia there was no real ethnicity at this time.  From what I’ve read, the arrival of Hungarians in their big exodus in 1956-7 after the uprising, brought a great deal of culture to Toronto, and is one of the first steps towards the multi-cultural reality we know today.  Awhile ago I wrote about the Coffee Mill, a restaurant known to have been the centre of Toronto culture, literally the place where TIFF was allegedly conceived born, over coffee & cake.

One can’t really compare this to what Wente’s talking about.  Meaning no disrespect to any Hungarians, we didn’t come here and then associate with fellow Magyars.  And maybe I should be left out of the conversation even more, given that my mom & dad left Hungary via Sweden in 1948 or so, long before the big exodus.

Now let’s go back to Wente’s key passage, and recall that for white Eastern Europeans like my family, cultural assimilation was effortless.  He says

When we say these things, we know exactly who will hold us responsible. Who is that for non-Indigenous writers, when they don’t have these connections to the community? Do they truly understand the reason that these stories are sacred?  

I think the obvious answer to that big question has to be no, especially when you hear the passion in Wente’s voice as he concludes (“This is our strength, this is me being in touch with my ancestors and feeling them sitting beside me.”). I almost lost it myself when he said that, wishing I had a comparable connection.

Setting aside our relationship to the Indigenous community (and our recognition that their stories are sacred) it needs to be asked: what sort of community do we come from and what sort –if any– do we share amongst ourselves?  Some of us are refugees (certainly within my family), with roots on the other side of the ocean.  Some have cut their ties, and have re-invented themselves here over a period of decades.  It’s admirable and beautiful: but totally alien to what Wente’s speaking of.  While we give lip service to the great metaphor of Canada – that  up here, we’re a respectful mosaic rather than an oblivious melting-pot like the USA— we need to take this to the next level.  We can’t simply say live and let live, while our own behaviour is a passive-aggressive expression of disrespect.  The notion of appropriation that Niedzviecki would honour is one consistent with the ethos of the melting pot, where everyone is free to imagine something else and to dream big. This is how Canada was explored in the 19th century and subdivisions developed in the 20th.  This is how many composers and artists understood culture: as though you take and blend and mix, and make it yours without asking.

But I think Canada and the world needs something better than that.  Either all cultures vanish into a true melting pot (which experience has shown isn’t about to happen), or we find the grace and the humility to listen to one another, and to discover one another, distinct and different.

Conversations like this one are valuable. I hope Wente doesn’t lose hope. I heard such despair in his voice this morning, it was truly heart-breaking.  But I do understand that part.  I wish more people would hear him: his emotions, his passion. THAT would be the genuine imaginative act reminiscent of the one Niedzviecki called for when he spoke of an appropriation prize.  If only we saw that kind of effort.

To seek, to understand.  To empathize.  That would be the reward and the real prize.

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