Writer in Residence

Unstupid

By Jowita Bydlowska

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It's been stressful checking my Facebook feed for the past couple of weeks now. This is because my community has gone a bit berserk over an editorial in The Writer's Trust of Canada magazine, Write, that was penned by Hal Niedzviecki who suggested we should have an "Appropriation Prize" for those who best, well, appropriate voices of others. The editorial was disastrously placed and tone deaf as it appeared in the issue devoted to Indigenous writers. I thought the piece was some form of satire though it wasn't funny and, yeah, the context... dear Lord.

Then the "Appropriation Prize" fiasco got elevated. It was no longer about literature. Niedzviecki resigned from his editorial position. Next, Jonathan Kay, editor-in-chief of the Walrus, tweeted his dismay at the power of social media to force someone to do this. This was widely seen as support for Niedzviecki. Some other journalists, rather than thinking about actual Indigenous issues, went ahead and tweeted tongue-in-cheek support for this non-existent prize, in solidarity against self-righteous indignation. By this time the thing had escalated from a debate about a rather abstract question of literature in an obscure newsletter to a perceived assault on the rights of Indigenous people themselves. In the aggrieved fallout, Kay quit the Walrus (albeit allegedly not over the prize) and the CBC Executive Steve Ladurantaye (who tweeted that he would pledge $100 to the prize) got demoted.   

Back on the Facebook warfront big battles were underway. There was talk of not feeling safe in the writers' community, there were insults and comment threads like minefields and sometimes just "Ugghhhh." Meanwhile I wondered: What if I was on the wrong side of right and quipped about it? Or what if I was on the right side of right but didn't quip cleverly enough? What if I stayed silent and didn't quip at all? I stayed silent. I did not want to engage in any of those arguments; I kept my opinions to myself. I was told by one friendly explaminator that being silent meant I was on the wrong side.

I come from a country that persecuted people for having opinions unless they were the opinions of the majority and so I know from experience that being quiet is the best place to hide. I've felt nothing but unsafe in all that talk of making my community safe. Hey, what if I said that Kay's post-Walrus column about working for Taco Barn made me laugh out loud (without disclosing if I laughed because it was funny or because I laughed in horror)? Would I be forgoing whatever writer's grant I will be applying for in the future? Would I have to go to the Open-Letter bootcamp and craft one, a letter, to ensure I think proper thoughts and have no doubts? 

Since the controversy started, I've talked to a few "silent" people from our funbag writers' community and the consensus was that indeed it's better to stay mum. As for me, I had to stop reading the hysterical posts and the insults some of which resorted to simply swearing at people—the fuckyous on Facebook were more de rigueur this past week than posting yellowed pics of good ol' mom on Mother's Day. (At some point, after a too-long Facebinge, I wrote and immediately deleted my clever "Under his eye #CanLit" status update, which was inspired by feeling paranoid. That's because I laughed at Kay's column. Because it was funny. Or maybe because I laughed in horror but how would I prove why I laughed if they asked?) I would like to say that I don't want to be part of a community which brings me so much stress but I am part of the community—I've received grants, I've gone to writers' festivals... I'm writing this here because I'm part of the community. And I understand that this is how things go: a community of people will always erupt because no system is perfect and there is always room to improvement: No revolution, no change in status quo. 

All the FaceCanLit aside, it is very much true that we're seriously in trouble when it comes to Indigenous legacies: how we honour the Indigenous peoples in our literature, how we (don't) read their stories, how this country acknowledges—or rather, fails to acknowledge properly—its own ugly history of colonization. When I first moved to Canada, in high school, we were taught a bit of geography, some European history, Robertson Davis, and trigonometry. I don't remember reading a single story by an Indigenous writer or reading a story about Indigenous issues; I don't remember one history lesson that talked about residential schools. That kind of curriculum was in contrast to what how I was taught in school in Poland—mainly about the history of Holocaust. From grade three upwards we were taught about the Second World War and by grade five we knew about the concentration camps; in grade eight we had to read a book that included a story about soap made from human fat, among other horrors. Those were brutal teachings—ones that gave me nightmares but it's better to be aware of nightmares which were a reality; it's better to be educated than ignorant. For Poles, those history lessons are necessary because how would we know who we are if we don't know why we are where we are? (Though the current extreme-right government in Poland is trying to deny Poles' complicity in some of the war crimes.) Anyway, I wonder if that editorial happened because adults who write such editorials haven't grown up with Canadian history lessons that would prevent dangerous satire (if it was satire).  I hope we will continue to educate ourselves on our own history and that we'll slowly unstupid ourselves. I also hope that we will have fewer reasons to yell on Facebook about problems with CanLit, or to feel that we need to stay silent about it all because it's safer that way. 

P.S. Fun fact: you can't change anyone's mind by arguing on Facebook. 

 

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The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.


Jowita Bydlowska was born in Warsaw, Poland, and moved to Canada as a teen. She is the author of the bestselling memoir Drunk Mom. A journalist and fiction writer, she lives in Toronto, Canada.