Meritocracy in a Pale World

By Cherie Dimaline

Indigenous Writers Panel

Inevitably, I find myself having this conversation:

“Why does there always have to be preference or segregation? We should all be judged together and that the best literature will naturally rise to the top.”

Or even:

“Don’t you want to compete with the rest of the writers? Why is there special Aboriginal funding? Doesn’t it diminish the value of even getting it?”

It happens more than you would think. I wait until they are done, overstating that they mean no ‘disrespect’ and pointing out that its getting harder and harder for a ‘perfectly good white writer, like themselves, to even get noticed with all the diversity platforms’. I nod to show that, yes, I am still listening and yes, I value their opinion. And then it’s my turn.

I ask a few questions, usually: “Do you feel that there are so many Indigenous bestsellers and millionaires that its just getting too overwhelming?” And also: “Is western storytelling and literature not still the ‘norm’, particularly in the CanLit realm?”

I see the defensiveness and then genuine confusion and it gives me hope that maybe I can actually educate. Unlike trying to explain treaty rights, maybe this time I can make change! (#iamreconciliation)

It’s not that complex, I promise.

When it comes to stories and the related awards, grants, and even positions, by who’s standards are we judging? Who are the judges and where does their understanding of 'the best literature' come from? We do not have separate ‘categories’ and set-aside funding and space because we cannot or will not compete or participate in the mainstream. It’s that our stories, our literature, is different and therefore cannot be judged by the same standards. It’s why the UK music awards and the MTV awards have some but not the same overlap, even in this age of global pop culture.

In my opinion, Shakespeare was a piss-poor storyteller. But that’s me and maybe mine. I come from the people of story, grew up in story, understood the importance and craft of story as a matter of blood and magic and survival.

My particular community is only held now largely in our stories. We are located too close to Toronto to not have been turned into cottage country. But the memory of the shore now safely behind gated million-dollar cottages still lives in the stories I was gifted. This is why we are so guarded. One of the reasons, anyway. Because our stories are our culture, our families, our legacy for the children to come.

There is talk, in general, of crossing borders until there are none left, a ‘gathering of humanity’ into one equal and complimentary group like beads throw together in the same jar. But we also need our own territories- its where we gather strength and rest. However, we must have shared borders that are permeable, to a certain extent, and peaceful. So that we can cross over to visit and relate, to make marriages and new stories. But we must also govern our own territories, and we must understand that each territory’s version of the best is unique and based on tradition, culture, history and worldview specific to the lands/people it comes from.

In short: you are not lowering your standards or adopting a politically correct or charitable stance to allow in Indigenous story; you are being gifted with ceremony, and lives and stories; you are simply recognizing that part of privilege is the handicap of blindness that often keeps art, industry and commerce single hued. It’s the handicap of privilege that leads people are argue meritocracy when we’re working with all white juries all schooled in western literature who say “not to worry, the best will naturally rise to the top." We say literature when what we mean is western literature. We say art, when what we mean is western art. And, my friends, of the two - western or Indigenous - western is the child in the room.

In the past few months there’s been enough brilliant response to the appropriation scandals, particularly where Indigenous narratives are concerned. It’s a beautiful silver lining, that our best and most fierce have stepped forward, not to fight but to educate. But to have a silver lining there has to be a dark cloud.

In her article “Diversity is a white word,” Tania Canas asserts “The superficial scramble for cultural diversity is not addressing the deep causes of exclusion and the power imbalance in the arts.”

What we need to realize is that the ‘norm’ is not actually ‘the norm’. Its like calling brown people in Toronto minorities which statistically isn’t true. Canada is blessed to exist in a tornado of story from all corners of the intellectual and cultural world. Maybe its time we let the tornado tear down the House of Norm so that we can finally build something better, some place where ‘diversity’ isn’t a shoddy addition thrown onto the back. Then diverse juries with broad expertise and knowledges reflective of both writers and readers will hold court. Only then will the best have a shot at the top.

The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Cherie Dimaline is an author and editor from the Georgian Bay Métis community. Her newest book, a dystopian YA novel, The Marrow Thieves has just been released through Cormorant Books. Her short story collection, A Gentle Habit was published by Kegedonce Press, and her first book Red Rooms, (Theytus Books, 2007) won Fiction Book of the Year from the Anskohk Aboriginal Book Awards. Her novel, The Girl Who Grew a Galaxy (Theytus Books, 2013), was shortlisted for the 2014 Burt Award. 
Cherie has edited numerous publications including Spirit, FNH and Muskrat magazines. Her fiction has been anthologized internationally. Cherie was named the 2014 Emerging Artist of the Year - Ontario Premier's Award, and was named the first Writer in Residence - Aboriginal Literature for the Toronto Public Library. 
Cherie currently lives in Toronto, Ontario, where she coordinates the annual Indigenous Writers' Gathering and is at work on her next book.