Decolonizing Writing Practice, Part II

September 2019

First, I wanted to share a link to my fourth and most recent essay for Electric Literature, “How Women Writers Are Reinventing Freud”.

And here is the second part of my essay on the subject of decolonizing writing practice:

In December 2015, I experienced one of my most humbling hours as an educator to date. In a glass building at the International College of Liberal Arts in Kofu, Japan, I delivered a lecture on atomic bomb literature to a group of 30 students from a prestigious girls’ high school in Hiroshima. This audience was the most engaged I’ve ever had; when I asked a question, 30 hands shot up. Still, I was terrified: I was an American giving a lecture on the writings of Hara Tamiki and Ibuse Masuji to young Japanese women from the first of the two cities to be bombed by the United States. The vectors of national tensions in that sunlit room could have strangled my speech.

I delivered the first part of my lecture in Japanese. The students and I then compared a text by Hara, who was a hibakusha, or a survivor of the bombings, to one from Black Rain by Ibuse, who did not endure Hiroshima’s bombing personally but instead relied on secondhand accounts to compile his narrative. Near the end of the lecture, I asked a question: Should non-hibakusha be allowed to write about the event? Almost all of the students said “yes.” A single girl said “no,” but firmly.

Her “no” haunts me. And in an age in which many people are strenuously objecting to actresses portraying people of different races and genders—hello, Scarlett Johansson—I think it’s time to ask the question: Who is allowed to write what?

Years ago, when I first started writing professionally, I never considered it, not really. To me, all writing involved bearing witness, which I assumed was inevitably a positive thing. To me, writing equaled engagement, empathy. I never considered that it was also an act of power. Every published piece has the potential to steer a conversation, create mass impressions, set the tone, and in some cases, dictate policy.

About two years after I delivered my Hiroshima lecture, I moved to Canada, which has recently hosted passionate debates about Indigenous cultural appropriation by non-Indigenous authors and artists. In 2017, non-Indigenous Canadian Hal Niedzviecki ignited a firestorm with his editorial in Write Magazine, for which Niedzviecki served as editor at the time, arguing, “Anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities . . . There should even be an award for doing so — the Appropriation Prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.”

In reaction to the controversy, Niigaan Sinclair, a University of Manitoba professor who heads a program on native studies, clarified, “Appropriation is theft based on power and privilege. Appreciation is engagement based on responsibility and ethics.” It’s a good working definition, but in actual practice, the boundary between appropriation and appreciation can be slippery. Jesse Wente, an Ojibwe critic and media spokesperson, explained the distinction further amidst the Niedzviecki tempest:

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?

These comments, eminently reasonable and wise, echo those by theorists like Linda Tuhawai Smith, whose 2012 book, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, is a foundational text for my current course on academic writing across disciplines. It is a delusion to assume that you can “become” another person or “inhabit” another culture in your creative writing unless you work among such peoples and cultures for a time. Hear their stories and internalize their expectations and responsibilities. Even then, it’s a dicey proposition, fraught with as many tensions as the glass-paned room of my Hiroshima lecture.

It is certainly not enough to just incorporate iconography. In A Mind Spread Out on the Ground—another foundational text for my course this fall— Tuscarora writer Alicia Elliott offers some choice words for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who, while his heart seems to me to be in the right place, often sounds like that college student, the one who went abroad junior year and came back mansplaining foreign cultures that he didn’t truly understand. Of a meeting with Indigenous representatives, she writes, “Trudeau was there to give precious insight into what Indigenous youth really want: ‘a place to store their canoes and paddles so they can connect back out on the land.’ According to the prime minister, they don’t want fair and equal funding, nor clean drinking water, nor investment in mental health services, nor the right to live with their families without fear of being targeted for abduction by social services.”

When does a canoe paddle knock people unconscious rather than propel them forward? When do keloid scars and radiation burns wound a text?

I will continue and conclude this essay in my next post.

Copyright © Cynthia Gralla, 2019