Appropriation can be appropriate
I am an honourary Newfoundlander. Screeched in on George Street; sadly, on the same bar stool that Anthony Bourdain of travel and food show “Parts Unknown” fame sat during his screeching in ceremony that aired a few days before his untimely death. Prior to his taking his own life, there had been a lot of talk about that particular episode. It seemed to center on who gets to tell the story of food and culture of this remote land. Bourdain was joined by a couple of Quebec chefs on his journey through the wilds of Newfoundland. The show’s mandate was to expose interesting places and culture to a television audience. His relaxed style to eating, drinking and making merry along the way to parts unknown was as entertaining as it was informative. One came away feeling a bit smarter; certainly, more connected.
It is true with books and book events. This town is home to a wealth of opportunity for readers to meet with authors and vice versa. Events abound throughout the year, with many genre bases covered. History, fiction, children’s books, young adult, cookbooks and celebrity chefs, emerging authors and the old faithful. While the ‘write what you know’ adage is prominent, authors stretch beyond their own experiences. If that weren’t the case there would be far fewer books to escape into and worlds left unimagined.
When one considers a book such as Book of Negroes, where Lawrence Hill masterfully told the tale of a young woman, should he be called out for not having a personal connection to being female? Storytellers paint pictures. Pictures of places they have been to or simply imagined or painstakingly researched. I recently heard of a situation in which an established writer co-wrote a culturally sensitive book with a survivor. After the book’s success, there was push back on the established author because it wasn’t that person’s story to tell. The writer’s background, heritage and culture, didn’t align with the storyline.
Born of British parents, I embrace my Scottish and Irish roots. Am I only allowed to attend St. Paddy’s Day events and Highland Games or will I be welcomed at Taste on the Danforth for a little Greek food and culture later in the summer or Oktoberfest in the fall? Have we become so insular that we can no longer embrace and explore the culture of others? Does every member of the Uxbridge Legion Pipe Band need to provide proof of Scottish heritage before they don a kilt?
I am not condoning someone disparaging another’s culture. I grew up in Scarborough where, at the time, it was common for some newcomers to be subject to name calling. This seems to have been the way of treating new immigrants in the past. I see changes in the youth of today, although I am sure this negativity is by no means eradicated. I have even been called out on a seemingly innocent comment by my own child, exposing my own weakness for unintentional stereotyping. There was no malice intended but she brought it to my attention by asking a question I found difficult to answer.
But there is a difference between being critical and exploring. The idea that the only one who can share a story has to be authentically of that culture defeats the purpose of sharing. If one gets it wrong, or there is another way to look at a certain issue, then the floor is open for discussion.
I have always been fascinated with names: interesting names, different names, unusual spellings or culturally significant names. Perhaps because my own name is often mispronounced, misspelled and not recognized for its Gaelic roots, I enjoy discovering the origin of people’s names. Lately, I have hesitated, for fear I might offend. At work, customers sometimes hesitate in new ways when discussing a book dealing with a culturally hot topic. Fear has invaded our usual discourse.
I hope the pendulum swings back on this issue such that we can comfortably discuss our differences from our own unique vantage point. And that we may learn from each other the different perspectives we bring to the topic. And may Newfoundland continue to embrace those that come from away to embrace the uniqueness that makes the Rock, rock.