Decolonizing CanLit Prize Culture

Decolonizing CanLit Prize Culture

by Karina Vernon

One by one the prominent players in Canada’s news and culture industries who so brazenly broadcast their support of a fictional “Appropriation Prize” last week are issuing apologies and stepping away from their high-profile positions. But the struggle for justice in Canada’s culture industries is far from over.

Hal Niedzviecki, the writer who penned the editorial “Winning the Appropriation Prize” has resigned his position as editor of The Writers’ Union of Canada’s quarterly journal after writing, “I don’t believe in cultural appropriation. In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities. I’d go so far as to say that 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.” Jonathan Kay, who called on Twitter for the establishment of an actual Appropriation Prize last week has now stepped down as editor of The Walrus; on Wednesday the CBC announced that Steve Ladurantaye, who pledged on Twitter $100 to found the Appropriation Prize, has been removed from his position as managing editor of The National.

That these three have stepped away from their high-power positions as culture brokers is a necessary thing. Their public support for an Appropriation Prize is a brazen affront to Indigenous people across Turtle Island, to Indigenous writers, to writers of colour, and to their own colleagues in the media. As Indigenous critic Jesse Wente pointed out during his soul-shaking interview with Matt Galloway on CBC Metro Morning, to not “believe” in cultural appropriation, as Hal Niedzviecki so bluntly put it, is to be willfully blind to the material and social conditions that underpin our everyday existence as people in this country. “We have to understand that cultural appropriation is institutionalized, it is the very foundation of what Canada is built on,” Wente said. “And not just cultural appropriation, but appropriation of all things Indigenous: our lives, our lands. This is what this nation was founded on. It was the policy of the government to do this. To ignore, to pretend now, that we somehow have moved on beyond this and that somehow we’re all on equal footing and thus we can all share equitably is to fail in your responsibility as a storyteller.”

While these three elites of Canada’s culture industries have stepped down, they leave in place and intact, all the institutions and cultural structures that put them there in the first place. What we need is a deep rethinking of CanLit’s deeply-embedded neocolonial structures along the lines outlined by TWUC’s Equity Task Force. As Joshua Whitehead puts it in his powerful “Notes on Indiginegativity: An Addendum” “CanLit is burning and has been for quite some time […] Here’s what I found in the aftermath: I am not CanLit, my words don’t recognize canonic or tectonic borders, I have all of Turtle Island to nourish and energy with my story. I am not CanLit. I am an Indigenous storyteller writing for Turtle Island, I am Indigenous Lit.”

Despite decades of work and struggle, CanLit’s institutional structures and cultures remain, as have been revealed again and again this year, deeply colonial. This also includes CanLit’s prize culture. It is telling to me that Niedzviecki writes in his editorial, “My writing advice is in opposition to [the] traditional axiom. I say: Write what you don’t know. Get outside your own head. Relentlessly explore the lives of people who aren’t like you, who you didn’t grow up with, who don’t share your background, bank balance and expectations. Set your sights on the big goal: Win the Appropriation Prize.” To Niedzvieki, the “big goal” of writing is not writing itself nor the personal and social transformations that brilliant writing enacts; the goal of writing is the winning of a prize. No doubt awards such as the Scotiabank Giller, the CBC Canada Reads contest and the Governor General’s Literary Awards, to name only a few, help to shed light on and make stars of Canadian authors, and as such, are crucially important to the publishing industry. It is wonderful when prizes serve to elevate marginalized voices; when they help bring important issues and histories to prominence, and when prize money goes to help support writers who need it. But the sense that these prizes perpetuate is that writing is an individual—not a collective—achievement. Prize culture is rooted in the western political philosophy of individualism: prizes serve to exalt an individual writer and their achievement rather than acknowledging the ways words and stories are always tied to larger contexts. This is, after all, how the phenomenon of Joseph Boyden was created.

But there are other models. In The Land We Are: Writers and Artists Unsettle the Politics of Reconciliation, editors Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill and Sophie McCall speak about Rebecca Belmore’s work Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to Their Mother, a work produced in 1990 in the wake of the Mohawk uprising at Kanesatake. In Balmore’s land instillation, larger-than-life wooden megaphones are tilted toward the land, inviting Indigenous people to speak to the land they wish to protect (1). Such artistic practices acknowledge the ways that art draws on collective resources, including land water and air, and is tied to collective communities, past, present and future.

What if instead of prizes for individual authors we think for a time about literature prizes going to the communities that help support them? Can we think about literary prize money going to land and water defenders, and to the communities that help support them? Can we begin to think of literary prizes being awarded to collectivities, to community groups, organizations and presses that help bring writers and their words to light? How can we transform CanLit in these and other ways to build a revitalized and truly equitable literary culture?

Karina Vernon is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Toronto

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