Cultural appropriation – the battle’s over

What began as a dust-up among a small group of Canadian writers has blown up into a confrontation over an issue that’s long troubled the literary community.

It’s about “cultural appropriation” – the practise of a dominant culture stealing the symbols, ideas and values of an oppressed minority. And it’s been going on for centuries, since long before the German amateur archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, desecrated Troy as he blasted his way through Turkish antiquity.

The controversy in Canada is over the use by white writers of Indigenous personalities and settings, thereby – so the argument goes – depriving Indigenous authors of opportunities to tell their own stories.

This is not the first time Indigenous authors have fought to retain control over their heritage. In 1989, Chippewas poet Lenore Keeshig challenged the Writers’ Union of Canada over non-Indigenous writers telling stories in the voice of Indigenous characters. “Stop stealing our stories,” she demanded.


It was a time when author J.P. Kinsella (Shoeless Joe) was writing of disreputable and drunken characters among the Indian tribes of the Hobbema reserve in Alberta. He was loud in defending Dance Me Outside and his right to tell any story, any time, about whomever he wished.

More recently, questions were raised about the authenticity of the Indigenous relationships of Joseph Boyden, author of Three Day Road and other novels set among northern Ontario’s First Nations communities. “Not Indian enough,” it’s been said of Boyden, “to write Indian stories.” (Yes, the term Indian is still being used, sometimes contemptuously, sometimes historically).


The current dust-up arose in the Writers’ Union of Canada (of which I am a member) when an issue of its magazine Write, devoted ironically to Indigenous writing, featured an editorial rejecting the concept of “cultural appropriation.” Write about the things you know nothing about, urged editor Hal Niedzviecki. “Anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, their cultures, other identities.” He thought, satirically, there should be an Appropriation Prize for the best story by a writer of a culture she knows nothing about.

Of course this thoughtless and insensitive commentary soon landed Niedzviecki – and a number of prominent white Canadian writers who voiced support for him –in hot water. He resigned his position, the Writers’ Union issued an apology, and undertook to study a series of demands from its Equity Task Force.

Walrus magazine editor Jon Kay who had tweeted that Niedzviecki was being “mobbed,” resigned. The managing editor of CBC-TV’s The National, Steve Ladurantaye, was reassigned after pledging to contribute to a fund for an Appropriation Prize.


My sentiments are to come down on the side of freedom of expression. In my most recent book, An Act of Injustice, I devote a chapter to an Indigenous character who tells our young protagonist some brutal truths about the mistreatment of his people. In an article to be published in an upcoming issue of Canada’s History magazine, I reveal, through an interview with a Saskatchewan Indigenous chief, how he came up with the term First Nations to describe Canada’s Indian tribes. In my opinion, there’s no cultural appropriation here.

Today’s Indigenous authors – and there are many of them – are properly emboldened by the growing consensus among Canadians that the country must deal fairly, on a people to people basis, with its indigenous population.

It’s understandable that some Indigenous authors who have had trouble getting their work published will feel they’ve been frozen out by white writers who have trespassed on their territory. Honestly, I can’t think of many such examples.

Consider these facts:


  • More books are being published today by Indigenous authors that ever before. CBC Books is boasting that during June – Indigenous Book Club Month – it will publish a recommendation a day of a book by an Indigenous author.
  •  This year’s Amazon First Novel Prize of $40,000 has gone to a Metis writer, Katherena Vermette of Winnipeg, for The Break. A deserving winner.
  • The $5,000 Aboriginal Literary Award will be presented for the third year this month. It’s an award in which I’m proud to say I had a hand in creating, along with the Periodical Marketers of Canada association and the Southern Ontario Library Service.
  • A Toronto lawyer, Robin Parker, has raised more than $100,000 via online Crowdfunding in support for an Emerging Indigenous Voices award.

There’s no doubt newly empowered Indigenous writers are asserting themselves as creators and as players in the marketplace. A book on an Indigenous topic by a white writer will have to be overwhelmingly compelling before any publisher will take it on. All this suggests the battle about cultural appropriation is over – and it’s clear who’s won.



Memory as the jar of history

When the world marked the fifteenth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001, one in three of us had no memory of that calamitous event. We hadn’t yet been born or were but infants, a reminder of how quickly the onrush of time turns today’s reality into past.

Only those who have reached their late fifties or beyond have personal remembrance of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. A film made then about the President’s death observed that “the day will some day come when the early nineteen sixties will seem like a very long time ago.”

Anthony Doerr, author of the marvellous book, All the Light We Cannot See, tells us in this interview that “We’re losing thousands of people for whom World War II is memory every day. In another decade, there will be nobody left — very very few people left — who can remember the war. And so history becomes something that becomes slightly more malleable.”

In my book The Paris Game I wrote of the French Resistance veterans who I saw at an anniversary celebration of the liberation of the city: “We will not much longer have among us those who bear personal witness to the events of August 1944.”

519xiqcy3rl-_sx331_bo1204203200_-1Of the First World War, all are gone, although they are not entirely forgotten. It may have been the awful slaughter of that battle, and the fear of the French that Germany might rearm and come once more against them, that inspired Marshall Ferdinand Foch to murmur, “A people without memories is a people without a future.”

Many great war novels have been written since Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace was published in 1869. Of books on the First World War, I consider Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago the most profound, most emotionally powerful, and the best documented fictional account of that conflict and how it brought suffering to the lives of millions of Pasternak’s countrymen. The sentiments of the novel were captured faithfully and authentically in the movie starring Julia Christie and Omar Sharif.

Now, All the Light We Cannot See, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize, presents a beguiling, unforgettable chronicle of a Second World War love that comes to match anything of which Pasternak wrote, yet  leaves us mysteriously  both curious and satisfied as to the way human fortunes turn on the unpredictable, and how fate unknowingly bestows its inevitable outcome on each of us.

More than 25,000 reviews of this book have been posted to Amazon. Nearly all are enthusiastically favourable. The book tells the story — entirely in the present tense — of a German boy recruited into the Hitler Youth, a French blind girl whose father is given the responsibility to save a precious jewel from the Nazis, and a heartless pursuer of all three, a man as corrupted in spirit as his body is by disease. How their fates lock together in the legendary French coastal outpost of Saint-Malo, and the paths that some of their lives take after the war, provide a gripping plot through to the last of the book’s 532 pages.

Its last chapter is set in what for me is a familiar site — the Jardin des Plantes in left bank Paris. The heroine, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, walks the path that winds to the top of a hill and a gazebo that stands there. I recall walking that very path on a pleasant October morning.

All the Light We Cannot See is more, of course, than the story of its central characters. It is a dissertation on time and a meditation on the unseen light that fills the universe in the form of electromagnetic waves and other forms. It is also an essay on the control of the human spirit, and a warning for our age that it is not so difficult to warp and bend society into directions that can lead only to catastrophe. In this novel Anthony Doerr gives us some of the most original writing of our time, and a work that will be memorialized long into the future.





The enduring mystery of van Gogh’s ear — has it now been finally solved?

It ranks among the most famous body parts of history, on a level with Venus de Milo’s missing arm, Pinocchio’s nose, and the penis of the statue of a little boy in the Grand Place in Brussels from which emerges a continuous splash of water.

I refer, you may have guessed, to Vincent van Gogh’s ear – the ear that he cut off, in whole or in part during an attack of hysteria brought on by the departure of his painter friend Paul Gauguin from their Yellow House in Arles, France.

This most famous of the early modern painters is known as much for his troubled mental state as for his brilliant artwork. And despite the efforts of legions of physicians, psychologists and psychoanalysts to fathom the exact nature of van Gogh’s illness, the world today knows little more of it than on the sultry day in 1890 when he took his life by gunshot (or was it an accident?).

As van Gogh struggled with apparent attacks of epilepsy that rendered him near senseless, he managed to create the greatest works of his lifetime. Most of this took place in the southern French town of Arles, and in the mental institute of Saint Paul de Mausole in nearby Saint-Rémy.


Doctors had various theories as to the cause of van Gogh’s problems but few answers. Sigmund Freud was still meddling with hypnotism. The emerging psychiatrists of the day were known as alienists, trying to understand the alienation sick patients were indicating as the key symptom to their mental illness.

Van Gogh’s attack on his ear, which came on the night before Christmas Eve in 1889 after escalating arguments with his house guest Paul Gauguin, provides the focal point of a fascinating new book, Van Gogh’s Ear; The True Story.

The author, Bernadette Murphy, is an obscure Englishwoman who lived for many years in the South of France before taking up a study of van Gogh’s life. Once she got started, she was indefatigable. Her book is as much a story of her research into forgotten archives that would shed fresh detail on van Gogh, as it is a retelling of the painter’s life.

“Practically everything I thought I knew about van Gogh in Arles when I set off on this adventure turned out not to be true,” she confesses.

Ms. Murphy made three remarkable discoveries. In musty boxes at the University of California, she had a custodian find a drawing of van Gogh’s ear by the physician who attended him in Arles, Dr. Félix Rey. It shows that van Gogh severed nearly the whole of his ear, and not just the lobe as has been generally believed. After more than a century, the mystery appears to have been solved.

Ms. Murphy was also able to establish the true identity of Rachel, the girl in the brothel to whom van Gogh presented his newspaper-wrapped ear, telling her to take good care of it. And the famous petition demanding van Gogh’s removal to an asylum was engineered, according to the author, by a real estate agent conniving to rent the Yellow House to a more reputable tenant.

In writing Van Gogh’s Ear, Ms. Murphy might have given more attention to the role that self-injury plays in emotionally disturbed people. The Mayo Clinic says “this type of self-injury is an unhealthy way to cope with emotional pain, intense anger and frustration.” Certainly van Gogh was undergoing such pain in Arles that Christmas, and indeed throughout much of his life.

Bernadette Murphy sees van Gogh’s actions that night as “altruistic – the behaviour of a thoughtful, sensitive, and extremely empathetic man,” one who was “far more than the sum of his torments ”

I was drawn to Van Gogh’s Ear because I’m working on my own upcoming book which I call Van Gogh’s Ghost. In it, I recount my search for the 21st century legacy of this great and troubled artist. But you don’t have to be writing about van Gogh to enjoy reading of him, and Bernadette Murphy’s contribution is an enjoyable and revealing addition to the shelves of van Gogh literature.

The world wonders about Canada – why do we have it so good?

One need not search far in the global media for commentary on the remarkable success Canada is enjoying amid a world of economic turmoil, political crisis, and cultural confrontation.

The Washington Post, seeking to understand “What Canada is About,” sees our welcome of 25,000 Syrian refugees (30,000 by the end of 2016) as evidence of a country pulling together to meet a new challenge:

“Businesses, the Canadian Labor Congress, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, small towns and large cities are all contributing clothing, furniture and financial support to help settle Canada’s most recent influx of refugees.”

The London Telegraph, commenting on the unprecedented openness and people mingling ability of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, offered an answer to those who criticize his penchant for selfies in this quote from political observer Amanda Alvaro:

“I think the team that surrounds the Trudeau government has really understood strategically that if you have a willing leader who is prepared to walk in Pride and take photos with people and be accessible, then you would use that to your advantage to get people to participate in the political process.”

While the United Kingdom totters toward separation (losing Scotland) and isolation (abandoning the EU) and the United States faces a presidential choice between an artful manipulator and an unadulterated ignoramus, Canada rejoices that it is led by a young, vigorous, progressive Prime Minister.

Nor are Canadian journalists shy about recognizing the euphoria that seems to have settled on the “peaceable kingdom.”

Margaret Wente of the Globe and Mail, generally no friend to liberals and progressives, wrote last week that “Canada is that increasingly rare exception — a country in which public support for immigration is strong.”

She quoted Prime Minister Trudeau at his meeting with the “Three Amigos,” (he, Barack Obama and the president of Mexico):

“No matter where you are from, nor the faith you possess, nor the colour of your skin, nor whom you love, you belong here. This is your home.”

Not that all is perfect in  Canadaland. Not all immigrants are succeeding, and the country is about evenly split on whether Canada’s current policies are taking it in the “right” direction.

So bring on the books. There’s been a half dozen published on Justin Trudeau, not counting his campaign autobiography, Common Ground.

The newest, Justin Trudeau: Natural Heir, will be out in English from Dundurn on July 23.  Huguette Young, the well-known Quebecoise journalist, wrote this in French and it’s been translated by George Tombs.


Huguette’s book is good workmanlike  reportage that takes one through the well-known early life of the son of Pierre Elliot Trudeau, and comes to a sudden stop on election day, October 15, 2015.

Like most books written on the run, The Natural Heir does not contain a lot of analysis. We learn that when he gave his noted eulogy at his father’s funeral in 2000, “He seemed younger than his 28 years.”

We get a recounting of his educational progress through Collège Brébeuf, McGill University, and the University of B.C. When he decided to enter politics, he chose the tough east end Montreal riding of Papineau, then held by a Bloc MP, because if he could understand Papineau “it would be like understanding Canada as a whole.”

From there, the outcome seems inevitable. First came attempts by the Conservatives to denigrate him as a lightweight. They failed. In the debates, Young writes, “Justin Trudeau comes across as the embodiment of change. With the good looks, optimistic tone, dynamism and passion he seemed quite the reverse of Stephen Harper, who appeared wooden, serious, and controlling.”

“You can’t buy charisma,” Young tells us. “Justin Trudeau remained a blank slate.” “Trudeau played his cards well.”

For the general reader who doesn’t follow politics closely, this is an excellent primer on Canada’s new Prime Minister. Readers seeking a more analytical appraisal of Justin Trudeau’s attempt at feminist, progressive, and generally leftist policies will have to await another day.


How Winston Churchill beat the writing game

If you want to want to get rich don’t try to do it as a writer, any wise parent would advise their offspring. Unless, perhaps, by writing for corporations or big-time politicians. Winston Church did all three – became a tax-avoiding corporation, was a gifted and highly-paid author, and a brilliant statesman who led Britain and the West through World War II.

What would he think of the pressure on today’s emerging writers to write for free – for news blogs, commercial publishers, and for the general public?

Not much, according to an insifghtful biography of the great statesman. In Mr. Churchill’s Profession: Statesman, Orator, Writer, Peter Clarke examines how the wartime leader conned publishers, beat the tax man, and crafted great literary works while staying just a dodge ahead of his creditors.


Churchill secured his position in history as a statesman, but Clarke makes it clear that “writing was his profession.” His country home of Chartwell became a “word factory” And through most of his life, his earnings from writing made up the bulk of his income.

How did Churchill do this? Born to a distinguished line of nobility, Churchill had friends at every level of high society and all of them – from his American-born other to prime minsters – helped him in his literary career even while they sometimes opposed his political ambitions.

Churchill made a name for himself as a newspaper correspondent at the time of the Spanish-American war and the South Africa, or Boer war. He was clever enough to turn his dispatches for the Daily Post from the Sudan – having earlier served in the 4th Hussars in India – into a best-selling book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force. His participation in a British expedition up the Nile led to a another success, The River War, published in two volumes.

Churchill didn’t have to look far for his earliest inspiration. He achieved early success with a book on his father. Lord Randolph Churchill became his great defence of his father, a key figure in British politics until his early death from syphilis. The book, together with proceeds from My African Journal and a novel, Savrola, earned Churchill over three thousand pounds in 1908-09 – half as much again as his salary as a government MP.

While Peter Clarke is meticulous in detailing Winston Churchill’s hereditary and personal life, it is when he digs into Churchill’s management of his literary income that he is most fascinating.

Throughout his life, Churchill was up against a wall of debt, built primarily from his exorbitant spending on personal pleasures such as wine and whisky. His 1935 accounts show four hundred pounds for wines and spirits supplied to his country home of Chartwell (another extravagance Churchill could hardly afford.)

In 1930, Churchill published an autobiography, My Early Life, and began work on what would be his greatest literary project, his History of the English Speaking Peoples. For the next decade, he stalled and delayed, promising but failing to deliver a completed manuscript of 400,000 words by 1937. He sucked up advances, and cleverly arranged for his publisher, Cassells, to buy the copyright to the work rather pay a royalty. In this way, the income became a capital gain and was free of tax under the laws of that time.

Churchill would not finish his monumental History until the 1950s. World War II got in the way. But the war did give rise to another great literary work, the Second World War.

Together, they stamped Churchill as one of the great figures f English literary, as well as of statesmanship.

Peter Clarke shrewdly observes that “The cash-strapped literary drudge who turned immediately from one big book to the next nevertheless lived in mouth-watering, eye-popping luxury.” And why not? In his own defence, Churchill often quoted Samuel Johnson: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”