Fragmented thoughts on political correctness and appropriation

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I don’t understand the problem that people have with political correctness. I’m on many sides of this issue. I think it stems from a conversation I had with my boyfriend about how people were outraged with Steve Martin’s tweet upon Carrie Fisher’s passing.

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The responses: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/steve-martin-carrie-fisher-tweet_us_58642c36e4b0de3a08f70427

Here’s one from New York Magazine:

I think Steve Martin was speaking from the heart here. People are allowed to be outraged. I personally don’t believe the tweet was in poor taste, but maybe deleting his tweet was. I can see that Martin probably got upset or tired of the responses he was getting. Keeping in mind that Martin is from a different time, I think of what he might have meant, which was probably thoughtfully considered, especially knowing that he knew her personally. Her fans knew her well too, hence the outrage. The public might have gone overboard, but in this place and time, today, if you’re going to engage with the public, you’re engaging with thousands, even millions of people. And they will respond in multitudes in real time. That is the hyper world we live in now.

This all brings me to the controversies in Canadian literature and western literature as well. Here’s the latest: Editor Resigns Over an Article Defending ‘Cultural Appropriation’https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/11/arts/editor-resigns-over-article-defending-cultural-appropriation.html

Now I’ve spent a good portion of my writing career talking about appropriation. I’ve written about the ethics and colonization aspects of it within the literary establishment. But I want to note that a lot of this conversation, a lot of this backlash is coming from writers of colour. This isn’t about being politically correct, or being too sensitive in this day and age,  or “political correctness” gone haywire. These are legitimate concerns that people of colour have had for ages. We were rarely heard though even though we’ve been shouting it out from the mountains. Why are we not giving more people of colour and the disenfranchised more opportunities to flourish and to be heard?

I like to think I’ve been “woke” since I was a teenager. The Gulf War and the Human Rights Now Tour of the 80s really made a impression on me. Reading the Charter of Rights here in Canada and the Universal Declaration of Rights from the UN, empowered me and made me feel like anything was possible. So when I began writing, I noticed a few things that I was told to brush off. Why weren’t there only a few people of colour at poetry readings, book launches, literary parties, and the like? Why were there so few people of colour as editors to magazines and publishers in the industry? The more I questioned, the more I got consoled.

“It’s not true. We’re trying. It’s all in your head. We’re a community.”

Nevertheless, after a few poetry readings I started to begin my sets by looking around the room and if I didn’t notice anyone like me, or my colour, or diverse like community in Toronto I live in, I would say, “Thank you for inviting me. It is a privilege. It’s great to see people come out for poetry. Looking around the room, we need more people of colour, more people from the community here.” And then I’d start my reading.

It’s a response to gas-lighting. It was a response to truly waking up to reality. I feel it’s a statement that forces attendees and organizers to do something about it. Unfortunately, a lot of that ends up on people of colour’s shoulders. We are asked to solve the problem the privileged have created. We are told to bring solutions to the table. Therefore, instead of us focusing on our craft and our chosen careers, our labour is given to fixing messes or putting up the illusion that something is being done about the establishment’s “diversity” problem.

As soon as that article in Write appeared, I spoke out on twitter and Facebook and quickly retreated. I did speak out a few times on threads trying to point out the ignorance in our literary community, but nonetheless, I had to let it go. I realized how much those debates take out of me on social media. In turn, I also thought about the emotional labour that the indigenous writers who were in that Write issue were about to take on. It’s scary and overwhelming, even full of opportunities because people want to “diversify” their platforms, and hey, you’re there right in the middle of it, so why not?

But it takes up your time and space in your head. It does for me because I feel really passionate about anti-appropriation and for ethical appropriation in poetry and prose. A lot of the fights I feel like taking on, I have to step back and think, “Whose voice is better suited for this?” I can’t speak for the indigenous cause, nor can I speak for the causes of a black person. I can speak from a Latinx (yes I’ve adopted this term because I’ve come to love it and I’ve chosen it), Afro-latin second generation Canadian female perspective. That is who I am and how I was born. I don’t go around saying that is how I identify. That’s just how I try to approach these controversies and debates in the literary and the real world community. At 44, I think it’s a pretty awesome freedom to be able to self-identify nowadays.

What enriches a community is not taking from its members nor imagining what their experiences might be. What enriches literature and art is taking from one’s imagination and evolving that fictional or non-fictional world through a centre of empathy and compassion. We can imagine ourselves and write from another person’s shoes, for freedom of speech is an inherent and fundamental right, but we can not steal and appropriate to our sole benefit. We must acknowledge if we’re taking a scene, a slice of life, or a culture that comes from a place of pain and colonization.

Many would dismiss colonization as real today, but all you have to do is look at your televisions, the books you were taught in school, our world leaders, and the people that hold positions of power in our literary community. I just want most of you to go out there and notice. Keep a keen eye. Open your mind just a tiny bit and see how many people of colour you interact in media and in those literary communities. Who are your professors and who are your publishing editors? Take note of the people around your neighbourhoods. The establishments you visit and the things you promote. Is it truly reflective of the community around you? If good work stands the test of the literary establishment, why is it there are so few people of colour being published or in those positions of power. We are hard working and for the most part, talented, for our stories are rich and interesting. If they weren’t they wouldn’t be appropriated by so many white privileged folk.

The personal is always political. You can’t dismiss injustice or you will get told. Get ready to interact, get ready to truly expand your work by engaging.

I’ve spent the past few years reading people’s written defences for appropriation. That we need to learn to be free to express however we want to become one people instead of a world of races. I’m sorry (not sorry), but we can’t be one people if you fail to acknowledge and listen to why we are complaining and outraged right now. Why be politically correct? I see it this way, if you’re a writer, you try to engage your reader to feel with your character and their lives. Not only that, but you have to bring something new to the table, something that innovates literature, and emboldens it like the writers of the past have. If you keep appropriating and not innovating your own experience, you stagnate and literature becomes dull and droning. Those who have learned to appropriate ethically, who have opened the doors to an empathetic and considerate new world in literature will move on without you. And when you finally wake up to the issues, for it can never be too late (oh can’t tell you how I hold to that thought fast or I’d sink), then you will be offered a seat at the table and we will share freely, full of heart, and full of good work.

Sure, outrage can go all over the place, but really, I’d rather be able to read stuff like Steve Martin wrote about Carrie Fisher, read the outrage, and then discuss. Humanity and our creative output doesn’t evolve by dismissing, but by interacting and listening. Radical empathy, please google it and do the work yourself. : https://this.org/2016/11/08/what-it-means-to-practise-radical-empathy/

 

(P.S. You can write from the imagination and from experiences that are not your own in fiction and poetry. You can learn and appreciate different cultures and be influenced by them in your style and comportment. However, the point of all of this is that people are asking you to think, express, and create from a space of consideration. If you want to share and take part, you have to listen and consider.)

 

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Harriet’s Legacies at Brock University

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From the event site: “Harriet’s Legacies: Race, Historical Memory and Futures in Canada
Organized by Ronald Cummings, Natalee Caple, Gregory Betts, Kevin Gosine, and Tamari Kitossa
This important conference will highlight the historical presence of Black Canadians in Canada. The title refers to the crucial role that St. Catharines played in the Underground Railroad and the abolition of slavery. Harriet Tubman, who is recognized by UNESCO, as a freedom seeker, abolitionist and ‘conductor’ was the city’s most renowned participant in the Underground Railroad. Tubman and the Black citizens who helped to build St. Catharines are soon to be recognized by the opening of a new elementary school in downtown St. Catharines. The timing of the conference will help to connect the university and the broader community around shared goals of unity in diversity, the recovery and memorialization of Black history in Ontario and the promotion of general knowledge around the multiple accomplishments of Black Canadians”

I’ll be on a panel tomorrow, October 22nd:

2:00-3:15 Panel 3: Creative Writing / Writing Through Race and Building
Better Communities
Chair: Natalee Caple
Kaie Kellough
Jacqueline Valencia
Klyde Broox
Clifton Joseph

Full event schedule here:  https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/40344925/Harriet.pdf

Memories of Windsor, Ontario

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In 1983, my family and I moved to Windsor, Ontario. We were extremely poor and had just overcome a heavy ordeal in Dallas, Texas. We had made the move during a time when it was hard to find work in Toronto. We left Dallas because it all became too hard with my parents working two jobs and it was hard to find affordable health care for us. My sister was sick was asthma. In Windsor she got better and my dad went on welfare for a short while. In turn, welfare opened the door for other charitable services for us. We settled into the third floor of a Victorian house downtown. I was nine years old at the time, but I do remember that it was close to St. Alphonsus Catholic School where I attended the third grade before we moved back to Toronto.

My parents are pretty humble and refused to use the television or the plastic covered furniture the landlord had provided us. Their intention was not to stay in that situation for too long, thus we mainly used the kitchen in the front, the bedroom in the middle, and the balcony in the back on hot days. My sister was still under a year old, her cheeks plump and rosy. I’d spend a lot of time with her pretending she was my living doll. Just before Christmas came around, two charitable groups donated presents to us. I got a wooden dollhouse to assemble, which delighted me to no end because I needed a place to play with my Barbies. My sister got a multi-colored ring stack. I’d pretend the rings were donuts for my fake food set which I also got that year.

To pass the time, my family took long walks along the Michigan River. My fondest memories include many sunny days strolling with my parents. My dad usually took on the stroller while my mom would pick crabapples for my sister and I. We would feast on the sweet and sour goodness that would burst out of the miniature green skins. My dad and I would challenge each other to see who could eat the most crabapples before out tongues would get red and raw. I won many times and still prod him about it to this day.

Weekly trips to the public library were mandatory. Since we didn’t use the television set, we’d read while listening to the radio. I would borrow Asterix comics and Tintin books that I would read out loud to my sister. My dad would read up on geography and history. My mom, however, was big on recipe books. There was a nearby fish market and my mom would select the best fish out of the reduced sale pile at the end of the day. With the eggs and canned goods provided by Goodwill and the Salvation Army, my mom had enough to concoct all sort of varied recipes for us. Almost every meal we had then was different. In fact, my mom has always been very good about using every single item we would have in the fridge. It’s a little weird for me to see bone marrow or brains as delicacies in restaurants nowadays, since my parents used to buy these things on the cheap to create the most delicious and humbly made dishes I’ve ever had. There was one particular dish that comes to mind when I think about Windsor. She made cod with a rich coconut sauce. The meat was juicy, but soft, and the freshly scaled skin melted in my mouth. The coconut sauce was so thick that it became part of the fish and you couldn’t tell it apart in taste or in texture. I believe that’s the first time she had made a big deal about the presentation of it too. Our plate set was a stained dark wood and she added paprika on the top of the fish for color. The salad was a mixture of greens, tomato, and sliced pink radish. Since my parents are Colombian we were also never without buttery white rice as a side dish. That night, dinner was like eating in heaven.

For my tenth birthday my mom had saved some money to buy a big cow tongue. It was, and still is, my favorite meal. It’s a tender cut that’s rich in fat and protein. When my mom fries it up I look for the tasty gristle at the end and we she stews it up, it dissolves slowly in your palette. I didn’t have a party that year because I was a bit of a loner at my new school, so my family was enough for me. That year, my birthday meal was cow tongue with side dishes I don’t even remember because the main dish was incredibly unforgettable. I also had a spongy and rich pound cake my mom had made from a Julia Child cookbook. For some reason the candles on the cake stood out for me because although the cake was big, it had no frosting. It was amazing because there was nothing to take away from the texture of the hot middle of that delectable cake.

One day, my mom had gone out to attend to some errands while the rest of us went for a walk. We were going to meet up at home a few hours later. By the time my dad, sister, and I had arrived home, my mom was nowhere to be seen. Another hour passed before my dad had started to look visibly worried. I fretted, but managed to ease my anxiety by entertaining my sister. I twirled my skirt to the radio beside her while she bounced and toothlessly smiled in her jolly jumper. When my mom finally arrived, my dad had worked himself into such a mixture of anger and worry, he greeted her with a loud, “Where the hell have you been?”

My mom looked at him with tears streaming down her face. She looked she was in shock. In her hands she held a giant white box and she placed it on our tiny breakfast table as she sat to catch her breath. Just before my dad said anything else, my mom let out a big sob. Unable to get a word out of her, my dad went over and gave her a sweet hug. I stood there mostly wondering what was in the box. She calmed down eventually and told us that on her way home she had stopped by a donut shop to grab a dozen donuts to bring home. She checked her purse and realized she didn’t have enough for it and settled for half a dozen. As she placed her order, she heard a loud horn in the back of the shop. The diner staff all came out and yelled, “ Congratulations! You’re our one hundredth customer!” The manager presented her with a bunch of vouchers for free donuts, a hat, and a check for fifty dollars. She said to us between tears, “I was just thinking how hard it’s been for us these past few years and this is the nicest thing that could have happened to us right now.” My dad’s face went from red with worry to soft with love for my mother. They both suffered a lot together and made sure my sister and I never lacked for anything. Finally, they had something spontaneous and wonderfully out of the ordinary happen to them.

I took my sister out of the jumper and served two donuts on plates without even asking. Normally, I would give my please and thank you to my parents, but after all that I wanted to celebrate. We listened to the news on the radio and later that night my dad clapped along as I listened to tapes of The Steve Miller Band and The Police in the bedroom. It was my own private donut party.

We lived in Windsor for about a year and came back to Toronto not too worse for wear. My dad found a job making conveyer belt motors while my mom to work as a lithographer and embosser for a card making company. Now they’re both retired and live in Niagara Falls. When my mom asks me for what I want for my birthday, I still ask her, even at forty-two years old, for cow tongue and a big cake with no frosting. Life is frosting enough as it is.