Thursday, January 26, 2012

Identity Wars

No one who was present at the sites of battle could forget either the Feminist Sex Wars or the wars over appropriation, variously defined (Appropriation of Voice or of Culture), especially among women writers of the 1980s. The dust hasn’t completely settled yet.

I still think of Toronto, Canada, as Ground Zero for the conflict between freedom of expression (as defined by its advocates) and cultural authenticity in literature. In 1988, the collective that ran The Women’s Press of Toronto broke into open warfare when the “Front of the Bus Caucus” locked the other collective members out of the building. The locked-out members filed suit. This was the climax of several years of tension, during which three white women writers who had signed contracts with the press were told that their work was not acceptable because they had “appropriated” (written about) the cultures or identities of “people of colour.”

The lawsuit was extensively covered by Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail. Eventually, the locked-out collective members formed Second Story Press, which advertised itself as a feminist, anti-racist press. Its ads and list of titles actually looked much like those of The Women’s Press, IMO.

Meanwhile, at the Third International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal in 1988, Anne Cameron was singled out for public humiliation. To understand this, you need to know that she was (still is) a West Coast writer with a cult following among feminists and lesbians, especially in western Canada. Her book-length version of a West Coast First Nations creation story, Daughters of Copper Woman, was passed around and read until its covers fell off. We all wanted to identify as daughters of the First Woman rather than of Eve, the afterthought formed from Adam’s rib.

According to her various bios, Anne Cameron had grown up in the mountainous interior of British Columbia where her closest companions included local indigenous people. ( I also pictured her hanging out with the odd Saskwatch, ogopogo or talking raven -- mythical animals said to live in the mountains, the lakes and the trees). She had children and grandchildren of First Nations descent. She was contributing her proceeds from Daughters of Copper Woman to a First Nations land-rights case. She seemed like the very model of a self-reliant, politically-correct, earth-loving lesbian-feminist.

But she was undeniably white. At the book fair, she was publicly confronted by a First Nations writer, Lee Maracle (also a woman from B.C.), who claimed that the time had come for white women writers to “move over.” Anne Cameron apologized for her writing and promised to stop appropriating a culture that wasn’t hers. This exchange was the talk of the book fair.

Soon afterward, a manifesto appeared from a white lesbian poet, Betsy Warland (blonde, healthy-looking, originally from California) who had given readings and a workshop at the book fair. Her piece took up two pages in the centre of Broadside, a feminist newsletter from Toronto. She described her internal struggle, as a white writer wanting to write about “the other,” and her realization that she could never “get it right” when writing about life-experience that wasn’t hers, in the context of a culture that wasn’t hers. She apologized to those who had been hurt by literary colonization. She promised to go forth and sin no more.

To say that I was disconcerted by all this would be an understatement. I had enjoyed writing first-person short stories about characters whose religious backgrounds (Jewish, Catholic) were different from mine, whose physical characteristics (including skin colour and hair texture) were different from mine, and whose social class was debatably different from mine. I had written a few first-person stories in a male voice, but I sensed that no male reader was likely to accuse me of harming him by “appropriating” the consciousness of a person with facial hair and balls. I sensed that this had a lot to do with who has more power and who has less.

So far, no one had torn a strip off me. This was probably because I was still below the general radar, a writer without a following.

Maybe fantasy literature could be a welcoming closet for a writer who wanted to achieve cult status without being told off. Or maybe not, since elaborate sagas involving supernatural beings or other planets are thinly-disguised versions of events on this earth. Ever since the blockbuster film Avatar hit the big screen, we all know that any plot about “primitive” tribespeople (even with blue skin) and their natural environment is guaranteed to spark a political debate.

My writing output slowed. In the long run, I didn’t stop writing about “the other.” By definition, writing fiction seems to require going beyond factual first-person testimony. This is one of the reasons why writing is dangerous. Every time I describe a character with a different identity or cultural affiliation from mine, I run the risk that someone from that community will accuse me of stereotyping or exploiting them. Yet no one can explain how any writer could fight bigotry by writing only about middle-class White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (of which I’m not a pure example). In any case, expressions of extreme WASPness could look even more politically incorrect than "appropriation."

And I haven’t even touched on the ever more complex list of current sexual identities: gay, straight, bi-dyke, boi, High Femme, transmasculine, gender-queer, Dom, sub, switch, et al.

There have been skirmishes over literary “appropriation” since the 1980s, notably within self-defined anti-oppressive collectives. I think it’s fair that the representation of oppressed or marginalized people in works of art should be analyzed and discussed.

But a debate can now escalate and go viral almost instantly. (Showdowns in the 1980s generally had to take place in real space and real time.) Complexity gets lost, and hatred prevails, at least until a new fight breaks out somewhere else.

Lynching – the spontaneous execution of a presumed culprit by an enraged mob – has always seemed to me to be one of the worst grassroots traditions ever. And not only because it was so often based on racism.


  1. Ahh .. the PC-ness of those ages was a wonder to behold. It happened in Australia too, at about the same time, perhaps influenced by what 'big sister' was doing in the US.

  2. Jean - I always love these insights into the state of literature in Canada. I wonder if James Fenmore Cooper would be brought to task for his portrayals of the First Nations people of New York if he lived nowadays. (although Mark Twain was scathing enough)

  3. I feel sorry for Anne Cameron. As a liberal I'm always wounded when liberals eat their own. We mean well, but why can't a white person write about indigenous peoples? Look what Harriet Breecher Stowe did for black folks with Uncle Tom's Cabin.

    HAving said that, I've noticed a kind of subtle racism in Hollywood. I was recently snacking on the old A&E TV series Shaka Zulu. I noticed that white women are always fully dressed and buxom African (zulu) women were bare breasted. And this was TV, not HBO. It may have been "culturally accurate" but its definately a double standard, though preferable to the coconut shell brassieres in "King Kong" movie.

    I might be wrong though. I'll go back and rewind a few scenes and take another look. You know, to be sure.


  4. This post is full of insight, especially the observation that groups that have power don't really care if their identity gets appropriated.

    Hence, nobody minds if I write a WASP character...

    When viewed from afar (I had no personal experience of these culture wars), the whole kerfluffle seems like a tempest in a tea pot. However, I can understand that for those who participated, the issues involved were deadly serious - killing relationships and careers, if not actual humans.

    Thank you for offering your first-person perspectives.

  5. Ha, Garce. :)
    Lisabet, you've just nailed it. Since I started meeting other writers on-line, I've noticed that wars over "appropriation" (& even wars over "porn" which happened in approx. the same era)seem like distant thunder to most, but for those of us who were anywhere near the sites of battle (some of which took place in courtrooms), some of the fear is still there.


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