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Hal Niedzviecki’s appropriation of 'Cultural Appropriation'


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, author of the poem “Évangéline,” could have been in the running for the Cultural Appropriation Prize, a fictional award suggested satirically by Canadian writer Hal Niedzviecki in his recent editorial.

The poem is about an Acadian couple who are torn apart in the chaos of the Expulsion, and their subsequent journey toward a long sought-after reunion only moments before death. Longfellow himself could not have been more English—his ancestors arrived on American soil by way of the Mayflower—and yet he became widely beloved for this poem about a linguistic and cultural minority that was powerless to Anglophones.

On the one hand, you could say that he benefitted directly from adopting the perspective of traumatized others to stir the emotions of his readers. On the other, you could say that his writing is an exercise in empathy and understanding, which he then shared with his readers.

This can be viewed as exploitation. But it could also be considered a type of exposure or visibility of one culture to another.

The debate surrounding such interpretations of literature, particularly those involving representations of minority and marginalized identities, is extremely timely, as Niedzviecki’s editorial and the ensuing media storm have shown. The man has become Internet (in)famous for encouraging writers to “write what you don’t know.” I was of two minds while reading not only his editorial, but also what others were saying about it. So, I asked if I could speak with him, and, to my great surprise, he indulged me.

Although I understood what he meant in his article, the public relations manager in me did feel that he made at least three curious editorial choices; first, his very particular use of the term “cultural appropriation” to mean the adoption of other perspectives in the context of fiction writing; second, his omission of discussion of power differences between dominant and minority cultures within that context, and third; his indirect comment on Indigenous voice in what is traditionally a nonindigenous cultural activity, i.e., writing.

All three of my queries involve the same underlying question: why did Niedzviecki not come right out and clarify things to his readers? Such as why he was being cheeky, why he chose a controversial “hook” and why he omitted, flagrantly, certain current, politically correct “criteria” for tackling such topics as cultural appropriation?

And yet, I already knew why. When you write an editorial or a column, your job is to attract your readers with a unique and educated opinion, while carefully crafting your writing to be open-ended.

The objective is to arouse more questions.

This is indeed why Niedzviecki did not explicitly explain his satirical tone and his appropriation of the term “cultural appropriation.” He was operating under the assumption that his readers understood the more widelyknown definition, especially since it is offered later in the same publication. He assumed that people would understand his tone and the context. Most importantly, he put writing first, meaning that he prioritized style over overt political correctness.

Through the experience, he learned a valuable lesson: “all it takes is one tweet and everything that you’ve said is now in a completely different context with different associations and meanings.”

 

Natalie Pendergast, Ph.D., of Oyster Bed Bridge, works as a communications manager in Prince Edward Island. She shares her unique perspective as an anglophone working in the francophone community with Journal Pioneer readers, and reflects on current affairs pertaining to la francophonie in her bi-weekly column.

 

 

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