Cultural Appropriation Prize: What The Hell Was Hal thinking?


Hal Niedzviecki has resigned after five years as the editor of the Writers’ Union of Canada magazine after intense backlash in response to his opinion article, “Winning the Appropriation Prize” published in a recent issue.

Write, a publication for the union’s members, published a short piece titled “Writer’s Prompt” for the spring 2017 issue. Ironically, in this issue of the magazine dedicated to indigenous writing, Niedzviecki opened his article with: “I don’t believe in cultural appropriation. In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities.” Editor of the magazine for five years, Niedzviecki goes on in his editorial to note that most Canadian literature (canlit) is written by people who are “white and middle-class”, and exhorts those same white, middle-class writers to look outside of their community and write about “what you don’t know” in an effort to “explore the lives of people who aren’t like you.”

A sociological term, cultural appropriation is used to describe the adoption of elements or practices of one cultural group by members of another. As soon as the issue started dropping into member’s mailboxes, writers immediately took to social media to declare themselves “disgusted” about the “clueless and thoughtless” article. Writer Jennifer Love Grove pointed out what most are arguing about: “Hal N. writes in Write magazine that canlit is too white and middle-class, and the solution is that white, middle-class writers should appropriate marginalized cultures more?”

Helen Knott, one of the indigenous contributors to this particular issue, wrote on Facebook: “I am seriously disgusted that someone would sue the Indigenous issue of Write as a jump point for a case for cultural appropriation on the backs, words, and reputations of the Indigenous writers featured in it. It’s not enough that we are finding our voices, reclaiming our ability to tell stories, and heaving to heal to tell these stories. But people want to tell them for us.”

Write magazine editorial board member Nikki Reimer publicly called out the Union, as she was sent a copy of the issue but was not given the chance to read and provide input. She called the column “clueless and thoughtless,” marking the magazine as an unsafe platform from which indigenous and racialized writers can share their work.

“Canada is ‘exhaustingly white and middle class’ not because white writers are afraid to write stories they don’t know, but because white writers don’t get out of the way and make space for the multitude of stories to be told by those who aren’t white and middle class,” Reimer posted online.

The Writers’ Union of Canada quickly issued an apology for the piece, announced Niedzviecki’s resignation and pledged to review the magazine’s policies.

“The Writer’s Prompt piece offended and hurt readers, contributors to the magazine and members of the editorial board,” said the statement. “We apologize unequivocally. We are in the process of contacting all contributors individually.”

But the drama doesn’t stop there. Niedzviecki eventually started speaking out, and gave- in my opinion- one of those non-apologies writers are famous for.

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