Kim Davids Mandar is the editor of (In)Appropriate, a collection of interviews with Canadian authors forthcoming in Fall of 2020 from Gordon Hill Press. The interviews explore questions of difference, identity, and appropriation, engaging writers on the subject of how they represent an increasingly diverse and complex culture in ways that avoid falling into appropriation. In this excerpt, Kim speaks with Canadian novelist Ian Williams, author of You Know Who You Are and Reproduction.
Kim Davids Mandar: Have you had experience in conversation, as an author, with this topic of cultural appropriation or the respectful writing of difference recently? It seems to be a hot topic in our neck of the woods.
Ian Williams: At UBC I teach poetry. It think the debate is really charged in the genres of fiction and non-fiction — you know, to take someone else’s story and present it as narrative. There’s something in the narrative turn that really disturbs people. Because when we hear these conversations, it’s about taking my story, right? There’s something about narrative that’s especially charged in this — it’s not like taking my poem. Occasionally you’ll hear, ‘taking my voice,’ but that’s a bit harder to quantify. Does that sound right to you?
K: Absolutely, and I noticed in your book, Not Anyone’s Anything, there’s such a range of characterizations: you dive into the worlds of music and math and give voice to different genders and different ages and different cultures and ethnicities. Did the idea of potentially crossing acceptable boundaries — in taking stories or voices — enter your thinking as part of the process
I: That was in 2011 and I feel like the debate really shifted after that. When you look at books — when would be the peak of this? I guess, it’s always been in non-fiction, like hoaxes and things like that— people who fake their stories and whatnot. But the debate about appropriation really sort of heated up, I think, in Canada, maybe with the Hal Niedzviecki thing, John Degen stuff and the “appropriation prize.” Before that, there was a kind of courtesy or common etiquette but there wasn’t a law. Now I feel like we’re moving towards a law, rather than an etiquette.
Yeah, for those stories I felt very free, and I still feel very free to write those stories. I think intent matters to some degree. That is, it was never my intention to be the authoritative, representative of female experience, or the Korean experience. To write that very first story in the book, with Soo and Goran — I’m not Serbian and I’m not female and I’m not Korean, I’m not any of those things. But, I studied Korean; I took Korean courses. I tried to get as much as possible on the inside of what that might be. And where my labour stopped, that’s where my imagination had to start.
I think the problem arises when people don’t do the labour. They don’t make any effort toward understanding a culture, how a culture thinks, how they use language, what their foods are, their practices, the soft unspoken customs of culture, right? Instead, they just sort of go straight to imagination.
One has to do one’s work in advance. I think I did my work with those spaces. I did a couple of years with Korean, Korean language courses, and I can still read it and still get by in it.
K: In doing the work, research obviously plays a huge role and we all do it differently — Are there any specific approaches that you found, or that you would recommend to your students?
I: Speaking to fellow writers, I think an embodied research is much better than book research. There’s a time to go to the library — that’s where you start off, you know?
I’m reading about Muslim eschatology right now, and what do I know about that? I’m going to start with a book, so that when I have that embodied experience I go there with some degree of preparation. I don’t sort of go there ignorant and bumbling, asking for forgiveness, when there’s basic internet stuff I can do or book stuff. But the core research is really embodied practice. That is, for the present novel, the woman sews, and I’m going to try to learn how to sew.
For example, in the last story in Not Anyone’s Anything, I had a colleague who has property up in New Hampshire, and so I went up there and I chopped wood and used a chainsaw with him and did all these sort of lumberjack type things that I would never do. That’s what it means to embody something — to go out into the world and actually face the hardship and difficulty of it. That’s one way to get more sympathetically involved in your characters.
K: What’s at stake? What are the boundaries? When might you say it’s inappropriate? Even if you have dived in to personal experience and embodied practice, is there a time when it’s not appropriate to then write about it?
I: Oh, for sure. No amount of research can get you right to the soul of somebody else, right? We devalue people when we assume that we can know them fully. Even in the most intimate relationships, we strive our whole lives to get closer and closer and closer but we never quite hit it. It’s like an asymptote in mathematics; we never quite hit that axis.
I think, especially in cases of trauma, in cases of people’s personal and deep suffering, in cases of their accumulation of habitual discrimination — those things that accrue and sort of form tumors inside of us — those things are hard to represent. And to do it very casually is really to dishonour that person and that group’s experience. So, I could not, say, write about a genocide that is presently active that hasn’t touched me or my family, or something like that. I can’t guess at somebody’s else’s pain like that. No. It’s a disservice to them.
K: Let’s imagine that someone in innocence, perhaps, or ignorance, steps over that boundary in the name of writing fiction. What’s at stake?
I: The surface of what’s at stake is usually their reputation, their credibility, respect or ethos as a writer. Those are the things we see played out on Twitter. Also at stake is more about the larger social problems here, and the sense that in trying to help you’ve in fact reinforced the problem if you’re dominant. Let’s presume it’s a White writer writing about a Black experience or an Indigenous experience or something. If it’s done badly, and if they really screwed it up, there’s this reinscription of the patterns of dominance and inferiority. And so, in trying to help, they’ve just totally undermined the entire kind of social contract or advancement and that’s a big problem. (Like lots of good intentions — I don’t think people set out wanting to destroy, right?) So, it’s worth considering, and sometimes it’s just better to stay silent on things as writers, you know, where we’re all into expression and experimentation and all of that, but culture teaches us the reverse of that, too. There’s blank space for a reason, and there’s oblique ways of approaching things. Like, sometimes the skill is not in language but in silence.